Why China's new anti-satellite weapon worries US

China appears to be testing a kinetic interceptor launched by a new rocket that could reach geostationary orbit. China's new anti-satellite weapon appears to be based on a road-mobile ballistic missile.

A detailed analysis of satellite imagery published Monday provides additional evidence that a Chinese rocket launch in May 2013 billed as a research mission was actually a test of a new anti-satellite weapon based on a road-mobile ballistic missile.

Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force space analyst, published a 47-page analysis on the website of The Space Review, which he said showed that China appears to be testing a kinetic interceptor launched by a new rocket that could reach geostationary orbit about 36,000 km (22,500 miles) above the earth.

"If true, this would represent a significant development in China's anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities," wrote Weeden, now a technical adviser for Secure World Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit focused on secure and peaceful uses of outer space.

"No other country has tested a direct ascent ASAT weapon system that has the potential to reach deep space satellites in medium earth orbit, highly elliptical orbit or geostationary orbit," he wrote, referring to orbital paths that are above 2,000 km (1,250 miles) over the earth.

The article includes a previously undisclosed satellite image taken by DigitalGlobe Inc that shows a mobile missile launcher, or "transporter-erector-launcher" (TEL) at China's Xichang missile launch site. A TEL is used for mobile ground launches of ballistic missiles instead of a fixed pad.

Given the new imagery and the absence of a different rocket at the Xichang site that could have carried out the 2013 launch, Weeden said there was now "substantial evidence" that China was developing a second anti-satellite weapon in addition to the previously known system designated as SC-19 by U.S. agencies.

He said the new system may use one of China's new Kuaizhou rockets.


Weeden renewed his call for the United States to release more information about the Chinese weapons development program, arguing that more public dialogue was needed about efforts to develop and test anti-satellite weapons around the world.

"Remaining silent risks sending the message to China and other countries that developing and testing hit-to-kill ASAT capabilities is considered responsible behavior as long as it does not create long-lived orbital debris," Weeden said.

U.S. military officials have been increasingly vocal about China's development of anti-satellite weapons over the past year, but they have not been nearly as critical as they were after China destroyed a defunct weather satellite in orbit in 2007, creating more than 3,000 pieces of debris.

After the May 2013 Chinese launch, the U.S. government issued a single statement saying it appeared to be on a ballistic trajectory nearly to geostationary orbit, and that no objects associated with the launch remained in space."

Weeden said U.S. intelligence agencies remained reluctant to reveal any finding on China's weapons development efforts for fear of revealing "sources and methods" of intelligence-gathering, but said that policy could ultimately backfire.

"One wonders if the overbearing secrecy regarding intelligence about Chinese ASAT testing might end up negatively impacting U.S. policy efforts down the road, including efforts to develop norms of behavior in space," he wrote.

The secrecy, the Pentagon's focus on a "new near peer" adversary, a drive by U.S. arms makers to sell new equipment, and grandstanding by some U.S. lawmakers could ultimately drive the two countries toward confrontation, he said.

Weeden said U.S. officials might be worried that creation of new international norms would undermine Washington's own work on a mid-course missile defense system, which could inherently be used to destroy other countries' satellites.

The United States was the first country to develop anti-satellite weapons in the 1950s, but it currently has no known weapons dedicated to that mission.

Weeden noted, however, that Washington's use of a modified Standard Missile-3 to destroy a falling U.S. satellite that contained toxic chemicals had proven the United States had the ability to destroy a satellite in orbit if required.

He said China was likely to carry out additional tests of the new system, including possible intercept tests, which could be "extremely dangerous and damaging" for other countries that operate satellites.

Weeden also analyzed U.S. comments about debris from China's May 2013 launch reentering the atmosphere above the Indian Ocean, and said they were in line with U.S. claims that the Chinese launch reached a high point or apogee of 30,000 km (18,600 miles), rather than the 10,000 km (6,200 miles) that the Chinese had claimed.

The full article is available on the journal's website at:

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why China's new anti-satellite weapon worries US
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today