Sunday, April 28, 2019
China caused an international uproar in January when it destroyed one of its own satellites, an action that left hundreds of pieces of dangerous debris in space and led to alarm over the possibility of a space arms race. A month later, Beijing announced it plans no further similar tests, but the January 11 test had already established the growing prowess of China’s space program as well as its capability to protect itself from satellite surveillance in the event of war. Despite immediate global demands for an explanation for the test, China waited several days before releasing an official response, prompting questions about its goals and just how soft China’s “soft rise” policy may be.
What is an anti-satellite weapon? See below
An anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon destroys or interferes with satellites, impeding a nation’s ability to collect intelligence or direct attacks. Such a weapon can be air, land, or sea-based. Research into anti-satellite systems began after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957. By the 1980s, both the United States and the Soviet Union had performed anti-satellite missile tests—all of them arguably in technical violation of a 1967 UN treaty banning such activities. The United States conducted its last test in 1985, destroying a satellite at an elevation of roughly 350 miles. Washington ended testing, citing concerns that space debris could harm commercial and military satellites in orbit. In January 2007, China became the third country to conduct a successful test when it launched a ballistic missile to an altitude of more than 530 miles—roughly the altitude used for U.S. and Japanese imagery intelligence satellites—and destroyed an inactive weather satellite. The test followed three earlier failed attempts.
Why did China destroy one of its satellites?
China’s delay in responding to global critics after the test prompted suspicion of Beijing’s intent. Speculation arose over whether the timing of the test signaled miscommunication between the civilian government and leadership of China’s military. Given the three previous failed attempts, “they may not have expected it to work and that’s why they were caught unaware when it was successful,” says Victoria Samson, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information (CDI). China’s reasons for the test are likely military and diplomatic, say CFR Fellows Michael A. Levi and Adam Segal. By demonstrating its ASAT capability, “China fears a space-based U.S. missile defense system could neutralize its nuclear arsenal, and thus might seek a ban on space weapons,” they write.
What is the military purpose of the anti-satellite test?
By demonstrating the ability to use an ASAT weapon, China shows off its growing military might in space to its neighbors and the world. Most importantly, from the U.S. perspective, China’s capacity to destroy satellites means it can target an American military weakness: the reliance on satellites for intelligence gathering and the operations of high-precision weaponry. A nation with the capability to destroy satellites can also threaten to severely disturb essential daily functions—from financial transactions to telephone communication to power grids—controlled by timing signals sent by global positioning satellites (GPS). “We could be propelled back into the nineteenth century” by such a disruption, says William C. Martel, a professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a former member of the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board.
The latest development to suggest we’re heading towards a war in space comes in the form of a new Pentagon publication which was quietly released this week. The 46-page report is titled Challenges to Security in Space and was published by the Defense Intelligence Agency. According to the document, the Pentagon believes “some foreign governments are developing capabilities that threaten others’ ability to use space” and “developing jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based anti-satellite missiles that can achieve a range of reversible to non-reversible effects” on other satellites and spacecraft. Clearlyit’s only the other guys doing these things, too; the US wouldn’t be up to the same shenanigans, no way!
“Oh that X-37B? It’s merely a weather balloon.”
One of the threats the document cites is a new laser technology China is developing which it claims is intended to zap space debris. Orbital pollution is becoming a serious issue after all, one which threatens every nation’s ability to conduct safe operations in orbit around Earth. While China’s anti-debris lasers certainly seem like they could clean up space if they wanted to, the Pentagon notes (as I did last year when the technology was unveiled) that these seemingly peaceful technologies could easily also function as full-on space weapons:
These systems could include payloads such as kinetic kill vehicles, radio frequency jammers, lasers, chemical sprayers, high-power microwaves, and robotic mechanisms. Some of these systems, such as robotic technology for satellite servicing and repair and debris removal, have peaceful uses but can also be used for military purposes.
The document outlines several technologies the People’s Liberation Army is known to be testing which could pose a threat to other nations’ space-based defense and surveillance capabilities. It makes you wonder what type of reports the Chinese and Russians are publishing concerning the same types of technologies being developed here in the West.
It sure is looking more and more like the next major conflict between superpowers will look like something straight out of the science fiction of the mid-20th century. Space lasers, space-to-surface missile strike capabilities, cyberwarfare conducted by artificial intelligence constructs – nothing is off the table for the oncoming struggle over Earth’s dwindling natural resources. Who will come out on top?
Other than the irradiated super-cockroaches, that is.
Posted by ASC at 9:21 AM