WASHINGTON - January 22 - At 5:28 p.m. EST on Jan. 11, 2007, China launched a medium-range ballistic missile at an old weather satellite in-orbit. The test destroyed the satellite and allowed China to pick up the reins of a space arms race that the United States officially dropped 20 years ago. This move is even more portentous now, as the United States is entirely dependent upon its space assets and has much to lose if it allows space to be weaponized.
China’s FY-1C weather satellite, in a polar orbit, was launched in 1999 and approaching the end of its lifespan, but it still worked electronically. This capability allowed it to be tracked by Chinese radar and its path adjusted so that its orbit would be conducive to an intercept. However, to directly intercept an object moving roughly 15,000 mph takes a tremendous amount of accuracy.
The FY-1C was spotted by various space surveillance networks on Jan. 11. It disappeared from view and then reappeared on Jan. 12 in a cloud of debris. Hundreds of thousands of debris fragments could eventually destroy one of the nearly 125 other satellites operating in the section of space where the FY-1C was hit.
China’s action was irresponsible, and should be roundly condemned. The deliberate creation of persistent space debris in a highly used orbit is simply unacceptable behavior in space.
It is unclear what Beijing hoped to accomplish with this provocative test. China has been one of the major players pushing for a treaty that would prevent the weaponization of space. Due to the recent test, China now has lost much of its credibility in the international arena. Some observers have suggested that the ASAT test could have been a strategic move by the Chinese to bully the United States into actually discussing such a treaty. After all, the U.S. argument against such discussions has been that since there are no official space weapons programs, there is no space arms race -- and thus no need for a treaty against weaponizing space. This head-in-the-sand position has certainly backfired on Washington.
There is another possibility: that China wanted an ASAT weapon to hold the United States at bay and that Beijing’s diplomatic stance is simply a cover for its real goal of challenging the United States in space. There certainly are many in U.S. policy and military circles who believe that China is the new threat, and that the United States must ready itself for an eventual military conflict in the Pacific.
Official U.S. reaction has been careful, but pointed. According to Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council’s chief spokesman, “The United States 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…We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese.”
This is somewhat ironic, however, considering the aggressively unilateral path in space being trod by the administration of George W. Bush. The latest National Space Policy (NSP) staunchly defends “unhindered” access to space for the United States, while the previous policy pushed for access to space for all countries. The new NSP also reveals a deep distrust of international institutions that does not bode well for international cooperation on space-related matters.
Also, China has been striving to become accepted by the United States as a peer space-faring power. It has attempted, to little avail, to become part of the consortium behind the International Space Station and has hosted the head of NASA in an effort to get some sort of bilateral relationship started. While China’s efforts to become a peer competitor of the United States in space could have positive implications – cooperation on civil space programs and so forth – they could also have negative ones if Beijing and Washington are intent on military competition.
The United States has a rapidly-disappearing window where it can construct a cooperative atmosphere for space-faring powers. China’s move should be roundly criticized for taking such a dangerous step toward the abyss of weaponizing space, but Beijing should not be shunned. The failure of the Bush administration’s policy of refusing to engage with North Korea shows the dangers of ignoring potential adversaries. Instead, the United States and the international community need to take the time to finally have the difficult discussion about what actions are acceptable in space and, more importantly, which ones are absolutely unacceptable. Otherwise, space will become the new Wild West, a situation that is guaranteed to put everyone’s space assets even more at risk.
Center for Defense Information analysts are available for further comments and interviews by interested members of the press. Please contact the CDI press office at 202-797-5287 (Whitney Parker)