Nuclear Weapons

Chinese Anti-Satellite Weapon Experiment; What Now?

01.19.07 | 3 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

In a major foreign policy blunder, China reportedly has conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test. First reported in Aviation Week and Space Technology, China allegedly used a medium-range ballistic missile to launch an unknown payload that slammed into the Feng Yun (FY-1C) polar-orbit weather satellite approximately 865 km (537 miles) above the earth on January 11.

China has long called for international talks to set limits on military space activities, but this has been rejected by the Bush administration, which also wants to develop and deploy ASAT weapons. On January 11, the same day China conducted the test, a senior State Department official told an Air Force military space conference that “there is no arms race in space that needs to be addressed” by arms control treaties.

The Chinese test is a surprise but not unexpected. Both the United States and Russia have worked on ASAT weapons for decades, and it was almost inevitable that China would follow in their footsteps. The Department of Defense stated in 2006 report on Chinese military forces:

“Beijing continues to pursue an offensive anti-satellite system. China can currently destroy or disable satellites only by launching a ballistic missile or space-launch vehicle armed with a nuclear weapon. However, there are many risks associated with this method, and potentially adverse consequences from the use of nuclear weapons. Evidence exists that China is improving its situational awareness in space, which will give it the ability to track and identify most satellites. Such capability will allow for the deconfliction of Chinese satellites, and would also be required for offensive actions. At least one of the satellite attack systems appears to be a groundbased laser designed to damage or blind imaging satellites.”

Others have suggested that Chinese ASAT capabilities were still far from deployment, but last week’s test suggests that China has made more progress than previously thought.

So What Now?

There will certainly be people who see the Chinese test as confirmation that the United States should rush to develop and potentially deploy ASAT weapons. And it is also likely to further deepen the military distrust between China and the United States. But it is important for national and international security that we think more sophisticated about this challenge and develop policies and options that increase security for all.

The first thing the Chinese test should teach us is that there now is an incipient arms race in space that urgently needs to be intercepted. With last week’s test, China has severely weakened its own status in the push for international limitations on military space activities. Yet the test may also serve to galvanize international efforts to prevent an arms race in space.

The second lesson is that the Bush administration’s rejection of limitations on military space activities has been a national security failure because it has granted China the legal freedom to test an ASAT weapon. ASAT weapons are a threat not only in war but also in peace because debris from ASAT tests endangers other military satellites as well as civilian satellites that are vital for monitoring atmospheric and environmental developments on Earth.

The third lesson the Chinese ASAT test should teach us is that the claim made by the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review that U.S. pursuit of overwhelming capabilities (including in space) will somehow “dissuade” other countries from developing similar capabilities is a counterproductive and dangerous fallacy.

What is needed now is a combination of military constraint and reenergized political efforts:

First, China must refrain from further ASAT weapon testing and instead reaffirm its support for peaceful use of space.

Second, the United States and Russia must resist the temptation to resume their own ASAT testing programs.

Third, the Congress must review U.S. space policy in light of the new development.

Fourth, the Bush administration must abandon its opposition to limitations on the use of space and begin bilateral and international discussions on rules for military and civilian activities in space.

Background: Chinese Space | UCS Space Weapons Overview