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China’s Direct Ascent ASAT

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on January 20th, 2007
ARTICLES

"China is believed to be conducting research and development on a direct-ascent ASAT [anti-satellite] system that could be fielded in the 2005-2010 timeframe."[1] This prediction from the 2003 Department of Defense annual report on Chinese military modernization became a reality on January 11, 2007 when a Chinese direct ascent ASAT intercepted and destroyed a Chinese weather satellite over China.

According to U.S. government sources, on January 11, 2007, China launched a missile which intercepted and destroyed a Chinese FY-1C weather satellite as it passed over China. This was first reported on January 17 by Craig Covault, the respected space reporter for Aviation Week and Space Technology.[2] On the morning of January 18, Reuters reported U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe as saying with a "…a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile, the test knocked out an aging Chinese weather satellite about 537 miles above the earth on January 11 through "kinetic impact," or by slamming into it."[3]

On January 19 Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesman Liu Jianchao declined to confirm what the U.S. assuredly knew, saying, "So far we have not got any confirmed information about this." He then assured, "There's no need to feel threatened about this…We are not going to get into any arms race in space."[4] The reality is that after years of denying itself an operational ASAT capability, the United States has none, and now faces the prospect of such an arms race. Furthermore, the United States and its allies must confront the additional challenges of China as a military-space power and also consider the real price of future cooperation with China in space.

KT-1 ASAT

From the details disclosed by NSC spokesman Gordon Johndroe, it is possible to conclude tentatively that China tested an ASAT version of its Katzouie-1 (Pioneer-1, KT-1) mobile, solid fuel space launch vehicle (SLV), derived from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) DF-21 medium range ballistic missile. The KT-1 was first revealed at the November 2000 Zhuhai Airshow in conjunction with Tsinghua University’s then also new "Tsinghua-1" microsatellite, which had just been launched the previous June by a Russian booster. At the November 2002 Zhuhai show an official from the China Aerospace Solid Propellant Launch Vehicle company (ASLV) of the China Aerospace Science and Industry (CASIC) consortium confirmed this author’s suspicion that the KT-1 was based on the DF-21. About 38 to 50 of the 1,700km to 2,500km range DF-21s serves in the dedicated Second Artillery missile service of the PLA.

 
 
KT-1: Model of the KT-1 mobile solid fuel SLV, seen at the 2002 Zhuhai show, which very likely formed the basis for the ASAT launcher used by China to destroy a weather satellite on January 11, 2007. Credit: RD Fisher

At the 2004 Zhuhai Airshow a CASIC official stated that the KT-1 has so far accomplished four test launches. The first test in September 2002 reportedly ended in failure. It is likely there have been additional unreported tests since 2004.

A brochure from the ASLV states the KT-1 uses solid fuel motors for its four stages, and that it can launch up to a 100kg payload into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or to a Polar Orbit, in which a satellite revolved around the North and South poles. Polar orbits are usually used by observation and surveillance satellites, be they for weather, ground mapping, resource management or military reconnaissance missions. Japan, India, South Korea and Taiwan operate surveillance satellites that use Polar Orbits, as does the United States.

At the 2002 Zhuhai show ASLV displayed a video showing how the a KT-1 SLV could be transported and launched from a truck-based transporter-erector-launcher (TEL).

As has been reported previously by this analyst, this combination of a microsatellite and a mobile and solid-fuel SLV is ideally suited for anti-satellite missions.[5] A mobile SLV does not rely on fixed launch facilities, which then require waiting for a targeted satellite to fly over the launch facility. A mobile SLV can be pre-positioned on Chinese, or even foreign territory, in anticipation of a target satellite fly-over, in order to conduct a surprise attack.

 
 
KT-1 Brochure: CASIC brochure showing components of the KT-1. Credit: CASIC

A KT-1 ASAT Benefits From Foreign Technology

If the assumption that China’s first direct ascent ASAT is based on the KT-1 SLV proves correct, then it is also possible to conclude that China’s first direct ascent ASAT benefits directly from U.S. and British space technology. According to a Chinese engineer who worked with Fourth Academy of the China Aerospace Corporation, responsible for solid rocket motors, China was only able to make the rocket motor for the DF-21 work reliably after receiving solid fuel rocket motor insulation technology from the former U.S. Martin Marietta Corporation.[6] This engineer stated, "Before we received this help from the United States, China had never succeeded in developing propellants powerful enough to be used for strategic-range solid-fuel rockets."[7] In early 2000 the U.S. fined Lockheed, which had by this point purchased Martin Marietta, $13 million for violating U.S. export control laws in relation to this case.[8]

China’s ASAT kill vehicle used in the January 11 demonstration also very likely benefits from China’s access to foreign micro and nano satellite technology. China jumped into the forefront of micro satellite technology in October 1998, when Tsinghua University entered into a co-development contract with Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.[9], perhaps the world’s leading microsat firm. This cooperation enabled Tsinghua to build its 50kg Tsinghua-1 micro satellite, which was launched in June 2000 along with Surrey’s 6.7 kg (14 lb) Snap-1 nano satellite, which photographed the Tsinghua-1. China has since produced many different types of micro and nano satellites, launching its first NS-1 nano satellite in April 2004.

KT-2 and Beyond

At the 2002 Zhuhai show ASLV revealed two new SLVs, the larger KT-2 and even larger KT-2A. A ASLV spokesman said that the KT-2 was derived from the DF-31 ICBM. It is expected to lift one 300kg payload into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) (22,000 mile altitude) or to a polar orbit. Finally, the KT-2A SLV is a larger KT-2 that is very likely analogous to the DF-31A ICBM. With two solid-fuel strap-on boosters, this SLV is capable of carrying three 100kg payloads or one 400kg payload.[10] According to ASLV Co. brochures, both the KT-2 and KT-2A were to be ready by 2005, but this cannot be confirmed. The KT-2 and KT-2A can be also be launched from a truck-based TEL, or possibly from a transport aircraft.[11]

 
 
Future ASATS ?: KT family of SLV: KT-2, KT-2A and KT-1. Credit: RD Fisher

For potential ASAT missions, the KT family can cover most contingencies. The KT-1 can intercept target satellites in Low Earth Orbit (@200 mile altitude) or higher Polar Orbits. LEO satellites comprise a large number of communication satellites, while as noted earlier; Polar Orbits are used by many surveillance satellites. GTO is used by higher altitude U.S. surveillance satellites like the DPS missile launch warning satellites or electronic or signals intelligence satellites (ELINT/SIGINT). Lower 12,000 mile altitudes are used by U.S. navigation satellites, known as Global Positioning Satellites (GPS).

But China may also be developing an even more flexible ASAT launcher. At the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow the China Aerospace Corporation revealed its Air Launched Launch Vehicle (ALLV), which is a small solid fueled missile launched from a PLA Xian H-6 medium bomber. It is very similar in shape and concept to the U.S. Orbital Corporation’s Pegasus air-launched SLV. Brochure information released at the show indicate it can loft a 50kg payload to an altitude of 500km (310 miles) meaning it is confined to Low Earth Orbit. One advantage for the ALLV is that it can achieve a launch position much faster than the KT family. It is possible that with first-stage strap-on boosters the AALV might be able to reach Polar Orbits.

 
 
ALLV: Air Launched Launch Vehicle model revealed for the first time at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow. Credit: Chinese Internet

Furthermore, Chinese military academic writings indicate that the PLA may also be considering using nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines to launch direct ascent ASAT missiles. In early 2004 one Chinese author with the Dalian Naval Academy noted, "By deploying just a few anti-satellite nuclear submarines in the ocean, one can seriously threaten the entire military space system of the enemy. In addition to anti-satellite operations, these nuclear submarines can also be used for launching low orbit tactical micro-satellites to serve as powerful real time battlefield intelligence support."[12]

Long Standing Concerns Confirmed

It can now be concluded that the longstanding concern of many in the U.S. defense and intelligence community about China’s development of military space capabilities has been proven correct. Beginning with the first 1998 Congress-mandated Department of Defense report to the Congress on Chinese military modernization, the U.S. intelligence community has warned of Chinese interest in using high-power lasers to damage or even destroy U.S. satellites. However, none of the Pentagon reports acknowledged what was disclosed in September 2006 by the U.S. publication Defense News: China has actually fired lasers at U.S. satellites, amounting to "several tests over the past several years."[13] This report then says, "’The Chinese are very strategically minded and are extremely active in this arena," said one senior former Pentagon official. ‘They really believe all the stuff written in the 1980s about the high frontier and are looking at symmetrical and asymmetrical means to offset American dominance in space.’"[14]

Indeed, Chinese analysts have long noted the deep dependence upon, and thus vulnerability of United States to attacks against its military space assets.[15] There is also an extensive Chinese literature on space warfare.[16] As the recent ASAT test demonstrates, China is actively preparing to contest military control of outer-space. Apparently, in recent years there has been some debate within the PLA over which service should control military-space[17], with recent reporting tending toward the future formation of anew and independent "Space Force" directly subordinate to the PLA’s leading body, the Central Military Commission.[18] Such an independent Space Force, according to these reports, would favor the CMC’s General Armaments Department, which currently controls all of China’s space activities, from manned Shenzhou space capsule missions to the January 11 ASAT test. The PLA Air Force has also been bucking for the space warfare job.

It is worthwhile to consider what other systems China may employ for a future "Space Force." Inasmuch as China has used all of its unmanned and manned missions of its six Shenzhou manned space capsules to perform both civil and military missions, one has to consider that future Chinese space stations may also be outfitted to perform military missions.[19] At the 2006 Zhuhai show China revealed the most detailed model of its proposed Space Lab, about the size of the former Soviet era Salyut space station, some of which the Soviets armed with cannon and used for military missions. It would logical to expect that when China launches its space lab, and subsequent larger space stations, they could either initially fly with military equipment, or be given new module that could contain weapons or surveillance equipment when needed.

 
 
Modular Space Lab Concept: China’s modular space lab concept means that military modules equipped with anti-satellite weapons or other military equipment can be fitted after the lab is initially launched. Credit: Chinese Internet

China’s successful ASAT test also points toward another potential interest: developing anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capabilities. Many of the technologies needed to track target satellites and then kill them are applicable to shooting down faster intercontinental ballistic missile warheads. Indeed, China’s first ABM program dates back to the 1950s, when China started its ballistic missile program. China even developed prototype ABM missiles similar in configuration to the first generation U.S. Sprint ABMs. The ABM mission might be another for a potential PLA Space Force.

Cooperation in Space?

For several years there have been many in and outside the U.S. government who have favored doing something with China in outer space, from outreach to outright space cooperation.[20] The Bush Administration has initiated an official dialogue with China, sending National Aeronautics and Space Administration Director Michael Griffin to China in September 2006, but achieving no agreement for cooperation.[21] Advocates of caution in space cooperation with China have repeatedly pointed to the direct role of the People’s Liberation Army in all of China’s space activities, and the potential for any level of U.S. cooperation to benefit China’s military-space power. This warning was delivered by the 1998-99 bi-partisan Select Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired by former Congressman Christopher Cox. It has direct relevance to the latest January 11 ASAT test.

The company that very likely developed China’s first direct ascent ASAT is a creature of the People’s Liberation Army. In May 2000 the China Aerospace Solid-propellent Launch Vehicle Co. Ltd. (ASLV) was formed to build a solid fueled mobile space launch vehicle.[22] This company’s close relationship to the PLA was illustrated in that its establishment ceremony was attended by former CMC Vice Chairman General Liu Huaqing, and then Vice Commander of the Second Artillery General Huang Cisheng.[23] China would dearly like to sign up paying customers to launch their economic micro or nano satellites. But doing so would constitute a direct subsidy for China’s ASAT program.

Despite the repeatedly proven relationship between China’s civil and military space sectors, there appears to be an inconsistent message from Europe. On January 18, 2007 European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner stated that the EU was not ready to lift its 1989 arms embargo on China.[24] However, on January 17, 2007 European Space Agency Chief Jean-Jacques Dordain was advocating manned space cooperation with China, saying, "I would like very much to discuss this with our Chinese partners, if they make the proposal…At the moment, we have a lot of cooperation with China in other space exploration domains, but not yet in the field of manned flights."[25] However, there is no assurance that China would not take what it might learn from such cooperation with Europe and apply it to future military-space capabilities.

Conclusion

China has been one of the most forceful proponents of the demilitarization of outer space, yet on January 11 it took the most profound step toward starting a new military-space race. China’s denials of its January 11 test are reminiscent of its many denials that it transferred nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan and Iran as well as missile technology to these and other countries. In the area of proliferation, and now space, China is proving that it does not want to abide by norms or rules written by the West. Despite the fact that both its nuclear proliferation and now its military space proliferation will create more dangers for the Chinese people, China’s Communist Party leadership has decided that both are in its interests.

The United States and its allies are now faced with a new reality. The relatively new surveillance satellites of India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, plus the many more military and civilian satellites of the United States and her European allies are under threat. So too are Russian systems.

Having denied itself an ASAT capability, starting with the cancelled development of F-15 fighter launched ASAT missiles in the 1980s, the United States (and the other countries mentioned) would appear to lack any means to retaliate against a potential Chinese space attack.


[1] Report to Congress Pursuant to the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act, Annual Report On The Military Power Of The People’s Republic of China, US Department of Defense, 2003, p. 36, http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/20030730chinaex.pdf

[2] Craig Covault, "Chinese Test Anti Satellite Weapon," Aviation Week and Space Technology, January 17, 2007.

[3] "U.S. voices concern over China satellite-killer test," Reuters, January 18, 2007.

[4] "PRC FM Spokesman: Space Program is ‘No Threat,’" Agence France Presse, January 19, 2007.

[5] See author’s The Impact of Foreign Weapons On The Modernization of China’s People’s Liberation Army, A Report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, January 2004, Missiles and Space section, http://www.uscc.gov/researchpapers/2004/04fisher_report/04_01_01fisherreport.php

[6] Kenneth Timmerman, "Chinese missiles in the new world order," The Washington Times, May 24, 2000, p. A19. The author also had the pleasure to interview this brave individual.

[7] Timmerman, op-cit.

[8] David E. Sanger, "U.S. Fines Lockheed $13 Million in China Satellite Case," The New York Times, June 14, 2000, p. 8.

[9] Press Release, Surrey Satellite Technology, Ltd., October 14, 1998.

[10] Brochure, Aerospace Solid-propellant Launch Vehicle Co., obtained at the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow.

[11] Lu Xiaoge and Sun Zifa, "China Successfully Develops the ‘Pioneer’ Series of Solid Fuel Carrier Rockets," Zhongguo Xinwen She, October 12, 2002, in FBIS CPP20021012000035.

[12] Liu Huanyu, Dalian Naval Academy, "Sea-Based Anti-Satellite Platform," Jianchuan Kexue Jishu, February 1, 2004.

[13] Vago Muradian, "China attempted To Blind U.S. Satellites With Laser," Defense News, September 21, 2006, p. 1.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Wang Hucheng, "The US Military's 'Soft Ribs' and Strategic Weaknesses." Liaowang, July 5, 2000, in FBIS, CPP20000705000081; Wei Qiyong, Qin Zhijin, Liu Erxun, China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, Beijing, "Analysis of Changing Emphasis in U.S. Space Strategy," Daodan yu Hangtian Yunzai Jishu, August 10, 2002, p. 1-4, in FBIS, CPP20021204000178.

[16] For an insightful review of Chinese writings on anti-satellite and space warfare see, An Assessment of China’s Anti-Satellite and Space Warfare Programs, Policies and Doctrines, Prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission by Michael P. Pillsbury, PhD, Report submitted to the Commission by the author on 19 January 2007, http://www.uscc.gov/researchpapers/2007/FINAL_REPORT_1-19-2007_REVISED_BY_MPP.pdf

[17] Disclosed to the author by a PLA officer in November 2004.

[18] Chin Chien-li, "PRC is preparing to form a space force," Chien Shao, July 1, 2005, pp. 52-55; "China's 'Space Army' Is Taking Shape," Hsiang Kang Shang Pao, October 13, 2005, p. 4.

[19] See authors "China’s Manned Military Space Ambitions," International Assessment and Strategy Center, October 10, 2005.

[20] For pro-cooperation arguments see, Joan Johnson-Freese, "Space Wei Qi, The Launch of Shenzhou 5," Naval War College Review, Spring 2004; Dr. Jeffery Lewis, "Engage China, Engage The World," Spece.com, http://www.space.com/adastra/china_engagement_0505.html

[21] "NASA chief ends China visit with praise for program, but future cooperation plans unclear," Associated Press, September 27, 2006.

[22] Brochure, Aerospace Solid Launch Vehicle Co. Ltd.; Wei Long, "China To Develop Solid Propellant Rocket," Space Daily, May 31, 2000.

[23] Brochure, Aerospace Solid-propellant Launch Vehicle Co., obtained at the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow.

[24] "EU maintains hard line on China arms embargo," Taipei Times, January 19, 2007, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2007/01/19/2003345375

[25] "European Space Agency Ready for Cooperation With China," Xinhua News Agency, January 19, 2007.

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