A New Way to Censor CNN?

China may (or may not) have developed a satellite killer missile, according to Aviation Week:

U. S. intelligence agencies believe China performed a successful anti-satellite (asat) weapons test at more than 500 mi. altitude Jan. 11 destroying an aging Chinese weather satellite target with a kinetic kill vehicle launched on board a ballistic missile…

Although more of a “policy weapon” at this time, the test shows that the Chinese military can threaten the imaging reconnaissance satellites operated by the U. S., Japan, Russia, Israel and Europe.

The article ends with this suggestion as to its possible uses:

The Republic of China also operates a small imaging spacecraft that can photograph objects as small as about 10 ft. in size, a capability good enough to count cruise missiles pointed at Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. The Taiwanese in the past have also leased capability on an Israeli reconnaissance satellite.

In a flash of cuteness, China Daily republished the article without contributing anything new.

China Matters picks up this idea, pointing out that besides Japan and India missile defense plans, the leading missile defense proponents, the United States, could theoretically use missile defense in a Taiwan conflict:

Probably, the whole Missile Defense thing is an effort to knock down the (relatively) strongest leg of the shaky Chinese nuclear deterrent triad, its ICBMs.

And that means China is left without a credible riposte to U.S. use of tactical nuclear weapons to forestall an invasion of Taiwan.

The argument being that taking out recon satellites would leave any missile defense system useless, since they need satellites for targeting and JIT delivery. Personally, I think this takes it all two steps farther than it should. Such a capability would be useful since it could cripple the information gathering power of satellites, whether that data is applied to missile defense, cruise missiles, smart bombs or simply monitoring troop deployments. Going the extra mile of applying it to a Taiwan scenario or, even more of a reach, the use of tactical nukes seems unnecessary and alarmist.

Defense Tech points out

“if this anti-sat weapon was really “kinetic” — i.e., hit-to-kill, non-explosive — instead of a plain ol’ exploding weapon, that’s extremely bad news. That means the booster rocket has to be very accurate “in order to deliver the kill vehicle to the desired initial trajectory…. Then the kill vehicle needs to tweak its trajectory into a precise collision course using on-board propulsion and either on-board target tracking or… command guidance from the ground.” That’s no mean task.”

In other words, it’d be a hell of a technical coup for China. One commenter at Defense Tech, Satellite Pete, has a nice comment pointing out:

Sinosat-2, the first of a new series of jamming-resistant satellites which emerged in 2002 after the Falun Gong jamming episodes, reminds us that China probably must be quite fearful that through some creative plotting, a significant disruption of Olympics coverage might occur, involving satellite feeds and sliced fiber optic cables or both.

The US and its allies have issued a statement of concern, but its not clear what exactly has happened. I’m going to keep my eye on ArmsControlWonk Jeffrey Lewis – he’s watching the satellite data and will most likely be blogging about any debris clouds. If it is a kill rocket, though, I’m with Satellite Pete: why would China cause a ruckus with a test like this now?

UPDATE: ArmsControlWonk weighs in, noting that the debris cloud is “a god awful mess” and that US ASAT (anti-satellite) programs were scrapped exactly because of this debris, which could damage other satellites (US ones). Defense Tech also has numerous details, including John Pike of Globalsecurity.org expecting more tests as China perfects the technology. Won’t creating more space garbage be a hazard to China’s future satellites? If it really is a hazard to other space vehicles, isn’t China just increasing the chance that their moon shot is scrambled by one of 2 million mm thick fragments? I’m with Jeffrey on this one: the whole thing seems stupid and pointless.


ArmsControlWonk points out Japan and Australia are demanding explanations from the Chinese government. They seem more worked up, and I wonder if this is because, as Defense Tech points out, “this test demonstrates the capability to achieve a velocity error on the order of 3 meters / ~1000 seconds, i.e., way less than 1 cm per second. This has obvious implications for their CEPs [Circular Error Probables, the accuracy] of Chinese ballistic missiles.” So this means China’s ballistic missiles are more accurate than perhaps previously believed, whether shooting at satellites (this one had a course correction, so they cheated a little) or at ground targets. James Oberg, a 22 year Mission Control veteran, writes at MSNBC about the technical and the political. The US has avoided a space weapon ban treaty and China is probably using this to demand one. Unfortunately, since “outer space” is tough to define and there can be dual-purpose satellites (GPS, for one), its hard to imagine how a treaty could be written and work. A common theme these articles share I’ll repeat is that there’s no arms race here, though that framing will likely persist. Countermeasures are extraordinarily difficult to make effective, and shooting down Chinese satellites just won’t be eye for an eye. More like toenail for a leg, since China has an asymmetric advantage here. The US could flood the sky with auxillary and decoy satellites, but when you’re talking about something like GPS I don’t see how you could make the signal identifiable to one side and not the other. Even if the US floods the skies with space weapons, it’s hard to imagine China matching the US tit-for-tat like a true arms race. It isn’t hard to see them developing asymmetric ways to disable US space weapons like this one, but that would be purely defensive, as opposed to Chinese weapons orbiting US territory.

On the other side of the Pacific, the US Navy now has a friggin’ real-life rail gun. Like “hitting a target with a Ford Taurus at 380 mph”. The Chinese rail-gun is expected to hit a target like a Chery at 100 kph.

Sorry, Dave, but please don’t open new entries so soon after the first. Raj

The Discussion: 34 Comments

Clearly this is George W. Bush/Halliburon/Neocon Jews’ fault.

January 19, 2007 @ 5:18 am | Comment

The Republic of China? In the China Daily?

January 19, 2007 @ 7:46 am | Comment

Sounds like the usual Red China scare. This article is full of ‘allegedly’ and other qualifications – and the complete lack of substance is acknowledged by the concession that this is a ‘policy weapon’ – ie a stunt.
While not ruling it out, taking down a satellite would be no easy task even for the highly developed capabilities of the US.

January 19, 2007 @ 9:55 am | Comment

“I’m with Jeffrey on this one: the whole thing seems stupid and pointless.”

On the contrary, this is a very smart move. The best approach to prevent a war is to let your enemy your capability.

Recommended reading by Thomas Barnett
“Infantile US Strategy on China”


US need to reach a compromise with China on Taiwan. Somehow some people are just stupid enough to not get it.

January 19, 2007 @ 11:35 am | Comment

@Johnny K: is that sarcasm, or actual anti-semitism? Cuz the lack of clarity has you this close to being wiped off this blog?

@John: yup, they reprinted the words “Republic of China” too. I thought it was weird, but then I remembered they often just slap these things up without reading them (The Onion comes to mind).

@Michael: the National Security Council confirms the test and the debris is there in space. This really happened. I don’t think you can reconcile that its merely a “stunt” with it requiring high technical skill. There are certainly Red China Scaremongers out there, and they’ll jump all over this. I’d rather figure out the Chinese position: why show this capability now? Why this and not some other tech?

@Steve: I’m not against revealing capability. I’ve even argued that was the Chinese posture for the sub that surfaced near US exercises recently, and I think it creates a stable relationship. But I don’t see why the Chinese chose to develop this particular capability, partly because I have no clear info on what they could accomplish with this. There’s no clear evidence it could knock out satellites crucial to a Taiwan conflict or that it has anything to do with Taiwan in the first place.

January 19, 2007 @ 12:22 pm | Comment

this is pointless – they are always banging on about developing peacefully. don’t they have better things to spend their money on? (education, pollution reduction….)

January 19, 2007 @ 3:51 pm | Comment

Yeah, you’re right Dave, this really happened. We tangled before over the sub incident, and I thought it was a bigger deal than you did. I don’t really consider myself a “red china scaremonger” but I do think we have to take this stuff seriously. Who knows why they chose this point in time, the point is they now have this ability. The whole myth of China’s “peaceful rise” is absolutely rubbish to me. It’s just another meaningless throwaway phrase like “social harmony” or “cut and run”. There is a measurable rapid rise in China’s military capability and this is just another piece of evidence.

January 19, 2007 @ 4:16 pm | Comment

Just wanted to say that the Chinese will not care about the possible negative effects of creating more space junk into any calculation if a conflict is actually occuring. Its a ‘tragedy of the commons’ decision.

January 19, 2007 @ 4:39 pm | Comment

Has it not occurred to anyone here that the U.S. not only leads in antisatellite weaponry, it has refused repeated Chinese requests to negotiate a ban on space weaponry?

Why would the Chinese do this?

So far the Bush administration has claimed there is no need for a treaty because there is no space arms race. Up until now, I’m sure plenty of neocons assumed there was no way for China to take out a U.S. military satellite. Apparently the neocon thinking is — why limit themselves with a treaty when they are so far ahead?

Well, this is probably meant to be their wake-up call — China won’t sit by and let the U.S. be the only ones with antisatellite capabilities, especially since they would be crucial in any defense of Taiwan.

And yes, I think this is about Taiwan — it’s the only realistic scenario in my opinion in which the U.S. and China could get into a hot war in the foreseeable future. And you can read the Washington Post article — the capabilities demonstrated by this launch show that many military satellites would be vulnerable.

If Bush had any sense, he’ll realize he’ll eventually either have to make a deal, or spend even more money that they can’t afford right now on satellite defense. (I can’t be the only one who sees some irony in the U.S. borrowing hundreds of billions from the Chinese to finance weapons to be used against them…)

And just as with ABM defense, this is an assymmetric situation — it should be far easier and cheaper to shoot satellites down than to defend them.

January 19, 2007 @ 4:57 pm | Comment

I should correct myself — the Russians also demonstrated a capability decades ago, but this Chinese weapon is obviously intended to be used if necessary against the U.S. (I don’t the Russian equivalent of GPS — Glonass? — is even up and running yet, someone correct me if wrong.)

As for the cloud of junk — yeah, that is a problem, one that the U.S. also created twice while blowing up its own weapons during the 80’s. China obviously thinks the situation is serious enough to risk the condemnation, just as they did when doing their last underground tests on their new nuclear warheads a few years ago.

Once they are confident they have enough data, I assume they’ll stop. Just as China signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty after it felt enough data had been gathered in its own tests, I’m hoping China similarly stops these antisatellite tests. Or better yet, a space weaponry treaty gets signed…

January 19, 2007 @ 5:12 pm | Comment

Danfried, I doubt the Chinese are even near having a weapon they can use all the time. For one thing, the US is going to launch a new generation of more numerous, smaller satellites in the coming years – there’s no guarantee China could take them out with this sort of weapon.

China will almost certainly continue testing for years to come. If it stops anytime soon it will be because they’re having second thoughts.

Overall a very daft move in my opinion. Now the Americans and Russians will restart work on their projects with a lot more urgency – they won’t sign up to a treaty as soon as China has all the data it needs to finalise its project, they’ll want their own ones too.

January 19, 2007 @ 7:07 pm | Comment

I agree with Raj – I fail to see how China getting into an arms race with the US is going to help them. Bloody stupid.

January 19, 2007 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

sorry for the double post – but echoing raj again it says here


that it took the chinese 4 attempts – not a reliable technology it seems

January 19, 2007 @ 8:40 pm | Comment

There are some incorrect assumptions being made here.

First, you guys are assuming the U.S. hasn’t been doing anything about weaponizing space since the 80’s. Just going on the Washington Post article,

“The United States retains the ability to destroy low-orbit satellites and has been conducting research on more advanced systems for years.”


You’re also all assuming that it would be relatively easy or inexpensive to make satellites defensible, but if you look at Dave’s link to Defense Tech above, the opposite is true — in the near term it would be technically unfeasible if not impossible (“China Space Attack: Unstoppable” is the headline!).

Some satellites, in particular the vital GPS satellites that the U.S. JDAM weapons depend upon for guidance — need to follow predictable, exactly timed orbits — not exactly stealth devices.

Five years ago, I imagine this incident would have sent Bush into an apoplectic rage, and he would have authorized some colossal expenditure. But I’ve got news for everybody — Iraq has broken the bank.

The U.S. is now running the biggest deficits in its history, and has been cutting back on military programs left and right, including the jewels that were intended for use against China like the F-22 (the number ordered I think has been cut from around a thousand to less than 200). New destroyers like the DDX, advanced submarines, the Future Combat System for the Army — they’re all either getting cancelled or trimmed as much as pork-barrel politics will allow. The only reason the U.S. government isn’t collapsing is because China is lending it hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

On the other hand, the Chinese just used one of their existing medium range ballistic missiles to do this, and they’ve got plenty more where that one came from. And the 500 mile altitude, at least according to the NY Times and Washington Post articles, shows that plenty of U.S. satellites would be vulnerable.

I’m hoping one of the experts in the Defense Tech article is wrong, though — I really hope these tests do not go on for years…

January 19, 2007 @ 9:29 pm | Comment

@Xueleifun: Nothing bothers me more than someone posting a link in comments that I refer to in the post, except perhaps someone who does so without saying anything about why they put it there.

@Si: That’s the old Economist cover, isn’t it? Shot of a rocket with the headline “So, no more international aid, right?”

@Pha: “Who knows why they chose this point in time, the point is they now have this ability.” Well, I believe the Chinese government would know why, and I imagine others abroad might have a shrewd guess. As for ability, precisely what can they accomplish?

@Michael: I thought of the tragedy of the commons explanation too. This somehow reminded me of my neighbors who throw their trash from the 6th floor into alley.

@Raj: Danfried is right. There is no arms race here. It’s asymmetrical and low altitude to boot, so you’re not going to Patriot that mother. Laser satellite defense isn’t exactly deployable tomorrow, and what, we’re going to deploy a laser sentry with each critical satellite? Or a geostationary one hovering over China, that ought to be a fetching target. Developing equivalent capability is pointless as well, unless you consider eliminating CCTV-9 from Time Warner cable a victory for our side, and remember you’d be destroying a private US satellite in doing it.

@Danfried: thank you for suggesting a precise use (targeting GPS to cripple JDAM). Another suggestion I’d have is that this was to demonstrate higher accuracy in their ballistic missiles in general, which according to the latest Defense Tech article, is a bit of a surprise. Then again, they also lined up the satellite for the hit, so they cheated a little. Still, China’s missile tech is growing up, ain’t it?

January 19, 2007 @ 11:41 pm | Comment

dave, what are you going on about? I never said there WAS an arms race, I said that China was PROVOKING an arms race, because the US will just respond in kind by fast-forwarding its own programmes.

January 20, 2007 @ 12:28 am | Comment

By the way, you may be interested to know that Chinadaily has killed the linked article on this – in fact I can’t find any article relating to it on the website.

Guess there’s a bit of panic amongst the propaganda officials over how this is going down in the rest of the world!

January 20, 2007 @ 12:46 am | Comment

Raj, it was the Bush administration that refused a treaty because it said there was no arms race.

If you read some of the linked articles, what some suspect is that by this intercept China is threatening that there WILL be an arms race unless the U.S. agrees to negotiate.

And the whole point of the assymmetry is that China only needs to spend a pittance in relation to the U.S. to maintain this threat. In other words, it would be a race that the U.S. could not afford but the Chinese can. That’s not just my conclusion — read some of the linked articles.

Dave’s MSNBC article is interesting. Did anyone notice that, if you follow the part about the debris clouds, that there may in fact be no problem from them? If the Chinese placed the satellite into a suborbital position before the impact, the debris cloud from the satellite will end up burning up on re-entry, while the cloud from the weapon would continue on upwards into space.

But if NORAAD — which would be tracking these small bits — knows about this, they don’t seem to have leaked that info yet.

After reading that article, it seems there is still much to be revealed.

January 20, 2007 @ 12:49 am | Comment

Danfried, and what if China decides it wants to push forward because it thinks it has more to gain? What then?

This is a ridiculous way to try to bring someone to the negotiating table, given that the US may decide it won’t give in to threats. Can you imagine China backing down as the result of the US testing a new weapon? I doubt it.

Washington may also decide that China has got too far with its own technology, so entering into a treaty would give them an unacceptable advantage. Then a treaty would be impossible.

January 20, 2007 @ 1:09 am | Comment

@Raj: saying China is provoking the US seems like closing the barn door after the horse left. So you don’t think it wasn’t provoking at all for the US to have an immense satellite advantage coupled with ballistic submarines in Singapore and Japan? Who had a spy plane off whose coast? And what is the Pacific Fleet doing with a rail gun? What’s that for, pirates in the South China Seas? The US has continued to fund military projects whose only reasonable target is China, and Chinese nationalists take their turn claiming they can’t “stand aside” while the US “contains” them.

That aside, I still don’t think it provokes an arms race by the US. What can the US do? What program will they fast forward for this? As Danfried points out, the US would be spending a fortune on decoys, space lasers, satellites that can play dodgeball, and what does China have to do? Build a better rock to throw at them.

“This is a ridiculous way to try to bring someone to the negotiating table”

Well, gosh, that was only the entire Reagan administration policy, not to mention half the history of the Cold War. Build up a military, challenge the other guy to match you, then talk treaties.

“Can you imagine China backing down as the result of the US testing a new weapon?”

Backing down? How is facing the fact that China has an asymmetrical advantage that spending a gazillion dollars on possibly failed technology may not fix to be considered “backing down”? Sounds more like sensible policy to me. No one is saying “don’t defend Taiwan” because of this. Mind you, I can think of other reasons to not bother defending Taiwan, but this isn’t one of them.

January 20, 2007 @ 1:40 am | Comment

“So you don’t think it wasn’t provoking at all for the US to have an immense satellite advantage coupled with ballistic submarines in Singapore and Japan?”

No, I don’t. Countries are free to make defence agreements with others. And to blame the US for having more satellites than China is ridiculous. For one thing it has a global view, so wants eyes & ears in lots of places. Second it’s not its fault it got there first in terms of developing them.

“And what is the Pacific Fleet doing with a rail gun?”

I don’t know – maybe trying to TEST it? Because you DO realise it isn’t operational yet.

“As Danfried points out, the US would be spending a fortune on decoys, space lasers, satellites that can play dodgeball, and what does China have to do? Build a better rock to throw at them.”

DUH, maybe they will build weapons to blow up Chinese satellites. Does China want to be in a position where it can’t rely upon them either?

“How is facing the fact that China has an asymmetrical advantage that spending a gazillion dollars on possibly failed technology may not fix to be considered “backing down”?”

Read the above statement. The US would just counter by making similar weapons to destroy Chinese ones. After all China wasn’t planning to always have such a massive disadvantage in satellites.

January 20, 2007 @ 2:26 am | Comment

“The U.S. is now running the biggest deficits in its history”

In dollar terms, yes. As a percent of GDP, the deficits are pretty much average, in historical terms, and well below past peaks.

“Well, gosh, that was only the entire Reagan administration policy, not to mention half the history of the Cold War. Build up a military, challenge the other guy to match you, then talk treaties.”

Was this Reagan’s strategy? I don’t think he increased spending in order to continue the stalemate, I think that he was doing what he said he would do – trying to win the Cold War. And he increased spending from a position of strength, since the US could afford to outspend the Soviets. Are you arguing that China is in a similar position of strength relative to the US now?

January 20, 2007 @ 3:21 am | Comment

Just want to elaborate on a point that Danfried made. The US (and USSR) both developed and tested anti-satellite missiles decades ago. The first US tests were conducted in 1959. The last US anti-satellite missile tests were conducted in the mid 1980’s and it was a system that was much more advanced and mature than what China just tested. The US system was much smaller and can actually be carried and launched by fighter planes, which means that it is much easier to deploy and launch and much harder to detect than the large Chinese system based on ballistic missiles. It would be ridiculous to say that China has an advantage over the US in anti-satellite weapons. At best, China is only now gaining the type of capabilities that the US has had 2 decades ago.

The US haven’t exactly been sitting on its hands since the 80’s either. Research on other space weapons has continued in the US even after the termination of the Cold War and has greatly accelerated after Bush Jr. became president. In fact, the weaponization of space is a huge part of Donald Rumsfeld and other neocons’ vision for the future of US military. They believe that the US has a huge lead in space capabilities and must use this lead to its advantage in future wars. This is the reason behind the repeated refusals by the United States to negotiate an international ban on space weapons.

For the Chinese, this test makes perfect sense. The US has made it perfectly clear that it will not stop pursuing newer and more advanced space weapons and is seeking ever greater advantage in space. For China, to do nothing would mean falling farther and farther behind and be completely subjected to the mercy of the US. Now with this test, the best case scenario for China would be the US finally agreeing to come to the negotiating table to work out a treaty on space weapons, and the worst scenario would be the US continuing to do what it has been doing all along and keep on developing newer and more advanced space weapons, but at least now China will have some of its own to level the playing field just a bit.

January 20, 2007 @ 5:44 am | Comment

Hui Mao

Actually, the worst case scenario is that after Bush leaves the White House, it won’t be able to convince the new President it is actually serious about banning all weapons from space. The reaction could be, “you’re only saying that because now you have a viable weapon to use, whereas our stuff is still on the drawing board.”

Because no one actually KNOWS that the US could do what China did today. It will probably have the principles, but making that work is something else entirely.

January 20, 2007 @ 6:14 am | Comment

One thought on the timing. By doing this now, when the US is highly occupied with strategy in the middle east and the new US congress is just getting its bearing, China is likely to provoke less attention then if it were to do this at another time. When the US is less involved with other projects China will already be accepted as having an (somewhat) advanced military and there won’t be as much squawking about new advancements. In any case if there were a life and death conflict short of nuclear weapons the weaker side might be tempted to lauch a couple payloads of BBs into orbit or otherwise wipe out all satelites, although the rest of us would get pissed that we couldn’t watch CNN or talk on the phone in our cars.

January 20, 2007 @ 8:04 am | Comment


Because no one actually KNOWS that the US could do what China did today. It will probably have the principles, but making that work is something else entirely.

The US shot down one of its own satellites in 1985 in a test of the ASM-135 missile, so the US definitely could do what China just did and was actually able to do it more than 20 years ago.

January 20, 2007 @ 2:18 pm | Comment

Given that the US refused Chinas request to work out an agreement banning weapons in space, the Chinese government did what any government should do. Its lookign out for the people it represents. Given the US dependance on satelite technology, it makes sense that they develope the capacity to knock out US satelites. Its a very smart defence system. Good for them 🙂

January 20, 2007 @ 2:49 pm | Comment

i don’t think this is a smart move. it will just lead to an arms race and pour fuel on the fire for the china threat neo cons. what would have been smart would have been to go to the US privately and say “we have this technology, but we are committed to a peaceful far east – now lets talk turkey”

china will lose out in any arms race. they don’t have the tech and they don’t have the money. they have better things to do than enter a pissing contest with the us. this is how russia went down – too much arms spending

January 20, 2007 @ 9:03 pm | Comment

It doesn’t make much sense to compare China with the former Soviet Union. China spends small portion of its money on miltary and use the money very selectively; China is pretty much integrated to the world ecomony, and it is winning everywhere ecomonically.

January 21, 2007 @ 2:12 am | Comment

China does spend a small portion – around 2.5% of GDP – more than the UK less than the US, but this will only increase it. my point is their possible spending in the future due to an arms race.

China’s one dimensional economy is winning due to its ability to undercut its rivals and mass produce. its sustainability rests on the west continuing to run huge deficits – it is therefore built on sand. It needs to start spending on a social security system so that people will save less and more on education and health so people feel secure about the future – which would lead to greater internal spending and a stronger economy.

Where are their priorities?!??!?

January 21, 2007 @ 8:03 pm | Comment

If the economy continues to grow rapidly, it is logical that its miltary spending will grow too. China does have many security concerns.

“due to its ability to undercut its rivals and mass produce”

Every country has its advantages and disadvantages. China is makeing fairly good use of its advantages. I agree that, at the current stage, Chinese economic well-being depends in a large degree on external markets. But that can change; and it is going in that direction.

January 22, 2007 @ 2:11 am | Comment

Just a simple comment from me beyond the patronizing posturing here:

I (and a lot of people) am pissed that the US is ALWAYS picking fights with other nations. Does your neighbor peek in on you, and tell you what you can or cannot do because they are holier than thou?

If your neighbor had a pair of telescopes trained on you all day every day, what would you do? I would go over and kick his ass.

I firmly believe that if America adopts a less hawkish policy, people would not be antagonistic towards it in the first place. The US is like a brutish bully in a foreign bar, shouting and hollering, and that makes everyone want to kick his ass. And that makes him even more “defensive”, and in turn makes people want to kick his ass more.

January 22, 2007 @ 10:13 am | Comment

The US system was much smaller and can actually be carried and launched by fighter planes
just want to say that it’s not a merit,comparing with US,
Chinese satellite killer missile is launched directly from earth base,it’s cheaper and hard to be found,and it can change the channel in the space

January 28, 2007 @ 1:45 pm | Comment

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