When a Chinese medium-range ballistic missile fired from the Xichang space centre in Sichuan Province destroyed an old Chinese weather satellite in low earth orbit at an altitude of 864km a few minutes later, there was a subtle shift in the balance of power which is only now beginning to be understood.
From a technological view point, the successful attack on January 11, 2007, was impressive. It was accomplished very rapidly along the ascent trajectory of the ballistic missile’s flight without waiting until the later descent trajectory when more targeting data would have been available. Secondly it was on a spacecraft flying as fast as an intercontinental ballistic missile re-entering the atmosphere. And finally it used a unitary hit-to-kill payload frequently described as intercepting a bullet with a bullet.
So in one bold step China surpassed the erstwhile Soviet Union in the space arms race. Only the USA has taken down a satellite in orbit, knocking down one of its own satellites in 1985. Initial reaction focused on the effects on relationships with Taiwan, the USA’s proxy in the region. Britain complained about not being consulted and the creation of debris in the stratosphere.
The geo-political implications now emerging go far beyond these issues. The United States has been put on notice that its much vaunted military superiority may be worthless, if China can take down its satellite communications. As Professor Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out, China’s actions are completely logical and in line with their style of military thinking.
China’s ancient philosopher, Sun Tzu, identified the need for an asymmetric strategy that makes possible “defeating the superior with the inferior”. US space assets are particularly vulnerable to asymmetric warfare. Firstly the US is militarily inordinately dependent on its complex but exposed network of command, control, communications, and computer-based intelligence, surveillance, and recognisance systems, operating in and through space. These assets have been described as “critical for battlefield success.” Secondly these assets are extraordinarily vulnerable to attack of the kind “piloted” in January.
Prof Tellis, writing in the Autumn 2007 issue of Survival, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, notes that China is now well on the way to “militarising” space which may provoke an offence-defence arms race there. He analyses the Chinese anti-satellite programme (ASAT), and shows that its defensive aspects can be capable of pre-emptive aggressive use.
It is progressing from space denial (or self defence) through space object surveillance and identification, direct attack weapons, directed-energy weapons, electronic attack, and ground attack programmes, towards a position where space dominance, if politically desired, could be achieved.
The space object surveillance and identification programme requires a significant number of technical investments to detect and track weapons and other satellite systems passing over China. These include specialized optical telescopes and theodolites, large phased-array radars, laser satellite-tracking devices including rangefinders, various ground and space-base signals intelligence systems, and the radars associated with surface-to-air missile systems.
Direct attack weapons include the direct-ascent missile used in the January attack against the weather satellite in low earth orbit. This orbit is where most of America’s remote-sensing, meteorological and electro-optical infrared and radar intelligence satellites operate. Such direct-ascent systems can also be devastating, if used with a sufficiently powerful booster, against spacecraft in medium earth orbit and geo-synchronous orbit. The latter is where US navigation and guidance satellites, military communications platforms and early warning and nuclear detonation detection systems currently operate.
The directed-energy weapons programme is part of a larger effort to develop “new concept weapons”. Particular areas of emphasis are ground-based high-and low-energy lasers for counterspace purposes. China is also thought to be considering other technologies, including radio frequency weapons, high-power microwave weapons, electromagnetic rail guns and particle-beam systems. While these exotic technologies are in the research or the potential research phase, it is clear that China’s laser programme is mature, and its domestic R&D which is focused on developing different kinds of chemical and solid-state lasers, together with associated optical systems and beam directors, are now recognized as world class.
Electronic attack programmes are thought to focus on a “denial of service” type attack. Chinese tacticians are focusing their efforts on neutralizing the uplinks and downlinks of US space-base systems through diverse forms of electronic attack. Beijing has focused on acquiring sophisticated jamming technologies operating in the UHF band that would permit it to enforce information blackouts at critical moments and prevent US GPS receivers from acquiring or re-acquiring data.
Finally ground attack systems and programmes are designed to physically assault the ground elements associated with US and other countries space systems telemetry and control assets. The US Department of Defence has stated that China “is … building capabilities for information warfare, computer network operations and electronic warfare, all of which could be used in pre-emptive attacks … critical to achieving ‘electromagnetic dominance’ early in a conflict”.
While there are clearly significant educational, technological, and commercial benefits from these programmes, they are very costly and militarily provocative. Nobody plays a longer more considered game than China’s elite. Chinese analyst, Wang Hucheng, has explained their dilemma should the desire to reacquire Taiwan prove compelling: “for countries that can never win a war with the US by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking the US space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice”. However, as the USSR and the West worked out many years ago, the high probability of inadvertent escalation or miscalculation with such space activities makes them a very high risk strategy to pursue.