Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Day's Most Important Headline

...Courtesy Aviation Week & Space Technology, via Drudge, and summarized at

"Chinese Test Anti-Satellite Weapon"

According to Aviation Week's, Craig Covault, the PRC may have conducted a successful test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon on 11 January, using a kill vehicle launched from a ballistic missile to destroy an obsolete weather satellite. If confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies, the test would signify "a major new Chinese military capability," and represent a clear threat to reconnaissance satellites and other space platforms operating in low earth orbit.

A full report on the apparent test will be published in the magazine's 22 January edition; for now, here's a brief summation of what happened over China last week:

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.

The test, if it occurred as envisioned by intelligence source, could also have left considerable space debris in an orbit used by many different satellites.

USAF radar reports on the Chinese FY-1C spacecraft have been posted once or twice daily for years, but those reports jumped to about 4 times per day just before the alleged test.

The USAF radar reports then ceased Jan. 11, but then appeared for a day showing "signs of orbital distress". The reports were then halted again. The Air Force radars may well be busy cataloging many pieces of debris, sources said.

Although more of a "policy weapon" at this time, the test shows that the Chinese military can threaten the imaging reconnaissance satellites operated by the U. S., Japan, Russia, Israel and Europe.

My 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.

That's why President Bush's National Space Policy, unveiled last October, is vitally important. When the policy was announced, the administration was roundly criticized for its "unilateral" approach to space, and disregard for the "rights" of other nations in accessing the high frontier.
But, given China's continuing efforts to develop (and deploy) ASAT weaponry, I believe the Bush policy is a step in the right direction, by emphasizing freedom of action in space. That's a welcome change from the Clinton era, which stressed diplomacy and "space control." The Clinto White House also had misgivings about ASAT weaponry, and cancelled a number of initiatives which could have resurrected our near-dormant capabilities in that arena.

The recent Chinese test suggests that Beijing is preparing to contest the United States for control of the high ground of outer space. The Bush policy recognizes that threat, and indicates that the U.S. is prepared to defend our right to operate in space. Now, if he'd only resurrect and fully fund our ASAT programs, I'd feel a lot better.


RussInSoCal said...

With regard to US ASAT capabilities, wouldn't the ABL be a good platform?

Unknown said...

To a limited degree. But remember, the ABL has to be within a few hundred miles of the targeted missile, and it has to be destroyed in the boost phase. A Chinese ASAT, launched deep within their territory, would be beyond the range of an ABL over the Taiwan Strait.

Additionally, there's the issue of distinguishing ASAT payloads from other space payloads. It's relatively simple to "disguise" an ASAT payload as some sort of commercial launch, and the real nature of the mission may not be apparent until the kill vehicle is on orbit, and maneuvering to take out one of our satellites. And, by that time, it's too late.

Siimply stated, we need a capability to hold Chinese LEO platforms at risk, just as they're developing the same capability against our satellites. The idea that we can legislatively and diplomatically prevent the militarization of space is naive, as the Chinese ASAT proves.

eatyourbeans said...

Did China need to use satellites to accomplish this, or was it done sheerly by good marksmanship from the ground?

space2007 said...

Some web accounts express surpise that word of "previous tests" had not leaked into the open press. This may very well be due, at least in large part, to who and where the vast majority of the work on this system has been done. (who - a DOD intel center, where - Ohio. The people in Ohio are, and have been for over a decade, the largest IC element working threats to US satellites.)

butlimous said...
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