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China Could Soon Conduct New Antisatellite Test
WASHINGTON -- There are a number of signs that China is preparing to soon carry out a fresh antisatellite test that if successful could further demonstrate a capability to defeat incoming strategic ballistic missile attacks, the Union of Concerned Scientists said on Friday.
There have been media reports for months of a new antisatellite test in the works, according to Gregory Kulacki, the organization's China project manager.
The Asian nuclear power’s most recent antisatellite trials in 2007 and 2010 both occurred on Jan. 11, but Kulacki in a Monday interview cautioned that the rumored coming test would not necessarily take place this week.
In a blog post, Kulacki said also his organization had heard from a senior U.S. defense official that the Obama administration was worried China might carry out another antisatellite trial in the near future.
“Given these high-level administration concerns, and past Chinese practice, there seems to be a strong possibility that China will conduct an ASAT test within the next few weeks,” the UCS senior analyst wrote on Friday.
In both previous efforts, China launched an SC-19 missile, according to U.S. State Department cables released by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks. The SC-19 is understood to be a modified, land-based version of one of the Dongfeng 21 ballistic missile with a kinetic kill vehicle addition.
The technology has obvious applications as a ballistic missile interceptor, Kulacki said, though he does not personally believe another test would be aimed at sending a military message to the world. “I don’t think it’s correct to interpret the testing program as a signal to the United States.”
China’s own plans to in the coming years launch more than 20 new GPS satellites would give it a good reason not to carry out any antisatellite actions or attacks that would produce more space debris to further clutter up the same section of space it intends to use, according to Kulacki
The 2007 test that destroyed an old weather satellite demonstrated a simpler capability to successfully target orbiting objects with known flight trajectories. It also created a large quantity of space debris that for decades will threaten orbiting spacecraft and caused some defense analysts to worry that China might target foreign nations’ satellites.
A dummy warhead fired by a ballistic missile was used to simulate a satellite in the 2010 test; as the interception did not target an object in orbit, there was no resulting space debris. “This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT and ballistic missile defense (BMD) technologies,” the State Department concluded in a leaked cable
Using the multipurpose SC-19 successfully again in another trial against a mock warhead would build a case for the dependability of the system in a missile defense situation in which the capacity to quickly calculate a target’s flight path using supporting sensors is critical.
More than the 2007 trial, the 2010 test sent an overt signal to the world on China’s missile defense capabilities, according to experts.
It is not clear whether the anticipated attempt would involve the same technology as the past two ASAT tests or involve a system that does not destroy satellites, Kulacki wrote.
Media reports indicate the expected next test will involve a target at “a much higher orbit than the 2007 test,” which took place in low orbit, roughly 528 miles above the Earth, Kulacki wrote.
The Obama administration should urge Beijing to abandon any plans to carry out another ASAT test, which might cause a field of new space debris similar to the 2007 test, Kulacki said. “They‘ve been watching this for a while and they haven’t said a thing as far as we know and we think they should.”
The White House National Security Council by press time had not responded to requests for comment.
This article provides an overview of China’s historical and current policies relating to nuclear, chemical, biological and missile proliferation.