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China's ASAT test and its impact on USA.

By Giuseppe Anzera On January 11, 2007, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to have performed an anti-satellite (ASAT) operation successfully by destroying an aging low-earth orbiting weather satellite through the launching of a ballistic missile into orbit carrying a "kinetic kill vehicle"--most probably a DF-21 missile, after similar operations with a DF-31 had repeatedly failed. This Chinese ASAT mission, which some alarmists have unnecessarily termed "the first step toward a space war", deserves careful analysis both from a general strategic standpoint and, in particular, in relation to the space control aspects involved. First of all, it should be clearly understood that an action such as this is not likely to give rise, in the short term, to a space war or a race for space supremacy between the United States and China. The reason is that a huge technological gap still exists between these two countries. Moreover, an ASAT mission of this type does not constitute a breach of any international treaty, and in particular it is not in conflict with the most important international agreement on the military aspects of space, namely the Outer Space Treaty signed by the United States in 1967 and by China in 1983. The event was certainly not greeted with beaming smiles in Washington, but this was due not to fear of some fantastic space war, but instead to the following three concrete reasons: 1. The launch confirms the advances made in the Chinese space program, today among the technological areas in which Beijing is investing most heavily and achieving the most rapid progress.2. The success of this experiment reveals China's enhanced ability to protect its territory from observation by reconnaissance satellites or other space vehicles, both for defensive purposes (reconnaissance and intelligence satellites) and for potentially offensive uses (G.P.S. or similar systems).3. For the US military, satellite systems play a vital role not only in data acquisition, but also in the operation of high-precision weaponry. The Pentagon, therefore, is extremely sensitive to any actions that could undermine the use of these systems.China's strategy shows increasing consistency, but in a regional rather than a global framework: its aims lie not in the conquest and militarization of space in terms of global confrontation with the United States, but instead in acquiring instruments that can strengthen China's position on its regional chessboard in the event of a crisis in the area (Taiwan, the Spratley Islands, North Korea, among other concerns). In 2006, US sources had already detected attempts by China (in some cases with successful outcomes) to jam US observation satellites by "blinding" them with laser beams; these actions revealed Beijing's "reduction and denial" efforts to counter the observation capabilities of US satellites orbiting above Chinese territory. The launch of an ASAT, however, attests on the one hand to the achievement of a more direct and decisive means of solving the problem, since this method avoids any passive counter-measures to prevent lasers "blinding" satellites, and, on the other hand, the intention to pursue a policy of "area control of Chinese space", which in the event of a regional crisis could cause serious difficulties for US strategic assets. The results of the January 11 experiment, however, must be assessed above all simply as what they are: A successful attempt to pursue effective future space denial, but which still leaves China in a very backward position compared to Western systems. By way of example, the United States carried out similar operations as far back as 1959, as did the Soviet Union in 1963, with technologies that were, at the time, even more rudimentary. It would have been a different matter if what Beijing had been trying to accomplish was a more versatile and lethal weapon such as the United States' Miniature Homing Vehicle systems, which consist of real two-stage anti-satellite missiles that can be launched from F-15 fighter planes with a specific mission profile developed in the 1980s. Lastly, in terms of Sino-American confrontation, one crucial fact must not be ignored: The more China shows progress in these fields, the more the United States will continue to implement its capabilities to defend (by direct and indirect protection and concealment) its orbiting assets. Given the technological sophistication and high costs involved, the real capabilities of military space devices must be evaluated, and this necessarily involves trying them out in tests that can hardly be concealed. A*PINRChina's ASAT test and its impact on USA

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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Feb 5, 2007
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