China successfully destroyed an orbiting satellite last week in a demonstration that could threaten U.S. missile defense plans and a wide range of other satellite-supported technologies, the Washington Post reported today (see GSN, June 11, 2004).
The antisatellite test was China's first and the only one conducted since the United States performed a similar test in 1985. The United States and the Soviet Union had active antisatellite programs prior to the mid-1980s, but stopped testing then, partly because of the large amount of orbital debris created by destroyed satellites, according to the Post.
The Jan. 11 Chinese test involved a medium-range ballistic missile crashing into an aging weather satellite orbiting 537 miles above the Earth's surface. U.S. satellites at that altitude include some spy satellites and missile-launch detection satellites, the Post reported.
"The U.S. believes China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries adhere to in the civil space area," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese" (Kaufman/Linzer, Washington Post, Jan. 19).
The test was unusual in part because China has long sought to negotiate a ban on space weapons, but U.S. presidents of both parties have resisted the talks, arguing that they didn't want to limit U.S. space options, the New York Times reported (see GSN, June 14, 2006).
China could be using the test to try to reinvigorate space arms control, said two arms control experts.
"For several years, the Russians and Chinese have been trying to push a treaty to ban space weapons," said Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information. "The concept of exhibiting a hard-power capability to bring somebody to the negotiating table is a classic Cold War technique."
"It puts pressure on the U.S. to negotiate agreements not to weaponize space," agreed Gary Samore, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (Broad/Sanger, New York Times, Jan. 19).