China’s Chip Shot into Space

China’s successful destruction of an outer-space target on 11 January made great headlines and generated predictably outraged comment from the US and others. But from a technological standpoint how impressive was the interception and just what was China trying to achieve? It was only an obsolete seven-year old weather satellite and the country’s space program seems to have used rather modest telemetry to pull down the relatively low-flying bird.

It is the longer-term reaction in terms of threat perception and other factors that will be crucial. China has sought to mute concerns. In its first public comment on the test, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Wednesday that Beijing has shown a "responsible attitude" by offering explanations to the US and Japan. He insisted Beijing has all along "upheld the peaceful use of outer space."

"China opposes the weaponization of space and any arms race," Liu said. "The test is not targeted at any country and will not threaten any country.”

It took several days after blasting the satellite for the Chinese government to even acknowledge that the test had taken place and until now to say anything. Perhaps, in a political sense, China overreached. Clearly, with the Chinese and the Americans engaged in a complicated pas de deux over their huge trade imbalance, it can’t do any good. China is already a military concern for the US and now it has also violated long-standing international antipathy to sending weapons into space.

But it may well have been an attempt to increase pressure on the US to support a treaty with a more comprehensive ban on space weapons than what appears in the existing 1967 pact, which is regarded with little more than contempt by the administration of George W Bush. The United States attitude has been that space is something of an extension of American territory, a vast universe in which Washington should have free rein to do as it pleases. Indeed, Bush administration officials last October published a new Space Development Policy requiring the Secretary of Defense to “develop capabilities, plans and options to ensure freedom of action in space.”

But in the closely guarded space programs of east and west, who’s afraid of whom? Despite almost unanimous western concern – and jubilation in China – the Chinese are at the infant stages of a program that even if they wanted to, could hardly challenge the overwhelming US dominance of space. The Americans are decades ahead of anyone else. They are now considering the development of in-orbit lasers and the so-called “Rods from God”, tungsten rods that, targeted by computer and dropped from orbit, would hit the ground at nearly 11,000 meters per second, giving them sufficient force to destroy multi-storey underground bunkers. These are not restricted under the current rules, which also have nothing to say about anti-satellite weapons. In outer space, the Americans have satellites that can pop up, take a sophisticated and highly detailed glimpse of a battlefield, and retreat before the Chinese or anybody could even have the chance to line up something to shoot them down.

Indeed, the Chinese shot was at best relatively primitive. The targeted Fengyun-1C satellite appears to have been shot down by a ground-launched medium-range ballistic missile. Since the body of the satellite was only about 1.4 meters across, and it was orbiting at a height of 864 kilometers, successfully targeting it was reasonably impressive, although somewhat less so if, as some western military analysts claim, this was Beijing’s fourth attempt. Still, the missile would have had to hit the satellite either directly or by exploding very close and blasting it with shrapnel — the technique used by the Soviet anti-satellite program. There being effectively no atmosphere at that height to carry the impact of a blast, even a very near miss would have had no effect. While it could be guided to the immediate proximity of Fengyun-1C, the final approach would have required that the missile use a radar or heat-seeking based homing device.

There appears to be no immediate threat to either commercial communications satellites or foreign spy satellites even if the Chinese were interested in shooting them down. Virtually all communications satellites are in geo-stationary orbit, at a height of 42,165 kilometers, far beyond the reach of the type of missile that felled Fengyun-1C. They are potentially vulnerable to other types of attack, in particular the detonation of a nuclear device creating an electromagnetic pulse that would disable any unprotected satellites within a large radius. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed and ratified by China among many other countries, bans nuclear weapons from space, and satellites destroyed would inevitably include those from neutral and friendly as well as hostile countries. Such a strategy would not be adopted lightly.

Spy satellites are generally in low earth orbits, frequently even lower than that of the Fengyun-1C, but are significantly less vulnerable. First they have to be found. They will not be broadcasting their presence, nor will they be so easy to locate either visually or from a heat signature. They will be able to maneuver into unpredictable orbits. Additionally they are believed to be less vulnerable to damage from either a direct hit or an electromagnetic pulse than commercial satellites because of their sophisticated design.

The political dimension is, however, of greater significance than the technical competence displayed. China has for many years been an energetic proponent of restrictions on the militarization of space. In 2002 China and Russia submitted a joint proposal to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to ban the deployment of weapons in space. The Sino-Russian working paper was put to the Conference shortly after President Bush announced the US’s withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Washington has opposed such a plan, taking the view that the situation is adequately covered by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.

The US strengthened its position last October with the publication by the White House of the new National Space Policy Document, which basically reserves the right to allow the US to dominate the military reaches of outer space and “deny such freedom to adversaries.” That is an embarrassing acknowledgement that China’s recent test, therefore, does no more than demonstrate that it intends to develop those same capabilities.

Andrew Hall was previously publisher of the Asia Space Report.