It was reported at the end of last month that China successfully shot down one of its redundant satellites in January. Allegedly, the firing took place at nearly the same time as a successful Chinese missile interception test conducted on January 11. Given the reaction to its 2007 launch, some observers have suggested that the recent launch may have been ordered as a means for Beijing to vent displeasure over recent Taiwanese efforts to buy the Patriot missile defense system from the U.S. However, others claim that the time needed to prepare for such a launch makes this notion unlikely. Either way, the news is further evidence of continuing Chinese efforts to boost their space based military capabilities, and given the outcry following the last test, has probably not been met with cheers from countries possessing satellite capabilities.
In context of this news, Beijing’s official position on space might come as a surprise to some:
“The Chinese government has all along regarded the space industry as an integral part of the state’s comprehensive development strategy, and upheld that the exploration and utilization of outer space should be for peaceful purposes and benefit the whole of mankind.”
China’s official position is probably guided by the concerns over the prospect of space based missile defense systems which might one day render its relatively few numbers of ICBMs useless. However, just as in 2007, China risks losing legitimacy in this regard when it destroys its own satellites….
After its 2007 anti-satellite test, Beijing commented “China has never, and will never, participate in any form of space arms race”. Nevertheless, countries such as Japan and Australia viewed China’s launch in exactly that context – especially given that it was the first such test since the Cold War. With the military benefits that satellite constellations confer to a country, it is arguable that they had much justification in this accusation.
Indeed, the informational advantages that satellites and space-based services can bring to military and security operations are significant. They can improve the capabilities and performance of conventional weapons, greatly expand intelligence services, and through the actual launching of satellites, improve upon a nation’s missile capabilities. Given its public stance on the militarization of space, China’s decision to shoot down the satellite in 2007 was thus highly controversial. Indeed, one can only imagine how difficult it might be in coordinating any defense against a possible Chinese invasion of the Taiwan Straits without the aid of the U.S satellites currently watching over the area.
Another problem associated with anti-satellite operations results from the actual strike of the kinetic missile and the sheer amount of debris it causes. Such debris can cause significant damage to other space users and this dynamic was one of the motivations for the USSR and USA to stop such testing in the 1980s. According to one report, the 2007 satellite destruction is “now being viewed as the most prolific and severe fragmentation in the course of five decades of space operations”. NASA studies indicate that the debris cloud now extends from 125 miles to 2,292 miles, orbiting at mean altitudes of 528 miles or greater – which reportedly means it will be very long lived. Naturally, should any of this debris crash into satellites or spacecraft in low orbit there would be calamitous results. So significant is this problem that it is thus somewhat interesting that reaction to this year’s anti-satellite test has been so much more muted than in 2007.
Anti-satellite testing is clearly dangerous, but as a result of the advantages it can confer to an attacker, it may be inevitable in future warfare. Consequently, it seems that tests such as these are only likely to provoke other countries to invest in alternative approaches and technologies to mitigate the effects of losing a major surveillance satellite. One approach could see countries putting constellations of smaller satellites into orbit that provide increased coverage and survivability. Another could result in greater investment in UAV technology, which can increasingly play some of the roles traditionally reserved for satellites – as well as offering a short-notice fix (given UAV’s can be put into the sky so quick). But while these outcomes are not indicative of the start of a space arms race, if in the future they are accompanied by other countries conducting further anti-satellite tests, things may change.
It is also hard to see how China’s tests will help pave the way for future cooperation with the U.S President Barack Obama’s June 2010 National Space Policy emphasized the important role of international cooperation in space and demonstrated the apparent willingness of the US to begin work on a space weapons treaty. However, news of China’s January 2010 test may have ruffled feathers among members of Congress, whom Gregory Kulacki at the Union of Concerned Scientists noted, “will want to deny China status as a member in good standing of the international community of space-faring nations”. Ultimately though, this might not be something China is seeking to pursue. With its abundant financial resources and high level scientific know-how, the prestige of advancing its space based technologies by itself may prove too irresistible for Beijing. But quite how future tests will fit with China’s commitment not to ‘to test, deploy or use any weapons, weapons systems or components in outer space’, remains to be seen.
Given the technology for shooting down satellites has been around since the Cold War, it is hard to see the technological imperative for countries such as China to conduct such tests. While Beijing may have made a political statement (for good or bad) with its 2007 test, if it remains committed to the peaceful use of space then it is hard to understand the advantage of shooting down further satellites. Indeed, with the U.S made Vanguard 1 still in orbit since launch in 1958, one has to wonder why China feels compelled to shoot down satellites that are several decades younger. The debris caused by such tests is a major risk for other space users and given its potential to upset the prospects for a space weapons treaty, it seems evident that China should refrain from further anti-satellite launches.