China’s anti-satellite-interceptor test Jan. 11 is part of a covert space-weapons program designed to cripple the U.S. military in a conflict, defense officials said yesterday as Beijing confirmed it had destroyed one of its weather satellites. China said it had not “weaponized” space.
The anti-satellite weapon was identified by U.S. government officials as a nonexplosive “kinetic kill vehicle,” which destroys its target simply by colliding with it. It was the first success in four attempts by China to destroy an orbiting object in space over the past two years.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in Beijing that the government briefed the Bush administration on the test and that international fears of Chinese space weapons were groundless.
“This test was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country,” Mr. Liu said. It was the first official confirmation of the test, which was kept secret in Beijing as well as Washington until the magazine Aviation Week reported it Friday.
“What needs to be stressed is that China has always advocated the peaceful use of space, opposes the weaponization of space and arms races in space,” Mr. Liu said at a press briefing.
The White House said China’s explanation was not sufficient. China’s public and private “assurances” on the test were welcome but “are incomplete and do not answer many of the questions raised by the international community,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Protests were raised by the governments of Japan, Australia, India, Canada and other states, which saw the test as part of increasing Chinese military power that contrast with Beijing’s public assurances of being engaged in a “peaceful rise.”
“We are concerned about China’s lack of transparency,” Mr. Johndroe said. “For example, China has not explained the intent of this weapons test, nor has it stated whether or not it plans future tests.”
Mr. Liu said he was not aware of plans for an additional test. Mr. Johndroe also said that China’s government failed to explain how the test “is compatible with its public stance against the weaponization of space,” noting the issue will be pursued further in diplomatic channels.
U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports said yesterday that three previous tests were unsuccessful. All four tests involved the launch of a commercial rocket booster carrying an anti-satellite (ASAT) warhead that would separate from the booster in space and seek to crash into the satellite about 530 miles above the earth.
Some U.S. policy and intelligence officials have tried in internal memorandums to play down the significance of the ASAT test, saying that the warhead hit a large, low-earth-orbit satellite and that it would be more difficult to hit higher-orbiting and smaller systems.
Other defense officials, however, said the test has raised alarm bells because it exposed a key strategic vulnerability. They also said that there are major gaps in U.S. intelligence about which other space weapons and capabilities China has or is developing that could cripple or disable U.S. satellites, which handle about 90 percent of all military communications, as well as intelligence and missile guidance.
The Jan. 11 test also alarmed military and defense officials because it undermined American intelligence estimates that China’s military trails the U.S. military in terms of weapons and war-fighting capabilities by 10 years.
“The ASAT test showed they are not following us [militarily] but trying to leap ahead,” one defense official said. U.S. intelligence agencies received some advance indications of the test, in which a commercial KT-1 rocket, a version of the medium-range DF-21 missile, was launched from the Xichang space center, in southwestern Sichuan province.
The ASAT weapon separated from the last stage in space and then destroyed the Feng Yun-1C weather satellite, launched in 1999 and orbiting over both poles, by ramming into it at high speed. U.S. officials said debris from the destroyed satellite continues to orbit and poses a risk to some of the 800 satellites now in space, 400 of which are American.
China also illuminated a U.S. satellite with a ground-based laser in another anti-satellite test, according to a report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The report, produced by defense analyst Michael Pillsbury, revealed that China has plans for secret space weapons that include ground-based lasers, air-to-space missile interceptors and an exotic plasma bomb that would destroy orbiting satellites by enveloping them in an electronic cloud.
The report also stated that three books written by Chinese colonels in 2001, 2002 and 2005 contain “proposals for covert deployment of antisatellite weapons directed at U.S. assets.” One author, Col. Jia Junming, stated in his 2002 book that Chinese space-weapons development should be covert and “intense internally but relaxed in external appearance to maintain our good international image and position.”
The 2005 book, “Joint Space War Campaigns,” by Col. Yuan Zelu, calls for deploying an orbiting network of strike weapons that “will be concealed and launched only in a crisis or emergency” to “bring the opponent to his knees.”