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China’s Anti-Satellite Program: They’re Learning

Jul 12 , 2013

Arms control opponents repeatedly and consistently use the difficulty in defining what constitutes an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon as a reason not to engage in ASAT arms control efforts.  Broadly defined, an ASAT weapon can include anything that can destroy or disable a satellite, including by kinetic impact, ground-based or satellite equipped lasers, or, as the Soviets insisted in the 1970’s, a spacecraft like the Space Shuttle which maneuvers and has a robotic arm theoretically capable of plucking a satellite out of the heavens and capturing it. Some of these are clearly dedicated ASAT weapons with no other real use; others offer ASAT “capabilities” though perhaps not as its primary purpose. Clearly, however, under any definition the 2007 Chinese intercept and destruction of one of its own moribund satellites at about 850 km above the earth constituted the testing of a hit-to-kill ASAT weapon.  China is rapidly learning both the technology and the political nuance necessary to develop an ASAT capability while avoiding international condemnation.

Joan Johnson-Freese

China suffered global condemnation after that 2007 test, primarily in conjunction with the over 3000 pieces of debris irresponsibly created by the kinetic impact that will dangerously linger in and travel through highly-populated low earth orbits for decades. Lesson 1 for China: Space debris does not distinguish between space assets. The debris created by their ASAT test put everyone’s space assets at risk, including Chinese assets. Ironically, the U.S. government has on several occasions provided collision alerts to China, so they could avoid debris they created. Therefore, creation of space debris is to be avoided.

The United States most loudly protested the test, but even it had to be careful about the language of the protest so as not to create potential inhibitions on its own ASAT aspirations, and to minimize the backlash regarding the do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do nature of its criticism of China. The U.S., after all, developed ASAT capabilities in the 1970’s, though it stopped overtly testing after recognizing the potential damage caused by the debris created. Furthermore, the Chinese have long contended that missile defense technology is basically the same as ASAT technology, a contention with which most American analysts concur and missile defense proponents ignore. 

After China conducted its kinetic test in 2007, the United States used missile defense technology in 2008 to destroy one of its own failing spy satellites, USA 193. Operation Burnt Frost, as the U.S. effort was called, received relatively little press coverage in the United States beyond space and security policy trade publications. In those publications, however, the operation was debated as a genuinely needed effort to destroy the satellite and with it the potentially toxic hydrazine onboard from reaching earth as it deorbited, or a tit-for-tat demonstration of U.S. ASAT capabilities. The U.S. destroyed the satellite at an altitude of about 250 km, low enough that most debris harmlessly burned up as it reentered the atmosphere, and received little international blowback beyond protests from China and Russia.

Hence the conundrum of dual-use technology – valuable to both the civil and military communities, and difficult to decipher as either offensive or defensive – makes a definitive determination of intent nearly impossible. As a high percentage of space technology is dual use, speculation regarding intent is often the best that can be done. Given the low level of political trust between the U.S. and China, both sides often assume the worst.

Operation Burnt Frost confirmed not only the symbiotic nature of missile defense and ASAT technology, but that missile defense tests largely escape the international condemnation of ASAT tests. Also, kinetic impacts conducted at low altitudes where the debris largely burns up as it falls through the atmosphere, or on a ballistic target to minimize debris creation, are politically acceptable. So the second lesson China learned regarding how to develop ASAT capabilities and avoid political condemnation was to not call testing its capabilities ASAT tests, and conduct impact tests in such a way as to not create long-lived orbital debris.

China is not the only country to have learned these lessons. India, which appears determined to develop an ASAT capability, has been conducting missile defense cum ASAT intercept attempts since 2006. India seems to be suffering from a Non-Proliferation Treaty hangover, where it was excluded from nuclear status. India now seems determined to possess an ASAT capability before arms control provisions potentially again separate countries into ASAT have and have-nots.

In terms of technology, China is advancing on the learning curve.

China conducted what it now called missile defense tests, though de facto ASAT capabilities tests, in January 2010 and January 2013. Those tests used the same technology as in 2007, but without intercepting a target and so without creating debris. While there had been speculation in January 2013 that China might attempt to strike a target in medium earth orbit (MEO) to show that vulnerability of US Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that did not occur.  Not only is China developing its own navigational satellite system, potentially at risk from debris in MEO, experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists have shown that “significantly reducing the capability of the U.S. GPS system would take a large-scale and well-coordinated attack, so much so that targeting these satellites may not be an effective strategy.”

On May 13, 2013, China changed its rhetoric, and demonstrated that it could reach much targets at much higher altitudes than previously. China stated that it had launched a sub-orbital rocket to carry a science payload to study the earth’s magnetosphere. Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who follows Chinese launches, confirmed that the rocket had reached at least 10,000 km, possibly much higher, the highest suborbital launch since 1976. He further stated that most scientific suborbital launches, as the Chinese launch was officially posited to be, are at most to approximately 1,500 km. Lieutenant Colonel Monica Matoush, a Pentagon spokesperson, stated about the Chinese launch, “we tracked several objects during the flight but did not observe the insertion of any objects into space and no objects associated with this launch remain in space.” U.S. defense officials are concerned that the same technology could be used to destroy U.S. space assets at higher altitudes than previously. 

Whatever China’s real intent, the veil of dual use technology provides plausible deniability, just as it did for the United States with Operation Burnt Frost. Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on June 3, requesting more information on the May 13 Chinese launch. The questions to Secretary Hagel included: 1) Was the launch part of China’s antisatellite program and 2) If the launch was part of China’s antisatellite program, why did China attempt to hide disguise it as a scientific experiment? There are no conclusive answers to either. Speculation regarding intent is the best that can be offered in addressing the first question. Concerning the second question, it seems clear that the Chinese have learned, from the U.S. and other countries, to use the political deniability of dual use technology to their advantage.

The United States knew that China was intending to test an ASAT prior to its 2007 test. However, it chose to remain silent, and protest later. Keeping quiet and protesting and requesting information afterward has been the U.S. approach since 2007 as well.

Brian Weeden at the Secure World Foundation suggests that while doing so allows the U.S. to protect is intelligence sources and methods, and potentially bolster its own ASAT capabilities, it also allows those opposed to the Obama Administration’s diplomatic efforts to use launches as a political weapon, and potentially sends a signal to Beijing that ASAT tests are acceptable as long as debris is not created. Weeden wants the Administration to be more transparent about China’s ASAT program, in terms of the launch site location, type of missile used, and altitude reached, toward leveraging international opinion against the irresponsibility of testing such systems.

Georgetown Law School Professor David Koplow has an article forthcoming that suggests building on — basically reinterpreting — current legal norms as an incremental approach to halting ASAT testing.

Clearly, the keeping silent approach has not been successful if the U.S. goal is to get the Chinese to cease ASAT testing, under any and all names. But as long as the U.S. – and other countries — continues to develop, test, and deploy missile defense that is unlikely to happen, given the dual use nature of the technology. That being the case, incremental arms control management seems a much more realistic approach – assuming that those countries with potential ASAT capabilities actually want the testing of these technologies to stop. That, however, increasingly seems a big assumption.

Joan Johnson-Freese is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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