It's been six years since China maneuvered an orbital kill vehicle into position and destroyed one of its aging weather satellites, signaling a major advance in its ASAT capabilities. As Aviation Week noted at the time:
Details emerging from space sources indicate that the Chinese Feng Yun 1C (FY-1C) polar orbit weather satellite launched in 1999 was attacked by an asat system launched from or near the Xichang Space Center.
The attack is believed to have occurred as the weather satellite flew at 530 mi. altitude 4 deg. west of Xichang located in Sichuan province. Xichang is a major Chinese space launch center.
Although intelligence agencies must complete confirmation of the test, the attack is believed to have occurred at about 5:28 p.m. EST Jan. 11. U. S. intelligence agencies had been expecting some sort of test that day, sources said.
U. S. Air Force Defense Support Program missile warning satellites in geosynchronous orbit would have detected the Xichang launch of the asat kill vehicle and U. S. Air Force Space Command monitored the FY-1C orbit both before and after the exercise.
In our own analysis, we noted that the January 2007 event was actually the culmination of a series of tests, aimed at demonstrating a viable ASAT option: From our own post, written six years ago this week:
Our own contacts within the space community indicate that this was the latest in a series of Chinese ASAT tests, using the weather satellite as a target. In each successive test, the Chinese managed to get the kill vehicle closer to the weather bird, before finally executing a kill sequence on 11 January. The ASAT could have disabled the target satellite by ramming it, or releasing smaller "pellets" that perform the same function. Limited reporting indicates that the weather satellite was in "orbital distress" after the test, that it was not completely destroyed by the ASAT.
Last week's test comes less than a year after China flashed a ground-based laser at a U.S. reconnaissance satellite, suggesting that it can also use that technology to disable overhead platforms. The ASAT program is believed to be one of the most important in the PRC military, and has advanced steadily over the past 10 years.
The implications of these recent events is clear. Spaced-based communications and ISR are the backbone of our war-fighting capabilities, and play an increasingly important role in the global economy. Successful, pre-emptive attacks on our low earth orbit (LEO) satellites would have a devastating effect, both militarily and economically.
Predictably, China's ASAT program has continued apace since the 2007 test. There is growing speculation that Beijing will conduct another major ASAT test in the coming weeks, illustrating a growing ability to disrupt, degrade or even destroy elements of the U.S. military satellite constellation, which provides everything from intelligence imagery and communications support, to GPS navigation and the detection of enemy missile launches. As Reuters reports:
Gregory Kulacki, a respected researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists, reported earlier this month on the group's website that there was "a strong possibility" of a new anti-satellite test by China within the next few weeks.
He said Chinese sources had told him in November that an announcement about an upcoming anti-satellite test had been circulated within the Chinese government, and a high-ranking U.S. defense official confirmed in December that Washington was "very concerned" about an imminent Chinese anti-satellite test.
Sources within the U.S. government and outside experts said there was no immediate evidence pointing to the preparations for the type of satellite or rocket launches used by China for past anti-satellite tests at lower orbits.
But they said Beijing could test its anti-satellite weapons in other ways that would be harder to detect, such as by jamming a satellite's signals from the ground or issuing a powerful electromagnetic pulse from one satellite to disable another.
China could also maneuver two satellites very close together at higher orbits, replicating actions it has already taken in lower orbits in August 2010 and November 2010. Such activities could be used to perform maintenance or test docking capabilities for human spaceflight, but could clearly be used for more destructive purposes as well, they said.
That comment about "higher orbits' is particularly telling. While some types of spy satellites operate in low earth orbit, China understands it must expand its ASAT capabilities to higher altitudes, improving its ability to target a wider range of U.S. space platforms. Without those platforms, our ability to wage war quickly grinds to a halt.
But the U.S. hasn't been completely inactive in the ASAT arena. In early 2008, a U.S. Navy cruiser downed one of our old spy satellites before it could fall from orbit, using specially-modified SM-3 surface-to-air missiles. According to U.S. officials, the SM-3 can hit satellites as high as 310 miles above the earth, and with a growing number of ships outfitted for missile defense, the Navy has an effective (though limited) ASAT capability that can literally be deployed around the globe.
And there may be a newer arrow in our ASAT quiver. Last December, the Air Force's secretive X-37B unmanned space plane launched on another mission. So far, the platform has flown operationally on at least three occasions, remaining on orbit for more than a year during one mission. ..The X-37B has a 7' x 4' payload bay, large enough to carry a variety of sensor platforms, or even some sort of weapons package. An X-37B was launched from Cape Canaveral on 11 December 2012. Details of the mission have been (predictably) sketchy, but there has been speculation that the X-37 may be used to monitor Chinese military activities, including ASAT test preparations.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has been consulting with our European allies over a proposed treaty that would severely limit our ASAT capabilities. China, on the other hand, has declined several U.S. overtures to discuss potential curbs on military activity in space. And why not? No reason for Beijing to discuss possible restrictions when the U.S. seems committed to a policy of unilateral disarmament in space. As the X-37 circles the earth with its unknown payload, we can always hope that our "official position" is some sort of deception operation. But don't get your hopes up. This is the same administration that favors nuclear disarmament, so why not extend that policy to the high frontier, too.