China has sent men into orbit and launched dozens of satellites, but its test of a satellite-killing weapon is shaking up perceptions about where the Chinese space program is headed.
The test, confirmed by Beijing on Tuesday after nearly a two-week silence, has drawn criticism from the U.S. and Japan, and touched off fears of an arms race in space.
The Chinese test “was an overtly military, very provocative event that cannot be spun any other way,” said Rob Hewson, the London-based editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons. “So a bald assessment of that is that it’s a big fat challenge.”
The test is a shot across the bow of U.S. efforts to remain predominant in space and on the ground, where its military is heavily dependent on networks of satellites, particularly the low-altitude imaging intelligence models that help it find and hit targets. Japan, also seen as a regional rival, is similarly vulnerable, while any potential conflicts in space would put much of the industrialized world’s economies at risk, given that satellites are used to relay phone calls and data and to map weather systems.
The Jan. 11 test, first reported last week by the magazine Aviation Week, destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite by hitting it with a warhead launched on board a ballistic missile. That made China only the third country after Russia and the U.S. to shoot down anything in space.
Before that, China’s military and its space program were largely seen as capable, but lagging in innovation. Still, it's unclear what message China intended to send, underscoring the opacity of China’s space and military programs and deepening suspicion over its avowed commitment to the purely peaceful use of space.
Pledges of peace, but uneasy feelings
Beijing has repeatedly pledged peaceful development of its army — the world’s largest — but has caused unease among its neighbors by announcing double-digit military spending increases nearly every year since the early 1990s.
The anti-satellite test threatens to “undermine relationships and fuel military tensions between spacefaring nations,” David Wright, of the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement posted on the group’s Web site that was typical of criticisms from the U.S. scientific community.
On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said it acknowledged holding the test to the United States, Japan and other countries, but insisted it opposed any arms race in space. Both Washington and Tokyo have criticized the test as undermining efforts to keep weapons out of space.
In Washington, the Defense Department and President Bush’s National Security Council declined to comment Tuesday.
However, while China’s act looked aggressive, some U.S. officials were skeptical that Beijing would do anything to attack the satellites of the United States or Japan — key trading partners. According to the CIA World Fact Book, China sold more to the United States in 2005 than any other nation — 21.4 percent of its exports. Hong Kong was second, with 16.3 percent, and Japan was third with 11 percent.
Partnerships in peril
China has released no details publicly, although Aviation Week said the missile lifted off from or near the Xichang base in southwest China, the country’s main commercial satellite launch center. The military’s missile corps, the 2nd Artillery, likely took part in the launch as well.
Knocking out U.S. military satellites would be a priority in any regional war against the U.S. or Japan, either over Taiwan or other territorial claims, or to keep its sea lanes open for deliveries of oil and gas.
One immediate casualty of the test could be budding ties between the Chinese and the U.S. and European space programs, experts said. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin visited China last year to discuss cooperation projects, and China has partnered with the European Space Agency on the Galileo navigation satellite network to compete with the U.S. Global Positioning System.
Now the test “will make it very difficult for the U.S. to talk about space cooperation with China anytime soon,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense, security and space intelligence consultancy based in Alexandria, Va.
America's military plans in space
Some say China isn’t the only one rushing to acquire military capabilities in space.
President Bush signed an order in October tacitly asserting the U.S. right to space weapons and opposing the development of treaties or other measures restricting them — a move some analysts speculated may have helped spur the Chinese test.
Bush has also pushed an ambitious program of space-based missile defense and the Pentagon is working on missiles, ground lasers and other technology to shoot down satellites.
However, the Pentagon’s budget is severely constrained by Iraq and Afghanistan and a drive to replace outdated planes and ships, making space programs a lower priority and prompting some to warn the U.S. could be losing ground in space.
“We are falling behind, if not losing, on many measures of space superiority,” Defense Department contractor Stephen Hill said Monday at a forum in Washington.
China’s promotion of anti-satellite weapons is underpinned by its doctrine of “asymmetric warfare” that envisions defeating the U.S. or another powerful foe by knocking away key capabilities rather than through frontal assault.
New era for Chinese space effort
Anti-satellite weapons development has likely benefited from the increasing attention garnered by China’s space program, which entered a new era with its first manned space flight in 2003.
A second mission in 2005 put two astronauts, or “yuhangyuan,” into orbit for a week and a third manned launch is planned for next year. This year, China plans to put into space a lunar probe which will orbit the moon at an altitude of 125 miles (200 kilometers).
Despite the successes, China’s space program had been seen as lacking in innovation, overly cautious and, perhaps most importantly, non-threatening to Washington. That evaluation may now have to change.
“You could argue that China is getting ready to do a lot of things that the U.S. is now losing the ability to do,” Hewson said. “So that in itself is a challenge to the U.S.”
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