Satellite Destruction Highlights Beijing’s Focus
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
China destroyed an aging Feng Yun-1 (Wind Cloud) weather satellite with a modified medium-range missile from a distance of 530 miles on Jan. 11, drawing protests from U.S. officials and warnings from regional analysts.
“The action is consistent with China’s stance that the two newest realms of warfare are in the electromagnetic spectrum and in space,” said Larry Wortzel, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “Clearly, the PLA is preparing to conduct space and information warfare.”
The test, he said, “is kind of an ‘in your face’ move — one the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] often does. The Central Military Commission likes to demonstrate that China is strong and has mastered new capabilities.”
Last year, China used a ground-based laser to illuminate a U.S. satellite in a demonstration that suggested the ability to blind orbiting sensors. Beijing is also known to be developing offensive micro-satellites that might attack or jam U.S. satellites.
At the recent Zhuhai Air Show, the China Aviation Industry Corp. (AVIC) showed off an airborne launcher designed to sling micro-satellites into orbit from beneath the wing of an H-6 bomber, said Andrei Chang, founder and editor of the Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review. Chang said he was skeptical of Chinese officials who said the launcher is intended for civilian satellites.
The missile test demonstrated the ability to kill a polar-orbit satellite, which puts at risk U.S. navigation, surveillance and electronic-eavesdropping satellites, as well as new imaging satellites of Japan, India, South Korea and Taiwan, said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Another Assassin’s Mace
Analysts describe the development as part of China’s “assassin’s mace” (shashou jiang) asymmetrical strategy against U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites.
“PLA officers at places like the Langfang Military Institute, the Second Artillery Engineering Academy, and other PLA institutions have been writing for some time that China must be ready to fight a war in outer space and develop weapons with which to do so,” Wortzel said.
The research papers discuss jamming synthetic aperture radar, using lasers against electro-optical sensors, and steering satellites to ram other ones. Some analysts see the anti-satellite work as preparation for a move against Taiwan.
“It will cause a problem for the U.S. military should it intervene in a Taiwan Strait crisis in the future,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, based here.
Others see the missile test as a response to a new U.S. policy, citing an old Chinese saying about those who accuse someone of guilt: You point one finger at me, but three at yourself. In August, the White House asserted the need for U.S. “freedom of action in space” and ruled out banning space-related weapon tests.
“Why did China do it?” said Arthur Ding, a cross-strait military affairs expert and research fellow at the National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations. “The perception is that the U.S. is attempting to dominate space and the U.S. refuses any space-related arms control,” Ding said. “Further, China suspects that the U.S. is attempting to militarize space in the future. The possible consequence? Space-related arms control is likely to be added to U.S.-China dialogue in the future.”
A State Department official said China’s Jan. 11 test of an anti-satellite weapon in space is not cause to open negotiations on a new treaty that would place limits on what countries can do in space.