Through a glass, darkly: Chinese, American, and Russian anti-satellite testing in space

On May 13, 2013, China launched a rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province. The Chinese Academy of Sciences stated it was a high-altitude scientific research mission, but unofficial U.S. government sources say it was actually a test of a new ballistic missile related to China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) program. This article uses open source information, including commercial satellite imagery purchased from DigitalGlobe, to assess these claims. It also compares what is known about current Chinese ASAT testing in space with American and Russian ASAT testing in space over the last five decades.

While there is no conclusive proof, the available evidence strongly suggests that China’s May 2013 launch was the test of the rocket component of a new direct ascent ASAT weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile. The system appears to be designed to place a kinetic kill vehicle on a trajectory to deep space that could reach medium earth orbit (MEO), highly elliptical orbit (HEO), and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO). If true, this would represent a significant development in China’s ASAT capabilities. But it would not be the first instance of an ASAT weapons system designed to attack satellites in deep space, as the Russians developed at least the components of such a system in the 1990s. Thus it is more a signal that China is a new entrant into what is an old game, and while there is some knowledge as to what capabilities China may be developing, why they are developing those capabilities is still unclear.

In June 2013, I argued that the Obama administration should release more information publicly about China’s ASAT program and testing in space. Following China’s purposeful destruction of its FengYun 1C (FY-1C) satellite using a direct ascent ASAT weapon in 2007 and the resulting creation of more than 3,000 pieces of trackable space debris, the public information released by the United States played a major role in mobilizing international outrage about the test. This international criticism, combined with the United States’ destruction of its own USA 193 satellite the following year, arguably resulted in a change in Chinese behavior. Subsequent tests of the same SC-19 system in 2010 and 2013, characterized by China as missile defense tests, targeted suborbital targets and did not result in the creation of any long-lived space debris.

To date, the US government’s public response to and information about China’s ASAT testing activities has been relatively muted. The US government remained silent about 2005 and 2006 tests of the Chinese ASAT system designated SC-19 by the US government. The existence of those tests was only made public after the 2007 test of the same system. Following the 2010 test of the same system, a US government official stated that they “detected two geographically separated missile launch events with an exo-atmospheric collision also being observed by space-based sensors.” Confirmation that this was indeed another test of the same SC-19 ASAT system comes from a classified State Department cable that was leaked by Wikileaks in 2011. In January 2013, China publicly reported another “mid-course missile interception test” that many have concluded is yet another test of the SC-19 system based on the similarities of its description by the Chinese media to the 2010 test, but it has not been publicly declared as such by the US government.

Full article: Through a glass, darkly: Chinese, American, and Russian anti-satellite testing in space (The Space Review)

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