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China’s Anti-Satellite Test

Author: Carin Zissis
February 22, 2007

Introduction

China caused an international uproar in January when it destroyed one of its own satellites, an action that left hundreds of pieces of dangerous debris in space and led to alarm over the possibility of a space arms race. A month later, Beijing announced it plans no further similar tests, but the January 11 test had already established the growing prowess of China's space program as well as its capability to protect itself from satellite surveillance in the event of war. Despite immediate global demands for an explanation for the test, China waited several days before releasing an official response, prompting questions about its goals and just how soft China's “soft rise” policy may be.

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What is an anti-satellite weapon?

An anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon destroys or interferes with satellites, impeding a nation's ability to collect intelligence or direct attacks. Such a weapon can be air, land, or sea-based. Research into anti-satellite systems began after the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957. By the 1980s, both the United States and the Soviet Union had performed anti-satellite missile tests—all of them arguably in technical violation of a 1967 UN treaty banning such activities. The United States conducted its last test in 1985, destroying a satellite at an elevation of roughly 350 miles. Washington ended testing, citing concerns that space debris could harm commercial and military satellites in orbit. In January 2007, China became the third country to conduct a successful test when it launched a ballistic missile to an altitude of more than 530 miles—roughly the altitude used for U.S. and Japanese imagery intelligence satellites—and destroyed an inactive weather satellite. The test followed three earlier failed attempts.

Why did China destroy one of its satellites?

China's delay in responding to global critics after the test prompted suspicion of Beijing's intent. Speculation arose over whether the timing of the test signaled miscommunication between the civilian government and leadership of China's military. Given the three previous failed attempts, “they may not have expected it to work and that's why they were caught unaware when it was successful,” says Victoria Samson, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information (CDI). China's reasons for the test are likely military and diplomatic, say CFR Fellows Michael A. Levi and Adam Segal. By demonstrating its ASAT capability, “China fears a space-based U.S. missile defense system could neutralize its nuclear arsenal, and thus might seek a ban on space weapons,” they write.

What is the military purpose of the anti-satellite test?

By demonstrating the ability to use an ASAT weapon, China shows off its growing military might in space to its neighbors and the world. Most importantly, from the U.S. perspective, China's capacity to destroy satellites means it can target an American military weakness: the reliance on satellites for intelligence gathering and the operations of high-precision weaponry. A nation with the capability to destroy satellites can also threaten to severely disturb essential daily functions—from financial transactions to telephone communication to power grids—controlled by timing signals sent by global positioning satellites (GPS). “We could be propelled back into the nineteenth century” by such a disruption, says William C. Martel, a professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a former member of the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board.

What is the diplomatic reason for China's test?

Beijing has joined with Moscow in its longtime efforts to convince the United States to sign a treaty banning the deployment of weapons in space. The two nations drafted an outline presented in Geneva in 2002 that made little headway. A month after conducting the January 11 test, Beijing called for talks on a space weapons treaty. Uncomfortable with Washington's de facto dominance of space, efforts by Moscow and Beijing “to impose some kind of weapons-free zone is designed largely to restrict U.S. activities in space,” Martel told CFR.org in a recent podcast on U.S. space policy.

What other space capabilities does China have?

Over the past decade, China has ramped up spending on its space program as part of its modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). After Washington released its space policy in October 2006, Beijing published a white paper describing its space program, with information about advances over the past five years and future plans. China's space development includes:

  • Satellites. China has six types of satellites: remote-sensing, telecommunications and broadcasting, weather, scientific, earth resource, and navigation and positioning satellites. Beijing is also developin oceanic satellites as well as microsatellites.*
  • Launching vehicles and sites. According to Beijing, from 1996 to 2006 China conducted forty-six launches of its “Long March rockets” from three sites also used to launch satellites, space vehicles, and unmanned spacecraft.
  • Manned spaceflight. In 2003, China launched its first manned spacecraft and set a target date of 2008 for a lunar spacewalk for its so-called “taikonauts.” China also plans to place a spacecraft on the moon by 2020 to collect lunar samples and possibly use a type of lunar helium for fuel.
Which countries are most concerned by China's anti-satellite test?
  • United States. The most likely conflict that would draw the United States into a war with China would be conflict between China and Taiwan. Washington would defend Taiwan, relying heavily on precision-guided weapons to attack Chinese military targets. The Achilles' heel of America's more technologically advanced military is the dependence on space-based satellites. “If China and the United States both took out each others' satellites in a conflict, the Americans would lose far more,” write Segal and Levi.
  • Japan. In the days after the Chinese test, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe charged Beijing with violating the United Nations' 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans the use of weapons of mass destruction in space and which China ratified in 1983. In recent years, Tokyo has moved toward revising its pacifist constitution, partly out of concern over Beijing's growing power, as well as its increased military spending and modernization of the PLA. The anti-satellite test will likely “accelerate the space race in Asia with Japan and India both playing catch-up with China,” writes Chietigj Bajpaee for Power and Interest News Report.
  • India. Like Japan, India has a longstanding rivalry with China stemming in part from past border disputes and fed by both countries' fast-growing economies. New Delhi claims it also has ASAT weapons capabilities, but has set no plans to conduct a test out of a commitment to the peaceful use of space. Within two weeks of Beijing's test, India's air force announced intentions to protect the country's space operations (Space.com) by setting up an aerospace command.
  • Russia. Moscow condemned the Chinese test, but Sergei Ivanov, Russia's former defense minister, tempered the reaction by referring to earlier Soviet and U.S. tests, saying, “It is not China that opened up Pandora's box,” reported RIA Novosti. “Clearly the Russians don't have a problem with moving toward a more multi-polar world,” says CFR's Segal, claiming that China's and Russia's strategic interests overlap. Both Russia and China have pressured Washington to sign a treaty agreeing to ban weapons from space. But Martel says Beijing's test and investment in advancing its space program signal China taking Russia's place as Washington's future rival in space technology. He predicts in the long term “this is going to grate at the Russian soul.”
Should the United States change its space policy in response to China's test?

Although the ASAT test drew the ire of Washington, China's anti-satellite efforts were underway before January and likely did not surprise the Pentagon. In October, China reportedly “dazzled” a U.S. satellite by blinding it with a ground-based laser to test its ability to temporarily disrupt American military operations by blinding satellites. Shortly after the alleged test, the White House declassified a revised space policy (PDF) signed in August 2006 by President Bush. The document defends “freedom of action in space” and calls for a robust space program, in part to enhance national security. Martel says the language in the policy suggests a move toward weaponization of space.

Given that Beijing's tests demonstrated the potential vulnerability of satellite-dependent military technology, the United States will be further pressed to advance its satellite-defense technology. Segal suggests “building redundancy in the system” by producing smaller, lighter satellites that can be quickly launched to replace destroyed or damaged satellites. Other solutions include increasing space surveillance to monitor activities, Sampson says.

Are there treaties that prohibit the weaponization of space?

There are a number of international agreements which ban the use of weapons of mass destruction in space but not anti-satellite tests or the use of ground-based lasers to harm satellites. Yet Washington has argued that previous agreements, outlined below, preclude the need for a new space arms treaty. During a February UN conference on disarmament, U.S. envoy Christina Rocca said that some nations have signed preexisting agreements and “universalization of these conventions is a much more practical and effective step toward guaranteeing the peaceful use of outer space” than negotiating a new treaty. The Bush administration has been resistant to restrictions that would limit its freedom of action or technological dominance in space. After China's test, Philip Meek, an associate general counsel for the U.S. Air Force, told Reuters America's “asymmetric advantage” means the United States would be forced to make more concessions than other nations in a new agreement.

Agreements dealing with space security include:

  • Outer Space Treaty. Signed into effect in 1967, the agreement prohibits stationing or using weapons of mass destruction in space. The treaty also bans contamination of space and holds nations liable for damage caused by space devices. Ninety-eight states—including Russia, China, and the United States—have ratified the treaty and twenty-seven have signed it.
  • Limited Test Ban Treaty. This 1963 agreement bans nuclear weapons testing in space, as well as in the atmosphere and underwater, with the goal of preventing radioactive contamination. The United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom originally ratified the agreement, and 105 other countries, including China, have done so.
  • Missile Technology Control Regime. This export-control protocol was established in 1987 has thirty-four member states, including most of the world's missile manufacturers. The regime seeks to limit proliferation, including of space rockets, by restricting sales of missiles and related equipment capable of launching weapons of mass destruction. The United States and Russia are members, but not China.
Why is there concern about space debris?

Condemnation followed China's test in large part because it increased the quantity of debris in the earth's orbit by about 10 percent. The last ASAT test by the United States, conducted in 1985, left some three hundred pieces of debris, which took seventeen years to burn up in the earth's atmosphere. The Chinese test left over three times more debris at a higher altitude, meaning the fragments will take longer to clear out. Any one of the three hundred satellites—representing some $100 billion—that lie in the Chinese debris cloud “could become road kill” write Michael Krepon and Michael Katz-Hyman of the Henry L. Stimson Center.

Is the world headed for an arms race in space?

China's test caused worldwide concern over the possibility of a space arms race. Currently, outer space is militarized, meaning space-based devices aid in military operations. Space is also considered a "sanctuary" in which satellites can be used for military operations on earth, but where fighting does not take place. As a result, destroying another nation's satellite can be construed as an act of war and could lead to a weaponization of space, involving deployment of weapons.

The January ASAT test might reaffirm the Bush administration's desire to connect space policy with national security, but an important message of China's test is that it may challenge U.S. domination of space technology in the long run. Washington's space program currently remains far more advanced than Beijing's, but experts say the test signals China's hunger to catch up. Investment in space programs by China and other emerging powers signals an acknowledgment that "great powers have significant space capabilities," says Martel.

*Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated unequivocally that China had "killer" microsatellites capable of attacking an adversary's satellite—a contention set forth in Pentagon reports. In fact, a 2004 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found this claim to be highly contentious. The Pentagon has omitted the claim from several more recent reports on the issue.

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