Pentagon Received No Warning of Chinese Missile Defense Test

China's missile defense test yesterday caught the U.S. Defense Department by surprise, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, Jan. 11).

"We did not receive prior notification of the launch," said Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Maureen Schumann. "We detected two geographically separated missile launch events with an exoatmospheric collision also being observed by space-based sensors.

"We are requesting information from China regarding the purpose for conducting this interception as well as China's intentions and plans to pursue future types of intercepts," Schumann said.

The United States sees no link between its sales of weapons to Taiwan and the Chinese test, according to the Pentagon. While Taiwan has an autonomous government, Beijing claims the island-state as its territory and has threatened to use force should it pursue formal independence.

Beijing offered little detail on the interceptor it tested, but the Chinese government has adapted weapons acquired from Russia and elsewhere into its defensive arsenal. After making a massive procurement of Russian surface-to-air missiles in the 1990s, the nation has pursued domestic development of its longer-range HQ-9 interceptor.

In 2006, China was reported to have tried out an interceptor system comparable to U.S.-built Patriot missile defenses.

"There is an obvious concern in Beijing that they need an effective antiballistic missile defense in some form," said Hans Kristensen, an expert with the Federation of American Scientists.

Yesterday's test, reported to be successful, "shows that their technology is maturing," he said.

China is believed to have deployed eight Russian-built SA-20 PMU-2 surface-to-air missile battalions near major cities and strategic assets and requested eight more of the systems, the Defense Department said last year. Although the units could counter incoming ballistic and cruise missiles from India or Russia, they would be less effective against U.S. weapons (Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press/Time, Jan. 11).

"The big news" about yesterday's missile defense exercise "is that they are actually reporting, however brief, on a missile test. This appears to be a new trend," Rick Fisher, an expert on China's military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told the Washington Times.

A high-level Chinese military official recently confirmed in a report that China's "air force will be developing a missile-defense mission," Fisher said.

Beijing is likely to finish fielding a robust countrywide missile defense network by around the mid-2020s, he added.

"This will constitute the ultimate irony and face slap given China's very loud and vocal opposition to U.S. missile defenses in late 1990s and early this decade," he said, adding that "there's likely a linkage between China's antisatellite and missile-defense interceptor programs" (Bill Gertz, Washington Times, Jan. 12).

Today, though, China's missile defenses are "far from forming an operational capability," defense analyst Yang Chengjun told China's Global Times newspaper, according to Reuters.

China's latest missile defense test came days after Washington finalized plans to deliver additional missile defense systems to Taiwan (see GSN, Jan. 7).

"China feels the United States on the one hand wants all kinds of cooperation, but on the other hand keeps selling weapons to Taiwan, and this discrepancy is expanding," Zhu Feng, a Peking University international relations professor, told Reuters.

"There won't be any substantive reversal in relations over this. But China's self-confidence is growing and it feels these weapons sales to Taiwan are humiliating," he said (Chirs Buckley, Reuters, Jan. 12).

January 12, 2010
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China's missile defense test yesterday caught the U.S. Defense Department by surprise, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, Jan. 11).