Intercepting satellites: A comparison of the Chinese and U.S. actions

Tasneem Jamal

Authors
August Claxton and Jessica West

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2008 Volume 29 Issue 3

August Claxton is a student in the MA Program in Global Governance at the University of Waterloo. He completed an internship at Project Ploughshares during the Spring 2008 term.

The Chinese intercept and destruction of one of its defunct satellites with a missile on January 11, 2007 and the US intercept and destruction of a failed, de-orbiting satellite with an anti-missile missile on February 21, 2008 have focused significant public attention on the issue of the non-weaponization of space. US officials maintain that there is “no parallel” between the two actions (BBC News 2008), but the tests demonstrate similar unsettling negative effects on space security.

Two satellites intercepted and destroyed

The Chinese intercept and destruction conducted on January 11, 2007 was the culmination of two other undisclosed tests on July 7, 2005 and February 6, 2006.1 The target was the retired Feng Yun 1C (FY-1C) weather satellite. Reports indicate that a missile was launched from the Xichang Space Center, or a site close to it. The booster that delivered the kinetic kill vehicle is believed to be based on a medium-range ballistic missile, possibly the DF-21 (GlobalSecurity.org 2008).

The US interception was the conclusion to an incident first publicly reported on January 26, 2008, when it was announced that the US National Reconnaissance Organization’s satellite USA-193 had lost power, which would cause it to reenter Earth’s atmosphere by early March 2008. On February 14, 2008 Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffrey announced the intent to destroy the failed satellite prior to atmospheric reentry as a means of “saving or reducing injury to human life” that could be caused by the spacecraft’s full fuel tank (Mount 2008). In a matter of weeks, three Navy warships — the USS Lake Erie, USS Decatur, and USS Russell — were outfitted with modified Aegis anti-missile systems, the ships’ crews were trained for the mission, and three SM-3 missiles were pulled off an assembly line and given a new guidance system. USA-193 was successfully intercepted and destroyed on February 21, 2008.

Transparency: shades of grey

Although each country kinetically destroyed a satellite in orbit, the level of transparency provided by China and the US differed significantly. The successful satellite intercept by China was shrouded in silence. The destruction, which was first reported by US magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology and confirmed by US intelligence sources on January 18, 2007, took the international community by surprise. The Chinese government did not officially confirm its actions until January 23, when Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao stated only that “China has never, and will never, participate in any form of space arms race” and that China is committed “to the peaceful development of outer space” (BBC News 2007). Beyond this assurance the Chinese authorities have remained silent. In response, a US government official expressed Washington’s concern that China neither warned its international partners of the test nor adequately explained its intentions in wanting a weapon that can shoot down satellites. US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stated, “We’re looking for greater understanding of exactly what their intent was, what the specifics were surrounding this test, as well as any programs they may have to conduct future tests” (de Selding 2007).

The US government provided much more public information about its own satellite destruction and was more forthcoming with post-intercept details. But some of this apparent transparency masked unanswered questions. In the weeks leading to the intercept, the position taken by the Pentagon regarding the threat posed by the satellite changed completely. Initially Pentagon sources had stated that the de-orbiting satellite posed no significant threat to anyone on the ground, framing the plan to destroy the satellite as a safety precaution (MSNBC 2007). And while information on debris creation, timelines for the operation, and US military assets involved were disclosed, little in the way of technical information was forthcoming.

Environmental concerns about long- and short-lived debris

The destruction of the US satellite created a different amount and type of debris from that caused by the destroyed Chinese satellite. The destruction of the Chinese satellite created the largest and most dangerous long-lasting, manmade debris field in history. The 1,650-pound satellite was in an orbit approximately 850 kilometres above the Earth in one of the most heavily congested low Earth orbits, putting hundreds of satellites at increased risk of debris collision (Ingham 2007). In contrast, the US destroyed a de-orbiting satellite that produced less space debris because of its relatively low altitude. Debris from the event began reentering the atmosphere almost immediately. Most of it was expected to reenter within 48 hours and the rest within 40 days (Randerson & Tran 2008).

Ratcheting up tensions in space

Although both China and the US deny that their actions constituted testing weapons in space (so-called anti-satellite tests), the political fallout from the two events suggests that others think differently. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, “The US believes China’s development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area” (Randerson & Tran 2008). Other reactions were stronger. “Israel’s defense minister and Air Force chief warned that emerging anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities in the hands of regional adversaries would require Israel to deploy its own defenses against anti-satellite threats” (Opall-Rome 2007). In India, concern for the nation’s space-based assets led to calls supporting the establishment of an Aerospace Command (The Times of India 2007).

Reactions after the US satellite destruction came from different parts of the world. Russia’s defence ministry said that the US plans to destroy the satellite “looked like a veiled weapons test and an ‘attempt to move the arms race into space’” (Space Daily 2008). China’s official reaction was more muted. Its primary demands were that “the US fulfill its international obligations in earnest and promptly provide to the international community the necessary information and relevant data… so that relevant countries can take precautions” (Space Daily 2008). One commentator has noted that, by destroying a satellite in orbit, “the Americans have greatly undercut the condemnation heaped on China last year. While the circumstances are different, that is a fine point which is easily overlooked” (Associated Press 2008).

Reduced space security

Any test of weapon systems that are able to destroy objects in orbit reduces global space security. These tests demonstrate a crippling capacity for destruction and encourage other nations to pursue technology to maintain a deterrent. Countries such as Russia and India, which are ramping up their space programs, could become more inclined to spend money on ASAT technology in an effort to protect their assets from what they perceive as new threats. This could lead to increased competition among space powers for new methods to attack and defend satellites, which could result in a vicious arms race in space.

Debris creation creates hazards for other objects in orbit. However, the threat of further debris creation and other negative security effects that is associated with more ASAT tests has a far greater impact on space security than the debris generated from any specific test.

The US intercept seemingly posed less of a threat to space security. But because the United States is the dominant global power, the US intercept carries added significance. Because of its military advantage the US must be aware of the perceptions generated and the implied standards set by its actions.

 

  1. Note
    US General Cartwright claims that China made two previous attempts prior to the successful test on January 11, 2007. See Butler 2007. Dates are provided in Gordon & Cloud 2007, p. 1.

References

Associated Press.2008. China asks US for satellite downing data, blasts space weapons stance. February 24. Found at

BBC News. 2007. China confirms satellite downed, January 23.

———. 2008. US plans to shoot down satellite, February 14.

Butler, Amy. 2007. Chinese anti-sat hit was third attempt. AviationWeek.com, April 16.

De Selding, Peter B. 2007. Anti-satellite test not a hostile act: Chinese space official says. Space.com, January 24.

GlobalSecurity.org. 2008. Chinese anti-satellite [ASAT] capabilities. Last updated March 28.

Gordon, Michael R. & David S. Cloud. 2007. US knew of China’s missile test, but kept silent. The New York Times, 23 April.

Ingham, Richard. 2007. China anti-satellite test sparks space junk outcry. Space Daily, January 19.

Mount, Mike. 2008. Officials: U.S. to try to shoot down errant satellite. CNN, February 15.

MSNBC News Service. 2008. U.S. downplays threat from falling satellite. Today, January 28

Opall-Rome, Barbara. 2007. Israel wary of China ASAT test. Defense News, February 5.

Randerson, James & Mark Tran. 2008. China accuses US of double standards over satellite strike. Guardian.co.uk, February 21.

Space Daily. 2008. China calls on US to provide data on satellite shootdown. February 21.

The Times of India. 2007. China missile worries India, January 20.

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