Oops, They Goofed (Explaining Away the PRC ASAT Test)
China's leaders likely regret their decision to carry out an anti-satellite weapons test in 2007, according to a top U.S. expert on Beijing's space program.
Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese recently told a Congressional panel that China "miscalculated" international reaction to the test, which created a large cloud of space debris and brought near-universal condemnation. As Aviation Week reports:
"The Chinese took very careful aim and shot themselves in the foot with that test," says Joan Johnson-Freese, chairman of the National Security Decision-Making Dept. at the U.S. Naval War College. "I think they now are now recognizing that the international condemnation due them was actually moderated."
Testifying before the Senate Commerce space, aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee, Johnson-Freese said it is impossible to know exactly what motivated the test, given the layers of Chinese government secrecy. But she says an emerging consensus among China-watchers holds that it was the logical outcome of an Asat-weapon development program started in response to the U.S. program that tested an air-launched satellite interceptor against a defunct weather satellite.
Military research and development is heavily "bureaucratized" and "very stovepiped," Johnson-Freese says, emphasizing that she is speaking for herself and not her government employers. "The engineers who were in charge of that technology development program put it forward as 'it's time to test,'" she says.
Dr. Johnson-Freese emphasized that she was speaking for herself, and not her government employers. But she isn't the first analyst to suggest that last year's ASAT test was the product of bungled decisions, and not an attempt to demonstrate China's growing counter-space capabilities.
Still, her theory has several flaws. First, let's assume that Johnson-Freese is correct in assuming that Chinese President Hu Jinato personally authorized the test. Even if he didn't fully understand the event's potential ramifications, there are plenty of smart folks in the PLA and the CMC who did.
Like all leaders, Mr. Hu (presumably) sought the advice of experts and weighed possible consequences before green-lighting the test. If the PRC leader didn't seek counsel from his military and space advisers--or dismissed their concerns--well, that raises serious questions about decision-making at the highest levels of the Beijing government. But, that's a topic for another day.
We also have problems with Johnson-Freese's assertion that the Chinese test was the ultimate reaction to the U.S. ASAT program. The last American ASAT weapon, launched from an F-15 fighter, was tested in 1985 (emphasis ours), and the program was cancelled three years later. In other words, Beijing decided to launch a priority state program, with an investment of billions of dollars, in response to a U.S. ASAT effort that had been terminated in the late 1980s. With all due respect to the good professor, that sort of logic fails the Aggie test.
Readers will also note that the assessment of Dr. Johnson-Freese fails to put the Chinese ASAT test into the large context of Beijing's "Space War" strategy. As we've noted in earlier posts, the PRC is actively pursuing doctrine and capabilities aimed at crippling our overhead assets, while ensuring their own, continued access to the high frontier.
That's one reason the Chinese are pursuing guided weapons that are compatible with multiple satellite navigation systems. If they succeed in targeting our GPS constellation (with jamming or destruction), their missiles and smart bombs can still work with updates from GLONASS, the European Galileo network, or their own Beidou satellites.
Beijing has also invested heavily in ground-based anti-satellite weapons. In her Congressional testimony, Johnson-Freese failed to mention that a high-powered Chinese laser successfully tracked a U.S. spy satellite just months before the 2007 ASAT test. The same laser could be potentially used to blind our reconnaissance platforms in low earth orbit (LEO). Was the tracking event a mere coincidence, or another demonstration of China's "Space War" options.
Those rather inconvenient facts provide sufficient reason to doubt the explanation offered by Dr. Johnson-Freese. But then again, her position on China--and the "logic" behind her theory--are anything but surprising.
Before moving to her job at the naval war college, Johnson-Freese served on the faculty at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu. Created by the Department of Defense in 1995, the center has long been criticized for downplaying the China threat.
The professor is also among those who (apparently) blame the U.S. for international problems relating to space. The Space Review described that thesis in a review of her book, Space as a Strategic Asset, which was published last year:
"The core problem with US space policy, she emphasizes, is America’s unrelenting militarization and weaponization of space. “While the rest of the world seeks to increase its ability to use space assets for information linkages required for economic growth in a globalized world, the United State sees much of the technology they are seeking as militarily sensitive and, consequently, is trying to stop its spread. That initial clash of ambitions is further exacerbated by the parallel emphasis the United States places on expanding its space superiority to space dominance.”
She makes a compelling argument that “through clumsy rather than intentionally nefarious use of its considerable power, the U.S. is perceived as a rogue nation in its own right. Other nations regard the U.S. as skirting international law in its treatment of war prisoners, lack of support for international treaties, and proclivity toward preemption and unilateralism. In the space arena, movement toward space weapons further reinforces this perception.
And this woman chairs the "National Security Decision-Making Department" at the Naval War College.
Ray Spruance must be spinning in his grave.