China conducted their third anti-satellite test on July 23, according to US experts. (Wikipedia)
TAIPEI — US defense experts and the US State Department are describing China’s successful July 23 so-called “anti-missile test” as another anti-satellite test (ASAT). It is the third such kinetic strike ASAT launch by China and raises fears the US will be unable to protect its spy, navigation and communications satellites.
“This latest space interceptor test demonstrates a potential PLA [People’s Liberation Army] aspiration to restrict freedom of space flight over China,” said Mark Stokes, a China missile specialist at the Project 2049 Institute.
China’s first two anti-satellite tests, 2007 and 2010, involved the SC-19 (DF-21 ballistic missile variant) armed with a kinetic kill vehicle. Though the first two involved the SC-19, only the 2007 ASAT actually destroyed a space-based platform. The 2010 and July 23 test successfully struck a ballistic missile.
With the destruction of the weather satellite came international complaints that China was unnecessarily creating a debris field that would endanger other nations’ space platforms. This could explain the reason China chose to shoot down ballistic missiles rather than hitting orbiting platforms.
It is still too early to declare whether the third test used an SC-19 or a different missile system. Stokes said it was a “speculative guess,” but it could have been a test of a new solid motor being developed for a space intercept system, possibly designated as the Hongqi-26 (HQ-26). “Engineering research and development on the new solid motor seems to incorporate some interesting capabilities [that] began early last year.”
Richard Fisher, a China military specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said after the 2007 test the Army may be trying to mask its anti-satellite program by conveying the impression that it is also testing a lower altitude anti-missile capability. “It is also possible that the SC-19 has ASAT and ABM [anti-ballistic missile] capabilities.”
Not everyone is convinced China is developing an ABM system. Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, is one of them.
“The first [observation] is wondering why China is spending effort and money on developing an anti-ballistic missile defense system given the enormous challenges and expenses the United States and Russia have had to dedicate to their efforts over the years with only partial success to show for it?” He said it seems highly unlikely that Chinese engineers would suddenly be able to overcome those challenges and deploy an effective ABM system.
Kristensen said his second observation is that a Chinese decision to develop and deploy an ABM system seems contradictory to China’s well-known opposition to US missile defense plans in the Pacific. He does not believe that a Chinese missile defense system would be able to counter the advanced and large US and Russian nuclear missile forces. It would be a somewhat different matter with India.
“If Indian military planners concluded that a Chinese ABM system was capable enough to threaten the effectiveness of India’s small nuclear deterrent aimed at China, it could potentially cause Indian planners to increase the number of long-range missiles it plans to deploy to deter China, or, which would be a worrisome and destabilizing development, begin to develop and deploy MIRVed [multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle] warheads on Indian ballistic missiles to overwhelm a Chinese ABM system,” he said. “In that case, a Chinese ABM system would seem to undermine rather than enhance Chinese security.”
Fisher contends that China is working on anti-satellite and ABM programs at the same time. It is also possible that the SC-19 has both an ASAT and ABM capability, as demonstrated in the 2007 and 2010 tests. Fisher said the new HQ-19 and the HQ-26 could be similar in capability to the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. There are also reports out of China indicating Beijing is attempting to procure Russian S-400 low-altitude ABMs, he said.
China has plenty of money to spend and appears to have permission to work on a variety of high-tech and risky projects, Kristensen said. “The interesting question is whether China is working on ABM technology to deploy its own defenses or to better understand and overcome the missile defenses of its potential adversaries.”
Fisher said the larger issue could be that after nearly three decades of “scorching harangues” by China on the US missile defense program, China has all along been developing its own ballistic missile defense system.
“We now know that China’s second ABM and ASAT program started in the early 1990s. Aside from how all this undermines the credibility of any Chinese strategic nuclear related statements, Washington now has to face the reality that in the 2020s it will be facing a much larger and more capable Chinese nuclear missile force that will have an active missile defense component.” ■