Chinese ASAT Missile Test Looms

Researcher: China set to conduct anti-satellite test this month
Xi Jinping / AP

Xi Jinping / AP


China’s military is set to conduct a strategic anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test sometime this month, according to a report reaching the United States from China.

Gregory Kulacki, a researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, stated in a blog post Friday that “contacts in China” revealed that an announcement on the upcoming ASAT test recently circulated inside China’s government.

Kulacki said he confirmed that U.S. defense officials also are concerned the Chinese will conduct a potentially destabilizing ground-ascent missile test.

The ground-launch ASAT missile could be targeted against a satellite test target in space whose destruction would cause a second large debris field in earth’s orbit in one scenario, as occurred following China’s unannounced January 2007 ASAT test against a weather satellite.

Tens of thousands of debris pieces from the weather satellite remain in orbit and have threatened to damage both manned and unmanned satellites in collisions during the high speeds of orbit in space.

“Given these high-level administration concerns and past Chinese practice, there seems to be a strong possibility China will conduct an ASAT test within the next few weeks,” Kulacki stated, adding that the type of test and target are not known.

Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Catherine Wilkinson declined to comment on what she called “intelligence matters.”

“We carefully monitor China’s military developments and urge China to exhibit greater transparency regarding its capabilities and intentions,” she said in a statement.

The Free Beacon first reported in October that China’s military is preparing to conduct a test of a new and more capable high-earth orbit anti-satellite missile called the Dong Ning-2, or DN-2.

Defense officials told the Free Beacon that intelligence reports of the ASAT missile test indicated that the Chinese had delayed the test until after the Nov. 6 election to avoid upsetting President Barack Obama’s reelection bid.

The reports indicated the DN-2 missile test had been set for November.

The test will be the first of a new, high earth-orbit interceptor capable of destroying strategic navigation, communication, or intelligence satellites by ramming into them at high speeds if China conducts it.

The ASAT missile is one of several high-tech Chinese weapons systems under development that are designed to target U.S. military advantages. U.S. satellites are critical tools for commanding forces, guiding missiles, and gathering intelligence over long distances.

China could severely restrict the U.S. military’s ability to conduct long-range operations such as a defense of Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea with as few as two-dozen ASAT missiles.

The last Chinese test in 2007 knocked out a low-earth orbit satellite some 558 miles in space. The new missile would target satellites in space between 12,000 and 22,236 miles above earth.

China’s ASAT program is one of the most closely guarded secrets for the Chinese military, along with its cyber warfare programs.

A joint Pentagon-State Department report to Congress on export controls said last year that “in addition to the direct-ascent [missile] ASAT program, China is developing other technologies and concepts for kinetic and directed energy for ASAT missions,” including electronic jamming of satellite communications and lasers that disrupt satellites.

China’s second major test of an ASAT missile took place in January 2010 when a missile designated by the Pentagon as SC-19 was fired in what was assessed to be a dual ASAT and missile defense interceptor test.

Kulacki said in his post that the Obama administration should press China not to conduct the ASAT test.

“The Obama administration should try to dissuade China from conducting the test,” he said. “China may decide to test anyway but it might see value in canceling or postponing the test to discuss these issues with the U.S.”

Kulacki said if the test involves a high-earth orbit simulate attack, it could indicate “China wants to hold U.S. GPS navigational satellites at risk, much as the 2007 test was interpreted as a signal China intends to attack U.S. satellites in low earth orbit.”

“Significantly reducing the capability of the U.S. GPS system would take a large-scale and well-coordinated attack so much so that targeting these satellites may not be an effective strategy,” he said.

Kulacki, who has lived and worked in China for 25 years, said in an email that the information on the test was provided by “informed sources I have known for many years who have a solid track record.”

He said he had no details of a possible test.

“My impression is that the circulation of the test announcement was a routine matter and it may have been overlooked by the senior leadership during the transition in November,” Kulacki said in the email.

“With the transition over, it is possible that the new leadership has shelved or postponed the test. If not, my hope is that high-level Obama administration intervention could elevate the issue, forcing [Chinese President] Xi Jinping to make a decision on space security that, either way, will tell U.S. officials more about how the new Chinese leadership will approach space security issues than they know now.”