A new report suggests that China secretly conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test in May 2013.
On May 13, 2013, China launched a rocket into space from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China. According to state-run media reports at the time, “The experiment was designed to investigate energetic particles and magnetic fields in the ionized stratum and near-Earth space. According to a preliminary analysis by the NSSC [National Space Science Center], the experiment has reached expected objectives by allowing scientists to obtain first-hand data regarding the space environment at different altitudes.”
Nearly immediately, U.S. officials speaking off the record began raising doubts about the supposed purpose of the test. Specifically, a U.S. defense official familiar with the intelligence told the Washington Free Beacon that China had actually tested its new ASAT missile, the Dong Ning-2. The official described the DN-2 as a ground-based, high earth-orbit attack missile. The Pentagon refused to officially voice these concerns, however.
A report published Monday seems to validate the off-the-record suspicions. The report, which is based on an analysis of open sources, concludes that the available evidence “strongly suggests” China conducted an ASAT missile test in May 2013.
“While there is no conclusive proof, the available evidence strongly suggests that China’s May 2013 launch was the test of the rocket component of a new direct ascent ASAT weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile. The system appears to be designed to place a kinetic kill vehicle on a trajectory to deep space that could reach medium earth orbit (MEO), highly elliptical orbit (HEO), and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO). If true, this would represent a significant development in China’s ASAT capabilities.”
The report was published by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and written by Brian Weeden, a technical adviser at the SWF. According to his bio in the report, Mr. Weeden previously served nine years as an officer in the United States Air Force working in space and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) operations. During this time, he worked in the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), where he directed the “orbital analyst training program and developed tactics, techniques and procedures for improving space situational awareness.” Thus, he seems entirely qualified to make an assessment of the May 2013 launch.
Moreover, China has a long history of conducting ASAT missile tests. Most notably, Beijing announced it had conducted a test of its SC-19 missile in January 2007. The test hit an aging Chinese weather satellite, resulting in nearly 3,000 pieces of space debris being thrown into orbit. According to SWF, however, China had previously tested the SC-19 in 2005 and 2006 without hitting a specific target.
After the 2007 test, China faced strong international condemnation. It has since been more secretive about its ASAT program. For example, in 2010 China announced that it had conducted a “test on ground based midcourse missile interception technology” against a ground-based ballistic missile. State-run media reports clarified that “The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country.” U.S. public and classified (released by Wikileaks) assessments said that the test was really of China’s SC-19 ASAT missile. China conducted a similar test in January 2013.
The military applications of ASAT missiles appear fairly obvious. China would seek to use the ASAT missiles to knock out U.S. satellites in order to degrade its C5ISR capabilities, rendering distributed U.S. military and allied assets unable to communicate or share information. The U.S. is seeking to counter China’s growing capabilities in this area in a number of ways, including through creating greater redundancy in its own systems.
According to Weeden, U.S. satellites in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) like the Global Positioning System (GPS) are not very vulnerable to China’s ASAT missiles. “The more than 30 GPS satellites currently in orbit [in the GPS system] are distributed across multiple orbital planes and widely spaced apart within each plane. A position fix requires receiving a signal from at least four satellites at once, and the constellation is designed so that many more than that are overhead most of the time. Thus, using a hit-to-kill direct ascent system to attack GPS would require many separate launches and successful intercepts over many hours to degrade GPS in any meaningful fashion.”
Still, the ASAT missiles are just one of a number of counterspace capabilities that China is currently developing. Indeed, as a 2012 Project 2049 report underscored, for China, “non-destructive means of denying an enemy use of satellites and mitigating threats from space debris may be a more urgent priority than fielding kinetic kill vehicles.”
At the same time, the U.S. military does not envision being wholly reliant on its space-based assets for C5ISR capabilities. Besides having more satellites in orbit, certain non-space assets such as the F-35 joint strike fighter also create more redundancy in America’s C5ISR capabilities. As Robbin Laird, Edward Timperlake and Richard Weitz explain in a recent book, the F-35 “is a flying combat system that has C5ISR built into the cockpit. As a fleet, the F-35s provide a critical layer in shaping a robust and redundant ISR system that is both synergistic with space systems and complementary to those systems.”