US wary of China's new space weapon

State Department maintains strong opposition to "any militarization of space."

china space 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
china space 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Criticizing China's test of an anti-satellite weapon, the State Department said Friday "modern life as we know it" depends on the security of space-based technology. Deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the administration raised concerns about the test with Chinese officials here and in Beijing, making clear its opposition to "any militarization of space." He said tests of the kind that China carried out "produce extensive amounts of space debris, have the potential for disturbing or accidentally disrupting communication satellites or other kinds of space vehicles that are out there." A report released Friday by a congressional advisory panel said some movement within the Chinese military for development of an anti-satellite weapons system that could be used against US targets without warning. The report said that even a small-scale attack could have "catastrophic" consequences for the United States. At the White House on Friday, deputy press secretary Dana Perino said Chinese officials had not yet responded to US inquiries. "We do want cooperation on a civil space strategy, so until we hear back from them or have more information, I don't have any more to add," Perino said. The test reportedly knocked out an aging Chinese weather satellite with a vehicle launched on board a ballistic missile. The satellite was believed located about 800 kilometers above the earth. Casey acknowledged that the United States carried out an anti-satellite device test in 1985 but said the international context was entirely different at the time, pointing to the Cold war tensions of that period. More important, he said is the impact of space technology on everyday life compared with the earlier period. As examples, satellite communications have revolutionized weather forecasting as well as television viewing. Satellites are also important for military communications. Rep. Terry Everett, senior Republican on the House Armed Services Subcommittee of Strategic Forces, said China's test "raises serious concerns about the vulnerability of our space-based assets. We depend on satellites for a host of military and commercial uses, from navigation to ATM transactions." Casey, asked whether the United States plans to forswear weapons tests in space, said, "My understanding is there are no plans or intentions on the part of the United States to engage in such activities." The US disclosure that China had carried out the test raised concerns in Asia and prompted demands for explanations from Beijing. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki also suggested that China's lack of transparency over its military development could trigger suspicions about its motives in the region. In his annual threat address to Congress, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, said last week that China and Russia are the "primary states of concern" regarding military space programs. "Several countries continue to develop capabilities that have the potential to threaten US space assets, and some have already deployed systems with inherent anti-satellite capabilities," he said. His written testimony was presented on Jan. 11, the same day as China's test. The Chinese test prompted the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the congressional advisory panel, to release a lengthy study on the country's potential anti-satellite weapons capabilities. The study was prepared by China expert Michael Pillsbury and is based on open-source Chinese documents. An executive summary of the report cited writings by three Chinese colonels who advocated covert deployment of a sophisticated anti-satellite weapons system to be used against the United States "in a surprise manner without warning." It said that even a small-scale anti-satellite attack in a crisis against 50 US satellites "could have a catastrophic effect not only on US military forces, but on the US civilian economy." It is not clear from US open sources how rapidly, if at all, the United States could launch "spare" satellites to replace a few dozen that had been incapacitated in orbit by Chinese attack, the report said. Other concepts proposed by the Chinese military, according to the study, called for jamming and attacking ground stations rather than destruction of US satellites. In both the anti-satellite and ground station attacks, the United States could have difficulty knowing which nation was responsible for the hostilities, the report said.