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So what were the Chinese thinking when they created this disastrous ring of rubble around Earth? Here matters get sketchier. More than a week after the test, a Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman could only tell foreign reporters at a Chinese New Year reception in Beijing that the ministry “had not been informed” about any such military action. Only on January 25–two weeks later–did the ministry issue a formal statement that “there’s no need to feel threatened by this” and that “China has not participated, nor will it participate, in arms race of the outer space in any form.” And it’s true, on the one hand, that China has for the past five years called with persistent regularity for a new treaty to ban weapons in space. Most notably, a draft outline that China and Russia jointly presented to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in 2002 suggested elements of an international legal agreement to ban weapons in space and called specifically for the prohibition of either threats or the use of force against space objects–something that would definitely bar antisatellite weapons.

Nevertheless, on the other hand, Chinese possession of an ASAT capability is in line with the stated objectives of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Back in the 1970s, this topic was already being debated within China’s military circles. By 1994, in an article in Modern Defense Technology titled “Miniaturization and Intellectualization of Kinetic Kill Vehicle,” a number of Chinese military analysts were insisting that ASAT technology was critical to China’s national security. Then, as China’s defense establishment began adopting concepts like asymmetric war and the revolution in military affairs that have become fashionable in Western military circles, sentiments like those expressed by Wang Cheng, in a July 5, 2000, article from Liawang (Outlook) called “The US Military’s ‘Soft Ribs,’ A Strategic Weakness,” gained currency: “For countries that can never win a war with the U.S. by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking the U.S. space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice.” Most recently, in September 2006 the Pentagon revealed that China had repeatedly fired a powerful laser at an American surveillance satellite in tests aimed at blinding it.

Coming after the laser incidents, “space hawks” have seen in the ASAT test further evidence of hostile Chinese designs on space, to which the United States must respond by developing its own space military capabilities. Thus, for instance, last week, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. William Shelton, head of Space Command and the Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, told the defense industry newsletter Inside the Pentagon that technologies like the Chinese ASAT capability “aren’t dual-use, these are things directly threatening [our] space capability. If they’ve got the capability to do me harm, as a warfighter, that’s what I’ve got to respect–because intent can change overnight. As the capability evolves on the part of the people [who] would want to do us harm in space, you’ve got to stay ahead.” In the hawkish view of space affairs, the persistent Chinese talk of a space arms-control treaty should be considered merely an effort to hobble the United States while China either catches up technologically and economically or at least mitigates its strategic disadvantage by secretly developing the very weapons systems that would be prohibited by a treaty. Those pushing for a treaty, the hawks claim, want what amounts to an unenforceable and unverifiable ban on space weapons.

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Credit: Dr. Thomas Kelso at CSSI (Center for Space Standards and Innovation)

Tagged: Computing, NASA, China, military, satellite

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