The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

FY-1C illustration
The AST test that destroyed a Chinese weather satellite is considered an “enigma” by some, but open source lierature offers a glimpse into Chinese military space planning. (credit: CNSA)

Chinese intentions and American preparedness

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack , we must seem unable: when using our forces, we must seem inactive: when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Holdout baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him.”
– Sun Tzu

On January 11, 2007 the Chinese launched a missile from a mobile transporter-erector launcher (TEL) armed with a kinetic kill vehicle and destroyed the Fengyun-1C weather satellite. This satellite was orbiting the earth in a low, polar orbit. This missile was launched with no advanced warning from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and they didn’t respond to the test until much later. According to Air Force Space Command, 700 spacecraft in low Earth orbit are now at risk due to the debris cloud created. I would say in addition to the debris cloud, all of our satellites and manned spacecraft, within range of these weapons, are endangered and the Chinese ASAT interceptor program should be taken seriously.

While some people find the intentions of the Chinese ASAT test an “enigma”, I find it hard to understand what is so difficult for them to understand. Finding these answers are easier than some think. Any person who takes the time to read the open source materials alone can get a firm grasp of what Chinese military leaders and government officials are advocating through their ASAT and space weapons programs.

Concerns about this ASAT program are not new. The Department of Defense has been publicly stating since 1998 that the Chinese were developing this capability. These assertions were unfortunately doubted by many, as is historically the case regarding threats to the security of the United States. These weapons endanger not only intelligence and military satellites that are critical to providing tracking and targeting for rapid reaction of our armed forces during a conflict, but civilian networks as well. This, as we will see later, is precisely the reason they have been developing and testing these weapons, to counter the United States military and as Chinese Colonel Yuan Zelu stated, “bring the opponent to its knees.”

Any person who takes the time to read the open source materials alone can get a firm grasp of what Chinese military leaders and government officials are advocating through their ASAT and space weapons programs.

According to some, the intentions and reasons for conducting this test are elusive. These “experts” are in a state of denial. If anyone wanted to know what the Japanese were planning to do in the 1930s, all they had to do was read their plans and training documents. These plans were then being executed across the Asia-Pacific region. Many in America viewed claims about the increasing threat of the Japanese military as preposterous because they were committed to a peaceful rise. The Chinese are claiming a peaceful rise as well, coupled with a large increase in their armed forces and weapons. All that is needed now, as then, is to take a hard look at the policy and doctrine of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) with respect to our nation’s space capabilities and armed forces and what they plan to do, which is counter our space superiority. Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of US Pacific Command has stated, “An anti-satellite weapon is not necessarily a clear indication of a desire for peaceful utilization of space… it’s a confusing signal shall we say for a country who desires, in China’s words, a peaceful rise.”

In a recently published paper from SAIC’s Strategic Assessment Center, Chinese military documents advocate the covert deployment and use of ground- and space-based ASAT weaponry. The Chinese state that they view our space systems as the “lynchpin” of American power with respect to C4ISR (Command and Control, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) and, to address it one step further, key to the precision targeting of our weapons. Chris Lay, one of the paper’s authors, stated, “The capability to negate US space based C4ISR is very important to China if they are to deter, dissuade and /or defeat US power projection into their region. The ASAT capability probably fits with their concept of ‘assassin’s mace’. My view is that they will deploy.”

The “Assassin’s Mace” concept is a form of space warfare devised by Colonel Jia Junming in his book Integrated Space Campaigns and is studied at the various Chinese war colleges. It is a term used for a two-phased approach where space combat support in space is first, followed by the covert deployment of space weapons and a “limited space deterrence”. Some examples of the goals of the Chinese in this approach, with respect to the American space systems, can be best summed up by Colonel Li Daguang’s book Space Warfare: “Destroy or temporarily incapacitate all enemy satellites above our territory, [deploy] land based and space based ASAT weapons, counter US missile defense systems, maintain our good international image [by covert deployment], space strike weapons concealed and launched only in time of crisis.” Colonel Daguang’s position in his book is “one of space control using space weaponry, equipment and systems to achieve this control, and use space based assets to coordinate all other subsequent military operations.”

Many of these recommendations and plans have been predicted by space officers and analysts for many years, yet have been dismissed by groups who are opposed to space-based weapons or defenses. I can agree with them that in an ideal world, space should be a sanctuary from war, however it just isn’t the reality of the situation. Throughout history, all areas that have been explored or utilized by mankind (land, sea, air) have eventually seen conflict. Due to the dependency of the Western world—especially the United States—on space-based assets, an enemy can “crush” us by taking out our space-based networks.

There are many questions that people are asking with regards to the reason the Chinese tested this ASAT and what to do in response. First, do we need more military-to-military dialogue with the Chinese? While this is a good thing, note that Chinese ASAT and some other space weapons experts of the PLA are off-limits to the United States with our current military exchange program. They have never been a part of the program and due to the sensitive nature of the Chinese space program militarily, I cannot see why they would allow those experts to be added if requested. Would you want to tell your enemy what your intentions were with respect to achieving victory over them in a future conflict? I think not. That would give the enemy a chance to build countermeasures and negate the military advantage gained by such a program.

Second, was the Chinese responding to the Bush Administration’s new National Space Policy? No. According to a recent article in Defense News, the Chinese had conducted two or more tests of this weapon prior to the issuance of the new policy. Our policy is aimed at defense and exploration, not conquest.

The fact that this kind of technology can be produced by the Chinese and exported to nations such as North Korea, Iran, or even well-funded global terrorist groups, makes it clear that this is a threat that cannot be wished away by hopes alone.

Third, should we take this as a hint to kowtow to the Chinese ability to threaten our space capabilities? No. President Bush is correct: capitulating to such arms agreements, such as Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) or a space code of conduct, in a position of weakness, wouldn’t change the situation. After all, the weapon test launched by the Chinese was ground-based, not space-based, and would get around current and many proposed space treaties. Furthermore, Chinese plans indicate a push to eventually deploy weapons in space. As Chris Lay stated, “I suspect that they have plans (including development and test plans) for more sophisticated and advanced ASAT capability that could include high-orbit and/or GEO capable systems.”

Even though space warfare hasn’t truly happened yet, is it really wise to dismiss the open source documents from the Chinese military colleges and doctrine centers just because we haven’t seen mass attacks on our GPS constellations or other spacecraft? The experts who have put together sound analysis of the situation don’t think so and neither does this author. The advocates of engaging in arms control agreements due to the test are pursuing a course of appeasement that, in the age of light-speed information and short-notice weapons, is unwise. Many people who have commented on the test consider the weapons to be a “primitive system”. However, as Desmond Ball from the Australian National University stated, “it is the sort of capability available to any country with a store of MRBM/IRBM (Medium Range Ballistic Missiles/Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles) or satellite launch vehicles, and a long range radar system, such as Japan, India, Pakistan, Iran and even North Korea. American satellites are lucrative targets in the Chinese strategy of asymmetric warfare.”

Regardless of the primitive nature of the technology used, the fact that this kind of technology can be produced by the Chinese and exported to nations such as North Korea, Iran, or even well-funded global terrorist groups, makes it clear that this is a threat that cannot be wished away by hopes alone. I feel that we must prepare at least a sound counterspace system, ground based at first, then space based to counter this threat. The system could become layered as the missile defense program will become. There are many ideas out there—political, diplomatic, and military—to address this situation. However, one thing is certain: the era of just writing about counterspace and space control doctrine is over. The time to act is now, before we lose crucial space situational awareness and the functionality of our space system, military or civilian, in a surprise attack by a future space aggressor.