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2007: A Chinese Space Odyssey By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 23, 2007

Reports last month that China had successfully tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon against one of its own antiquated weather satellites using a kinetic kill vehicle launched on board a ballistic missile raised the stakes in the ongoing battle between the U.S. and China over space supremacy. Indeed, the test proves China has taken another step in its quest to become a military power in space.

Testing space weapons is nothing new. Both the U.S. and Soviet Union tested anti-satellite technology in the 1980’s, and the U.S. even shot down one of its orbiting satellites in 1985. But since that time, both countries have stopped testing altogether, believing that such actions jeopardize the commercial and scientific uses of space. In the recent Chinese test, experts noted that thousands of multiple-sized fragments were created from the satellite’s destruction, placing billions of dollars worth of sophisticated equipment at serious risk.

As expected, international condemnation of the ASAT weapons test was both firm and swift, as India, Russia and Great Britain voiced their immediate disproval. Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) spokesman G. Madhavan Nair called the test “unethical.” Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov said his country was against the “weaponization of space,” while the British raised the issue with Chinese officials almost immediately.


In the U.S. Senate, the reaction was equally critical. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, told a gathering at Washington’s Heritage Foundation that China’s destruction of an aging satellite with a ground-based ballistic missile was a “wake-up call” that should make the U.S. get serious about threats in space. “China’s military doctrine and numerous writings make it clear the country does not believe space can or should be free of military capabilities,” Kyl said.


Making China’s anti-satellite test even more surprising was the fact that it directly contradicts previous statements made by the country’s leaders concerning the weaponization of space. In September 2005, Beijing warned that urgent attention was needed to protect against the weaponization of space, saying, “The international community should take effective preventive measures to negotiate and conclude relevant international legal instruments to prohibit deployment of weapons in outer space.” In May 2005, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan told an audience, “Space is our shared treasure which should be used for the benefit of all mankind.”


But even as Beijing has called for the de-militarization of space, its defense community has continually included national security as one of the purposes served by its expanding space program. The country’s latest defense paper sets ambitious goals for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and focuses on the need for “technological modernization.”


The U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report on the “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” released in 2005 recognized China’s militaristic space policy, noting, “China will eventually deploy advanced imagery, reconnaissance, and Earth resource systems with military applications.” The report went on to say, “China is working on, and plans to field, anti-satellite systems, including conducting research to develop ground-based laser anti-satellite weapons.”


As recently as November, an independent panel, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, encouraged the Bush administration to initiate discussions with Beijing designed to curtail space militarization. This, only two months after reports surfaced in September of laser attacks by China against U.S. intelligence gathering satellites. Other intelligence reports claimed that the U.S. had detected “mini-Chinese satellites” placed in orbit near U.S. military communications and imaging satellites.


In response to China’s latest ASAT weapons test, the Bush administration announced this month that it had suspended plans to develop space ventures with China. NASA spokesman Jason Sharp, said, “We believe China’s development and testing of such [ASAT] weapons is inconsistent with the constructive relationship that our presidents [Bush and Hu] have outlined, including civil space cooperation.” In the past, Washington has avoided sharing certain technical knowledge with Beijing and has objected to China’s growing role in the International Space Station (ISS), due to concerns that the communist regime would use the information to bolster its long-range ballistic missile forces.


Prior to China’s laser and ASAT weapons tests, the Bush administration was preparing to introduce revisions to the existing National Space Policy to address increasing threats to the country’s critical satellite system. According to Robert G. Joseph, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the U.S. State Department, the new policy which was released in the fall, will, “Ensure that our space capabilities are protected in a time of increasing challenges and threats, due to the vital part they play in our national security and to our economic well-being.”


Some experts have speculated that Chinese President Hu Jintao and his advisors did not fully understand the repercussions of their ASAT weapons test. “The decision process is still so opaque that maybe they didn’t know who to talk to. Maybe there was a disconnect between the engineers and policy makers,” noted Geoffrey Forden, an arms expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But others disagree, noting Beijing was well aware of the dangers, but decided to ignore them instead. “The Chinese are telling the Pentagon that they don’t own space. We can play this game too, and we can play it dirtier than you,” noted Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Henry L. Stimson Center.


Beijing plans to make the game even “dirtier” in the future. The country’s leadership has announced that approximately 30 satellites will be launched in the coming years – 10 in 2007 alone - to create a Chinese Global Positioning System (GPS) called the Compass Navigation System. Since its inception, the system has been shrouded in secrecy. The new system, which will become fully operational next year for much of China, is expected to use the same radio frequency as Europe’s Galileo system and the U.S. GPS, making Western attempts to jam communications much more difficult. Ultimately, the Compass Navigation System could be used worldwide to provide precise positioning data for the Chinese military similar to information already produced by the U.S. GPS for military field commanders.


China’s recent provocative activities will likely spur debate about putting U.S. interceptor missiles in space, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, said earlier this month. “We think it’s prudent, especially in light of the Chinese anti-satellite activities, to start that debate right now,” he said. Obering went on to say that the U.S. would be investing in a “good experimental foundation” that would add to the country’s existing sea and ground-based missile defenses.


President Bush’s fiscal 2008 budget seeks an additional $10 million, slashed from an original $45 million, for studies on what could be the first space-based interceptor missiles, taking an important step toward making former President Ronald Reagan’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” or “Star Wars” a reality. Overall, President Bush has asked Congress for $8.9 billion in fiscal 2008 for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, down $500 million from last year, the likely result of budgetary constraints associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the cost of its own military modernization program.


Evaluating America’s recent conflict in Iraq, China’s communist leadership believes that a weaker military can defeat a superior force by attacking its space-based communications and surveillance systems, using powerful “lightning strikes” as a prerequisite for victory. A January 22, 2007 New York Times article noted that China has “extensively studied how the U.S. has used satellite imagery in the Persian Gulf War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in tracking North Korea’s nuclear program.”


Not since the October 4, 1957 launch of Russia’s Sputnik has the U.S. felt as threatened by another country’s space activities. At that time, America answered the challenge, developing the greatest space program on Earth. Now, China has thrown down the gauntlet. With advances in other areas such as submarine, aircraft and warship design, China has improved its extra-regional capabilities allowing it to extend its influence beyond the Taiwan Strait. Adding a space-based military capability will only make the country more dangerous to potential future adversaries such as the U.S. 


There is a storm gathering on the horizon. Russia admitted last year it had developed a revolutionary new missile that could evade any existing U.S. missile defense system. This month, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to strike the U.S. and its global interests with ballistic missiles. North Korea continues to sell sophisticated missile technology to the highest bidder and has its own domestic ballistic missile program. This week, India announced it will soon fire a new missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads across much of Asia and the Middle East.


America’s enemies, as well as some of its perceived allies, are positioning themselves to attack the country’s Achilles heel – its reliance on space-based systems. Successful asymmetrical warfare, not necessarily a frontal confrontation on the battlefield, will be the immediate goal of America’s growing list of enemies. However, as the U.S. becomes weakened by well-coordinated, intense and frequent attacks on its satellite and computer infrastructure, the likelihood of a direct military confrontation with one or more of our enemies will grow.


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Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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