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Reports indicate that China has finally tested at least part of a new, more advanced anti-satellite system. On May 13, China launched a rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province. The Chinese Academy of Sciences publicly stated it was a high-altitude scientific research mission, but US government sources say it was actually a test of a new ballistic missile related to China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) program.
If the missile is mated with an interceptor, the system could be able to reach critical US national security satellites in high Earth orbits. Whether it was a test or not, the lack of information from the US government on China’s ASAT program is counterproductive to US policy. If the government is troubled by China’s ASAT testing, it should disclose more details to pressure China to act more responsibly.
President Obama’s strategy for dealing with China’s ASAT program is much the same as his predecessor: watch, but don’t talk (at least publicly). The US has an array of capabilities to collect data on ballistic missile launches and space activities. These capabilities have provided advance warning about earlier Chinese ASAT test attempts. By not publicly disclosing such details, the US government avoids revealing its intelligence sources and methods.
The most public of these Chinese tests was conducted in January 2007, when an interceptor launched on a modified ballistic missile deliberately slammed into a defunct Chinese weather satellite, destroying it and creating more than 3,000 pieces of space debris. US officials disclosed that the US knew about the 2007 test ahead of time, as well as previous tests in 2005 and 2006.
Before the 2007 test, the Pentagon floated the option of publicly or privately warning the Chinese not to conduct the test, but remained silent. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks in February 2011 show that China tested the same system again in January 2010, albeit this time against a target that was not in orbit — that is to say, a missile. The US did not publicly acknowledge the event as an anti-satellite test nor warn China ahead of time, but afterward, sent a private diplomatic request for more information.
China conducted another “missile defense test” in January 2013, which appears to have been yet another test of the same anti-satellite system.
Regardless of what the US has demanded or warned in private communications, China’s anti-satellite weapons program has continued. The only change came after the 2007 test, when China was publicly chastised from many quarters for its irresponsible behavior.
Since then, China has avoided creating debris in its ASAT tests, and in a move adopted from the 2008 US destruction of the failed USA 193 spy satellite, now refers to them as “missile defense tests.”
If the May 13 launch was not an anti-satellite test, remaining silent allows those opposed to the administration’s diplomatic efforts on space security to use the launch as a political weapon. If the launch was indeed a test of a more advanced ASAT system, remaining silent signals to the Chinese and other countries that it is OK to develop and test ASAT capabilities, as long as they don’t create orbital debris. This is exactly the wrong message to send.
A third potential reason for silence is that the US has decided to bolster its own ASAT capabilities. The US has publicly acknowledged for nearly a decade that it possesses offensive counterspace systems that allow it to interfere with satellite communications. Some within the military and Congress have long urged the US to develop other offensive capabilities, including so-called “active defenses” to pre-emptively destroy a threat to a satellite before it can do any damage. And there are strong linkages between national mis-sile defense and anti-satellite capabilities.
An alternative tack is to publicly reveal more details about China’s ASAT testing since 2007, allowing other countries, the media and civil society to pressure China and help develop norms of behavior on such activities. The Obama administration has stated that developing such norms are critical to protecting US space systems and mitigating the mishaps and mistrust that undermines international security. There is no guarantee China would be affected by such pressure, but Beijing’s response to international criticism after the 2007 tests suggests it is not completely deaf to public pressure.
Ideally, China would be more transparent about its space programs but so far has not shown willingness to be responsible or open on these issues. If the Obama administration continues to remain silent about China’s ASAT activities, it risks seeing its diplomatic and policy efforts on space security and sustainability falter.
It could also possibly face renewed ASAT proliferation in other countries that seek to keep pace with China. Either of those results would severely undermine the security of US space capabilities. The alternative is to publicly acknowledge at least some details about China’s ASAT activities and leverage international opinion against the irresponsibility of testing such systems. That approach at least offers the chance of moving toward a more secure, sustainable future in space.
Brian Weeden is technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation.