They Shoot Satellites, Don’t They?

China is developing sophisticated hit-to-kill missiles, which is exactly why we need to ban the most dangerous tests of this technology.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Photo via ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
Photo via ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
Photo via ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Look, I understand if you missed it, what with all the missiles flying around these days. But China conducted another missile defense test in late July. Even for a terse statement clocking in at a mere 64 words, the official announcement by the Chinese Ministry of Defense is marvelous for how little it says. Let me try to convince you that it is worth about 2,800 words of wonky exegesis. I promise, it's worth it.

Look, I understand if you missed it, what with all the missiles flying around these days. But China conducted another missile defense test in late July. Even for a terse statement clocking in at a mere 64 words, the official announcement by the Chinese Ministry of Defense is marvelous for how little it says. Let me try to convince you that it is worth about 2,800 words of wonky exegesis. I promise, it’s worth it.

This is the third so-called missile defense test that China has conducted. More importantly, it is at least the fourth test of something called the "SC-19" — China’s direct-ascent interceptor, first tested against a satellite in 2007. There is a big debate about whether the SC-19 is intended to shoot down missiles or satellites.

In fact, it’s supposed to do both. Or neither. The pointy end of the SC-19 — the part known as a "kill vehicle" — is best understood as a technology that can be used for many missions. China’s development of a specific technology — "exoatmospheric kinetic intercept" or, in English, "hit-to-kill" — represents a new, disturbing trend in the proliferation of advanced conventional weapons. Let me walk you through the history of the system. Along the way, it should become clear that China’s so-called missile defense tests represent a big threat to U.S. satellites. While shooting down missiles may be hard, shooting down satellites is easy. And the spread of hit-to-kill technologies is an enormous danger to the use of space.

China’s first test of the SC-19 occurred on Jan. 11, 2007. I was at a space conference at the U.S. Air Force Academy when a disturbance rippled through the room. BlackBerrys on silent buzzed; people slipped out the back. It was pretty quickly an open secret in Washington that China had shot down an aging weather satellite named the FY-1C in the first anti-satellite test since Ronald Reagan’s administration blasted a solar observatory in orbit in 1985.

We would later learn that China had tested the SC-19 several times by aiming at empty spots in space, not physical targets. (SC-19, by the way, is a U.S. designation. This is the 19th type of rocket observed first at the Shuangchengzi Missile Test Center, also known as the Jiuquan Space Launch Center. Confusingly, since 2007, the rocket has been launched from other locations.) Apparently, George W. Bush’s administration knew about the tests in advance and had thought about discouraging the Chinese, but decided that it didn’t feel like sitting down to tea if the Chinese were going to bring up U.S. missile defense programs that use the same technology. Suddenly, cryptic comments to my colleague Gregory Kulacki by worried congressional staffers earlier in the year made more sense.)

When the SC-19 slammed into the FY-1C, the satellite shattered into thousands of pieces of debris. This was the largest debris-creating event on record. It was a major political headache for the Chinese government, which suddenly found itself criticized for jeopardizing the ability of all states to use orbits. Debris is incredibly persistent and poses a threat to all satellites orbiting at similar altitudes. (That said, there were a few benefits: The debris offered an early opportunity for open-source analysis and one of my first scoops on Arms Control Wonk.)

The Chinese, of course, must have known that the test would be immediately picked up, but seemed totally unprepared for the story to break. Aviation Week published a short story by Craig Covault on Jan. 17, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry had nothing to say until the 23rd. In the intervening days, lots of governments, especially in Europe, started to get angrier and angrier about the debris created by the test.

The mess in orbit led a lot of people ask: What the heck were they thinking? The terrified deer-in-the-headlights look adopted by Chinese spokespeople added to the confusion. The test seemed so poorly conceived, its rollout so clearly botched, that a lot of very smart people like Bates Gill — and Bates is very, very smart — wondered whether the Chinese military had done it without getting approval from the top leadership. This notion, that the anti-satellite test was a rogue PLA operation, has persisted. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates even repeats it in his memoir, Duty.

We would later conclude that this action had been taken by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) without the knowledge of the civilian leadership in Beijing; we believed the same of their test of an anti-satellite weapon some while before.

For what it’s worth, I think Gates is wrong. Kulacki and I traveled to China several times in the period after the test, conducting interviews with individuals who might have some insight into the event. They were absolutely clear that the decision to destroy the FY-1C satellite had been made at the highest levels. This was no rogue operation. The only breakdown came at the end of the process, when the people with "responsibility for crafting and delivering the post-test message … never got their instructions," as Kulacki and I later wrote. Our sources were coy about whether there would be future tests (you can guess why), but they made clear that China’s leadership had put in place, as Kulacki and I wrote, "a new interagency review process that will be applied to future tests of potentially sensitive technologies with significant international consequences."

In 2010, I was attending a conference in the Italian Alps — and playing euchre with the aforementioned Bates Gill — when China did it again. This time, the Chinese announced that they had shot down a missile. By the way, they added, there was no debris created.

The only hint in the announcement that this was the same system tested in 2007 was its date — Jan. 11, three years to the day after the 2007 test. U.S. officials started hinting that the intelligence suggested another test of the SC-19, just this time against a missile. We now know the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, thanks to leaked State Department cables posted by WikiLeaks. (In case you can’t read the cable, I’ll summarize: China launched a CSS-X-11 ballistic missile from Jiuquan at 7:50 p.m. local time. China launched the SC-19 from Korla 2 minutes and 42 seconds later. The SC-19 intercepted the CSS-X-11 missile 5 minutes and 15 seconds after that, at an altitude of about 250 kilometers.) The intelligence was good enough that the leaked cables indicate the United States knew about this test in advance, too.

Exact same SC-19. The only difference is that the test was repackaged as a "missile defense" test for a smooth, coordinated rollout. The Chinese announced the test immediately, the Foreign Ministry had talking points, and they pointedly stated that the test "would neither produce space debris in orbit nor pose a threat to the safety of orbiting spacecraft."

Since then, China has tested the SC-19 in its missile defense mode two more times — once in January 2013 and in late July 2014. There’s another interesting little event worth mentioning, but we’ll turn to that later.

Since China stopped using the SC-19 to destroy satellites, a little debate has emerged: Do we take the Chinese seriously about the missile defense thing? That’s the wrong question to ask. It fundamentally misunderstands what the Chinese are up to.

Think about the technology — not its applications. China is developing hit-to-kill. Watching my 2-year-old’s soccer class, I can’t tell you whether the kids will end up playing in the World Cup, performing with the Rockettes, or who knows what else. If hit-to-kill is like kicking, what gets kicked is a detail that comes later.

As part of the Strategic Defense Initiative in the early 1980s, the United States invested in hit-to-kill technologies, starting with something called the Homing Overlay Experiment. (You can see one of these bad boys at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Don’t miss it!) The technology, however, can be used to intercept either missiles or satellites. It is, in fact, easier to shoot down satellites than missiles since orbital paths are easy to calculate in advance. Let me give you a perfect example. After China’s anti-satellite test in 2007, the Bush administration suddenly decided that a dying U.S. intelligence satellite called USA-193 posed a risk to civilians on the ground and needed to be shot down. The United States has had a kinetic energy anti-satellite (KE-ASAT) ready to test for decades, but guess what the Pentagon used instead? An SM-3 missile defense interceptor on an Aegis destroyer, with a specially modified software package. It worked.

Now, not many of us bought the idea that the frozen hydrazine in the satellite posed a risk to humanity. It’s pretty clear that this was a message. Bush wanted to stage an anti-satellite test without incurring the political cost incurred by his counterpart, Hu Jintao. (Sing it with me now: "Anything Hu can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than Hu.")

Hit-to-kill is really just an advanced defense technology. There is a lot of talk about China pursuing "asymmetric" technologies to threaten the United States. But this is a case where China’s interest is totally symmetric. The Chinese are interested in hit-to-kill for the same reasons as the United States is. In fact, the Chinese are probably doubly interested because they don’t want to be left behind as the United States develops an important new defense technology that can be used to intercept anything — airplanes, missiles, and satellites. China might have shot down a missile during its last test, but it is really building up a broad technological capability that can be used for any number of missions. What Beijing ultimately chooses to do with its hit-to-kill capability, once the country has it, depends on a lot of factors, not all of which are under our control.

It’s not only the United States and China. Russia, as well as many of America’s allies like Japan and Israel, are investing in hit-to-kill systems that can be used for missile defense or anti-satellite applications. This is the basic technology that Israel uses in Iron Dome to intercept short-range rockets. (Iron Dome doesn’t have any capability against satellites, but Israel’s Arrow system does, as might longer-range versions derived from Iron Dome.) Even India is getting into the act.

Which brings us to the problem. Whatever one thinks of missile defenses, the proliferation of hit-to-kill technologies means that many, many countries are going to have very fancy anti-satellite weapons in the not-so-distant future.

Satellites are far more vulnerable than ballistic missiles — and a lot more important. China will never come under ballistic missile attack from the United States unless America is starting a nuclear war. That’s not very likely. On the other hand, in a conventional conflict over Taiwan or some rock outcropping doomed by global warming, China might be tempted to start knocking down U.S. or Japanese satellites. No country depends on satellites for military operations more than the United States do. The problem is that many countries also depend on these satellites for a range of civilian applications including communications and navigation. And all of these assets would be jeopardized by the debris from anti-satellite test strikes.

For a long time, some people argued that the proliferation of hit-to-kill systems might be a problem — but only for satellites in low-Earth orbit. These are mostly (though not exclusively) the satellites that take the sort of pictures you find in Google Earth. The International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope are in this orbit too. The really high-value civilian and military satellites are used for communication, navigation, and missile warning. These are higher up, with navigation satellites in medium-Earth orbit and satellites for missile warning and communications higher still in geosynchronous orbit. Which brings us to an ambiguous, but distressing event.

In May 2013, China conducted a curious high-altitude scientific experiment, sending a sounding rocket into the magnetosphere to release a cloud of barium powder. Although Beijing has a real research program to study the magnetosphere, this launch seemed different in a lot of important ways, from how it was conducted to the secrecy surrounding it. The evidence is really quite ambiguous, but as my colleague Brian Weeden argues in a very long essay, the simplest explanation is that it was a test of a hit-to-kill system that can reach geostationary orbit.

If China is developing an anti-satellite capability to hold at risk all U.S. satellites, this is a very distressing development. After the mid-1980s, the United States gradually lost interest in developing debris-creating anti-satellite weapons because it has the most to lose if space becomes so littered with debris that it is unusable. China and Russia, on the other hand, might not be so delicate if push came to shove. A world filled with hit-to-kill anti-satellite missiles should be very disturbing.

So what to do?

One option is to negotiate some sort of ban on hit-to-kill anti-satellite weapons. Washington and Moscow tried to do this in the 1970s, but issues of definition and verification were pretty difficult. Remember the U.S. missile defense system modified to shoot down USA-193? How would the Russians know that software isn’t installed on every U.S. Aegis destroyer?

Despite these problems, there are some verifiable partial measures, such as a ban on any hit-to-kill test that creates orbital debris. That won’t stop the development of hit-to-kill capabilities for missile defense — but it would mean that China’s newest SC-19 and any follow-on systems would remain untested against a real target. That’s not much, but it’s something — and a place to start.

In 2008, then President-elect Barack Obama actually came out in support of such an agreement. That’s right, he filled out a little survey for the Arms Control Association that included the sentence: "I will pursue negotiations of an agreement that would ban testing anti-satellite weapons." (Full disclosure: I volunteered on the team that actually filled out the survey for him. I hope you aren’t scandalized that presidents don’t fill out questionnaires by themselves or that people try to put words in the president’s mouth!)

The administration simply hasn’t followed up on the idea of negotiating a ban on anti-satellite testing, despite the importance of protecting U.S. assets in space. The administration has stated, in its National Space Policy, that it "will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies." This is an improvement over the 2006 edition, as U.S. officials argue, but it is still a passive position of waiting for someone else to come up with an idea to solve the problem. And it sure as hell doesn’t do anything to prevent China from developing ever better anti-satellite missile technology.

Still, there are already a number of proposals outlined by various experts who share my concern about the proliferation of hit-to-kill technologies and the threat to space assets. So, perhaps it is time that the administration consider some of them. Bruce MacDonald wrote a report for the Council on Foreign Relations that contained the model for such a treaty. Geoffrey Forden outlined a slightly different version in Arms Control Today, while the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon has suggested that the United States, Russia, and China could agree to a moratorium on "further [anti-satellite] tests that generate long-lived, indiscriminately lethal space debris" as part of the now-stalled effort to develop a code of conduct for space activities. I have even offered my own meager thoughts on such an agreement in exchange for a few days per diem in Geneva.

The short version of all the proposals is simple: no blowing things up in space that leaves a bunch of space junk. All of these proposals aim to prevent the creation of yet more debris that will threaten the commercial, civil, and military uses of space, while also trying to slow the development of dedicated anti-satellite systems. States will still develop hit-to-kill systems — like the United States, Russia, and China — and have a latent capability to threaten space assets. But the least we can do is prevent a race to start testing these systems against live targets in orbit.

I think a fair-minded observer would conclude that such a treaty certainly meets the criteria outlined in the National Space Policy. There is value to limiting anti-satellite testing; the creation of debris is easily verified; and it would not limit U.S. missile defense programs. But perhaps most importantly, a ban on anti-satellite tests that create debris in space would be more in the interest of the United States than any other country on Earth.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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