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. Continue reading