Fallout from China’s Anti-Satellite Test

Tasneem Jamal

Jessica West

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2007 Volume 28 Issue 1

On 11 January 2007 China launched a ballistic missile at one of its own aging weather satellites, intercepting and destroying it. This is the first openly conducted anti-satellite (ASAT) test since 1985, making China the third country to successfully shoot a target in space.

In the context of China’s longstanding advocacy for a space weapons ban, the ASAT test has sparked a range of speculation on intent: from China’s expressing open hostility to flexing technological muscle to forcing negotiations on a space weapons treaty. Chinese officials were first secretive, then silent, eventually claiming that the test was “not targeted at any country and will not threaten any country” (Staff 2007). In the aftermath of the test, however, intent is not as important as effect, and the effect is grave. Physical as well as political and military fallout from the event are threatening space security. The international policy community must respond to prevent similar acts in the future.

Impact of test

Fallout from China’s ASAT test is threatening secure and sustainable access to space, and freedom from space-based threats. Undoubtedly, the Chinese ASAT test is the worst manmade debris-creating event in space. The test generated over 900 pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm, instantly boosting the amount of debris that can be tracked in one of the most popular orbits by 10 per cent (Morring 2007). Tens-of-thousands of smaller pieces between 1 and 10 cm, which cannot be tracked, were also created. Traveling at speeds of 7.5 km/second, a small piece of debris can lethally damage a satellite and a larger piece can shatter it into more pieces of deadly debris. The last US ‘hit-to-kill’ ASAT test in 1985 produced over 250 pieces of large debris, which remained in orbit for 20 years.

Some of the debris created by the Chinese ASAT test flew so high into orbit, however, that it will remain there for over 100 years. Space debris poses a serious threat to the satellites of all states and, hence, to cell phones, GPS signals, Internet connections, and all other commercial and civilian uses of space.

Politically, the Chinese test has hit a sensitive target that could trigger an overt arms race in space: US space policy. On the one hand, the US has refused to negotiate space security agreements, including international treaties to ban space weapons, rules of the road regulating behaviour in space, and even informal restraints with China and others on the use of ASATs. On the other hand, the US is the country most dependent on space for everything from national security to banking and HD TV. Satellites are the “soft underbelly” of US national security, and it is US policy to defend those assets in space. Consequently, there is a growing crescendo of voices calling for more offensive space capabilities to protect US satellites.

Articulating this shift, the Secretary of the Air Force has declared that “space is no longer a sanctuary” (Space and Missile Defense Report 2007). Senator Jon Kyl has asserted that “[i]f targeting an adversary’s satellites allows our military to achieve victory more quickly or at lower cost in blood, such attacks must be considered” (Bruno 2007a). Similarly, Congressman Hunter from the House Armed Services Committee insists that “China’s successful engagement of a satellite orbiting in space marks the commencement of a new era of military competition” (Bruno 2007b). He and Congressman Everett have sent a letter to President Bush calling for new offensive space weaponry programs (Bruno 2007b). This is a change of course for Everett, who supported a 2006 ban on the Pentagon’s using certain funds for the development of anti-satellite capabilities for fear that enemy assets could be targeted (Harrington 2006, p. 6).

Harmful political fallout has already included the suspension of an agreement reached in 2006 to initiate US-Chinese cooperation on civil space projects, which held potential for increased dialogue, transparency, and confidence building between the two countries (Gertz 2007, p. 1). A similar initiative for military confidence-building measures proposed by US Strategic Commander General Cartwright is also dead (Hitchens 2007).

Military tensions in space are also ratcheting up following the Chinese ASAT test. Although the US has no official space weapons programs, the FY 2008 budget request includes $10-million for a Space Test Bed. The test bed would determine the utility and technical needs of space-based ballistic missile interceptors, which “would be the first official [US] space weapons system” (Sampson 2007).

Moreover, the US has developed extensive laser and kinetic ASAT technologies, which are also being sought in China, Russia, the UK, and Europe. And there is a rampant proliferation of advanced missile technologies to countries such as North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and India.

As demonstrated by China, technologies can quickly develop offensive capabilities when directed by military will. In 2006 North Korea tested both a ballistic missile and a nuclear weapon, albeit with questionable success. Reports are now emerging that Iran has converted a ballistic missile into a space launch vehicle, suggesting that it is making inroads towards an ability to strike targets in space (Covault 2007). In India, the Air Force is preparing for a larger role in space via a new military Aerospace Command. While current plans resemble something along the lines of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), commentary following the Chinese ASAT test has called for India to develop similar offensive capabilities to deter attacks on its own satellites (Chellaney 2007). Similarly, Israeli Air and Space Command officials have asserted the need to prepare for future space warfare (Mizroch 2007).

The Chinese ASAT test and international law

The use of force in space is not illegal, but fallout from the Chinese ASAT test highlights a significant gap in international law. The Outer Space Treaty (OST) bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space and military installations on celestial bodies. Testing ASAT weapons, placing conventional weapons in space, and using force in space are not prohibited. While lawyers might argue that under the OST China should have consulted before the test—a potentially harmful activity—consultations would not have provided legal recourse to the test.

Similarly, under the Liability Convention most spacefaring states accept liability for damage caused by their outer space activities, but the prospects of compensation for an attack on a satellite are not promising and are hardly prohibiting. Yet the repercussions of these activities are extremely damaging to the secure use of space for peaceful purposes and to international security on Earth. The grave fallout from the Chinese ASAT test calls for a change of international policy. A treaty banning the testing, deployment, and use of weapons in space and weapons that target space assets would seem a prudent course of action.

Despite evidence of a growing arms race in space, and the insecurity that it is generating, an arms control treaty is stalled. In the current session of the Conference on Disarmament, mandated to negotiate the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), the US continues to maintain that there is no arms race in space. Similarly, China has insisted that it is not participating in a space arms race. But, while all other members of the international community support further international agreements to support PAROS, the US asserts that existing international agreements provide adequate protection. This stalemate must end to avoid further risks to space security. If a space weapons ban cannot be achieved soon, then interim efforts must be sought to reduce political and military tensions and prevent further debris-causing activities in space. A code of conduct outlining responsible behaviour in space offers such an interim solution.

Space code of conduct

An international space code of conduct is gaining support across space sectors and countries. Canada, which is chairing PAROS at the 2007 session of the CD, has stated that “transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities can contribute to reducing threat perceptions and increasing security among states” (Meyer 2007). Likewise, the European Union has called for confidence-building measures based on the principle of “non-interference with non-aggressive activities in space,” which might include avoiding satellite interference, ensuring minimum distances between satellites, avoiding dangerous manoeuvres, and debris mitigation efforts (Brasack 2007). After the Chinese ASAT test, Dave McGlade (2007, p. 27), CEO of space industry leader Intelsat, called for “international dialogue on ‘Rules of the Road’ for space,” and even senior military officials in the US have acknowledged the benefit of such rules to space security (InsideDefense.com 2007).

A similar approach is already being used to mitigate the production of space debris. The UN Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) approved Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines on 21 February 2007 that states are expected to adhere to via national legislation. Indeed, the threat of space debris has galvanized the international community and prompted calls to end the use of destructive ASATs. While an agreement on space debris mitigation efforts is a good start towards creating uniform, predictable, and responsible behaviour among spacefaring states, the dangers of an arms race in space remain. While space debris and the use of force in space are closely related issues, not all space debris is the result of force, and not all force results in space debris.

A more far-reaching “Code of Conduct for Responsible Space-Faring Nations” developed by the Henry L. Stimson Center might serve as a springboard for international negotiation of a set of general rules guiding activities in space. Particularly useful is the list of responsible and irresponsible actions—the latter including the use of lasers or hit-to-kill technologies against space objects. A code of conduct would not regulate the development of space-related technology, which has inherent dual applications for peaceful and more aggressive purposes. Rather, it would regulate how such technology is used: it would seek assurances that ploughshares are not used as swords or pruning hooks as spears. Moreover, it would not call for radically different behaviour by spacefaring states, but instead set out those behaviours that have come to be expected of states pursuing non-threatening, peaceful exploitation of space. In setting out these guidelines, a code of conduct would provide a basis by which the international community could adjudicate responsible behaviour, and collectively question and sanction those who fall short of it. The result would be to create confidence that threatening actions, such as those that create deadly space debris or raise political and military tensions, would be avoided.


The Chinese ASAT test has caused significant threats to space security. Because the international community of policymakers have thus far failed to heed previous warnings, space, the peaceful reserve of humankind, is threatened. But the time for warnings is past. The fallout from the Chinese ASAT test has already caused damage. The current situation necessitates action. In the impasse of an international treaty to ban the testing and use of space-based weapons and ASATs, the international community must negotiate broader rules of the road to prevent behaviours that threaten space security.



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———. 2007b. Missile, space programs could be balanced. AviationWeek.com.

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