China appears to have destroyed its aging Feng Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite in a successful anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) test Jan. 11, Aviation Week & Space Technology reported Jan. 17. This test makes China the third nation — following the United States and the Soviet Union — to have successfully destroyed a satellite in orbit. It is also the first such intercept in more than 20 years.
(click to enlarge)
The report suggests that a ballistic missile launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center inserted a kinetic kill vehicle into orbit. Kinetic kill vehicles, using the energy of impact at thousands of miles per hour rather than explosive fragmentation, are also used in the U.S. ballistic missile defense program
. This could be consistent with reports indicating that an extremely energetic event resulting in a massive breakup took place in low Earth orbit Jan. 11. Such an event seems unlikely to be anything other than a satellite breakup caused by a physical impact. Though a debris strike could certainly be responsible, the chances of a coincidental impact by random debris seem unlikely. Past reports of Chinese attempts to blind U.S. spy satellites temporarily with ground-based lasers have not been publicly confirmed by the U.S. military, although it was certainly aware of the attempt. In this latest case, too, Space Command knew what happened. The U.S. 1st Command and Control Squadron at Cheyenne Mountain carefully tracks and monitors all orbiting satellites and space debris. The launch would have been detected and tracked by the 1st Space Operations Squadron. Any breakup would have been immediately noticed. Nevertheless, Washington offered no official response until after the release of the Aviation Week report. Both Washington and Beijing are party to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (Beijing signed in 1983), although the treaty's vague wording fails even to define "outer space." Moreover, the treaty does not legally prohibit interference with other satellites or the use of non-nuclear ASATs. Because of a lack of accuracy, early U.S. and Soviet ASAT programs both used nuclear warheads, including a successful U.S. "intercept" in 1963 that used a 1-megaton warhead. The Air-Launched Miniature Vehicle used a two-stage rocket fired from an F-15 Eagle fighter to insert a Miniature Homing Vehicle (MHV) into orbit. The MHV conducted a successful heat-seeking intercept in 1985 before being canceled, although the remaining ordnance might have been retained in storage. Legality aside, the increasing visibility and aggressiveness of China's pursuit of offensive space capability represents a potential future threat to U.S. military dominance in space. In December, Robert Joseph, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, issued a public reminder of official U.S. Air Force doctrine: The United States opposes any further ban on the weaponization of space
. Although the U.S. Air Force rightly considers itself the master of its domain in space operations, these developments halfway around the world are a painful reminder that such dominance will not go unchallenged. The U.S. military's technological edge rests heavily in space. With the assets currently orbiting the Earth, U.S. communication, navigation and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities are unsurpassed. From GPS-guided munitions and MASINT
to launch detection and links to strategic forces, space is vital to the modern U.S. military. One or two ASATs cannot change that. But in a major military confrontation over Taiwan, for instance, a successful strike by a dozen Chinese ASATs would be a significant blow to Washington's situational awareness in the region — and would result in massive U.S. retaliation. Prudence would suggest that if two Chinese programs to develop the capability to control space have recently come to light, at least several more are in the works. And this is not China's first foray into space
. The U.S. Air Force is certainly far ahead of China — or any other nation, for that matter — in what the 2004 Air Force Counterspace Operations doctrine calls the "five Ds" of targeting an adversary's space system: deception, disruption, denial, degradation and destruction. Nevertheless, China's rise as a competitor should be of particular concern to the United States. Beijing's first attempts to control space will not be an effort to match U.S. capabilities but rather to become master of its own domain above East Asia. Facing the major competitor in all of space, China will tailor its offensive space capability specifically toward countering U.S. dominance — at least in part. Tokyo and other challengers to Beijing's regional hegemony, however, will not be far behind. The new cloud of debris orbiting the Earth is an indication of things to come should two space-faring nations face off in a major conflict. Especially in the case of the United States, space-based assets have become too essential an operational tool to be ignored any longer in times of war.