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Anti-Satellite Capability – A Chinese Eye View

As appeared in www.saag.org

Chinese military thinking and scenario building are based on the assumption that future wars would be of very limited duration. Any country resorting to military means for achieving its objectives should be in a position to achieve them within the limited time span available before the international community intervenes and puts a stop to it. Over-ambitious objectives would be counter-productive.

2. Chinese strategists envisage that China may have to initiate a military conflict only in respect of Taiwan if it tries to proclaim its independence. They do not envisage a scenario where China may have to initiate a military conflict with the US or Japan, but their military thinking takes into account the possibility that either the US or Japan or both together might initiate a military conflict with China. They do not apprehend a situation where India might initiate a military conflict with China. But do they envisage a scenario where China might have to initiate another military conflict with India—as it did in 1962—if there is serious instability in Tibet after the death of the Dalai Lama or if the current border talks between the two countries do not give them satisfaction on their claims to Arunachal Pradesh? They are not very forthcoming on this question, but India has to presume that such a scenario cannot be ruled out so that it is not taken by surprise once again as it was in 1962. They look upon their claims at least to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh—if not the whole of it— as irreducible.

3. In the Chinese view, military planning has two essential components. First, strategic capability building such as the modernisation of their armed forces, building up a capability for offensive and defensive information warfare etc. Second, strategic asset building like roads, railways, port development etc. While no part of their present capacity building can be characterised as specifically related to India, their strategic assets building provide for the contingency of a military conflict with India too. Examples: firstly, their strategic road and rail communications building in Tibet and in the Northern Areas of Pakistan (Gilgit and Baltistan); secondly, their acquiring strategic use of assets such as ports etc in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; and thirdly, their military supply relationship with these countries, including their nuclear and missile supply relationship with Pakistan.

4. The totality of their military planning is almost completely directed towards the US, Japan and Taiwan. While they do not rule out a military confrontation with Taiwan in the short or medium term, they expect any conflict with the USA or Japan to be in the long term, but feel they have to prepare themselves for it from now onwards. Conventional wisdom would dictate that if they build up their military capabilities with regard to the US and Japan, these would automatically be available for use against Taiwan and hence, there would be no need for separate building with regard to Taiwan. However, they do not look at it this way. Since they envisage a military confrontation with Taiwan in the short or medium term and with the US and Japan only in the long term, military planning with regard to Taiwan cannot wait till they strengthen their capability with regard to the US and Japan. So, both capability buildings have to be undertaken simultaneously, instead of one following the other.

5. They do not envisage a situation where the US and Japan might intervene militarily on the land, in the sea and in air in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. However, they do apprehend their intervention—particularly of the US—in space. Such intervention could come in two ways—neutralisation of China’s assets such as communications and spy-in-the-sky satellites and placing the space assets of the US and Japan at the disposal of Taiwan by sharing with it real time intelligence and early warnings.

6. Chinese planning in space has to provide for two contingencies— strengthening their space assets and preserving them in time of war and damaging, if not neutralising, the assets of the US and Japan, without providing the US with a casus belli for a more active intervention in support of Taiwan on the land, in the sea and in air.

7. In respect of the first contingency, the US enjoys a tremendous advantage over China, which Beijing will not be able to match in the short and medium terms. Firstly, the US space infrastructure in the form of launching sites, tracking stations etc has a wide geographic spread. China’s infrastructure is largely confined to its territory. Secondly, it has been estimated that the US scientists would be able to launch a communications or spy-in-the-sky satellite, place it in orbit and make it operational within 24 hours of a requirement in this regard being projected to them by their armed forces. Thus, the US scientists would be able to replace their damaged or destroyed satellites very fast. The replacement capability of the Chinese scientists is no comparison to that of their American counterparts. So, if the US renders China’s space assets non-operational at the beginning of a military conflict with Taiwan, the Chinese Armed Forces might find themselves handicapped with regard to real time intelligence, early warnings and battlefield communications.

8. This would provide a big strategic advantage to Taiwan. How to reduce it, even if China is not able to eliminate it totally? That is the question preoccupying Chinese scientists and military planners as they try to develop their anti-satellite capability. The Chinese have undertaken this task ever since the 1980s. This has been receiving even greater attention since the Gulf war of 1991. The US has also been closely monitoring the Chinese efforts in this regard. A report on China’s military power submitted by the Pentagon to the US Congress in 2000 said, inter alia, as follows: “China is said to be acquiring a variety of foreign technologies, which could be used to develop an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. Beijing already may have acquired technical assistance which could be applied to the development of laser radars used to track and image satellites and may be seeking an advanced radar system with the capability to track satellites in low earth orbit. It also may be developing jammers, which could be used against Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. In addition, China already may possess the capability to damage, under specific conditions, optical sensors on satellites that are very vulnerable to damage by lasers. Beijing also may have acquired high-energy laser equipment and technical assistance, which probably could be used in the development of ground-based ASAT weapons. Given China’s current level of interest in laser technology, Beijing probably could develop a weapon that could destroy satellites in the future. Although specific Chinese programs for laser ASAT have not been identified, press articles indicate an interest in developing this capability and Beijing may be working on appropriate technologies.”

9. In a web posting dated April 26, 2001, in the Worldnetdaily.com, Jon Dougherty, an analyst of space-related developments, said:

“China is continuing to develop anti-satellite weapons aimed at reducing a huge military advantage held over the People’s Liberation Army by the United States. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly, China’s ongoing anti-satellite effort is focusing on “co-orbital space weapons” and “a terrestrial laser, to be used for blinding satellite optics. “Chinese laser weapons development dates back to the 1960s, as reported in 1999 by WorldNetDaily. Beijing’s laser technology is thought to equal or surpass U.S. capabilities, analysts said then. Also, quoting Asia arms experts and published Chinese reports, WND reported on China’s anti-satellite development in January. The Jane’s report said China’s anti-satellite weapons programs are said “to have benefited both from PRC (People’s Republic of China) research and development” from the 1980s and beyond, “and the transfer of Cold War-era space weapon technology from Russia.” WND said one of the new Chinese weapons is designed to “stick” to the body of enemy satellites so as to go unnoticed, then rendering it ineffective through jamming when activated.

Anti-satellite programs, known by the acronym ASAT, are of increasing concern to U.S. military planners because of the Pentagon’s reliance on space-based command, control and guidance satellites. Civilian leaders are worried because of the damage ASATs could do to domestic communications and infrastructure-support satellites. Jane’s said the Chinese are already ground testing their programs and will begin flight testing them in 2002. One aspect of the ASAT program is said to be based on Soviet-developed co-orbital techniques that were perfected in the 1980s. “The kill mechanism of the PRC ASAT remains uncertain from published reports,” Jane’s said, but the Soviet-developed system envisioned “a large orbital vehicle using a fragmentation warhead as its kill mechanism — probably the most likely approach” for a Chinese ASAT weapon. The magazine Foreign Affairs said in this month’s issue that the U.S. also experimented with similar “rudimentary” ASAT vehicles in the 1980s. The magazine said both Washington and Moscow had developed crude ASAT capabilities, but little further development — at least by the Pentagon — had been conducted since then. Echoing the details of the January WND report, Jane’s said “there are unconfirmed reports that the kill mechanism [of the Chinese ASAT] is a micro- or nano-satellite capable of flying close to the target satellite or even attaching itself as a parasite. …” That vehicle, Jane’s confirmed, “is also reported to have the option for the non-lethal jamming of a satellite as well as destroying it. “But, the weekly defense publication said, terrestrial optical sensors “are likely to be able to detect” even such small satellite “parasites” in low earth orbit. China is known to be working on such systems, but current micro-satellites which have an on-board propulsion system are intended only for space-based station keeping. “None have had the amount of fuel [onboard] to match the orbit of another satellite, let alone dock with a target,” Jane’s said. Despite the uncertainty of the details of China’s nano-satellite development, ASAT programs remain vibrant within the Chinese military nonetheless. The laser weapon concept has also been investigated by the U.S. — tested even, against an old Air Force satellite last year — and is part of China’s “asymmetric warfare” program, designed to develop cost-effective, technologically simple concepts of warfare to combat complex U.S. systems.”

10. An article dated January 21, 2002, written by one Wei Long found on a Chinese web site said as follows: “A group of Chinese space scientists urged the government to accelerate acceptance of the proposal to develop an infrastructure in space and regard developing the “space territory” as a national strategy, the Hong Kong Bureau of the China News Agency reported last Tuesday (Jan. 15). The group also suggested to claim access to space as China’s “fourth territory”. In the recently submitted consultation report “Building of China’s Space-based Infrastructure”, space technology specialist Wang Xiji of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and three other Academy colleagues contended that conventional ground-based space facilities would no longer meet future requirements, so they proposed the construction of a space-based infrastructure.

“The report said that “opening up of outer space would require infrastructure in space; much like development of land, sea and air which require ground facilities such as railroads, sea ports, power stations and airports. “Wang elaborated on the concept: “The so-called space-based infrastructure refers to the engineering system that will be built in space, and used in developing and exploiting space resources and expanding the habitation space of humankind. “The system will consist of space vehicles and their ground supporting facilities which would provide long-term stable functions and services. In fact, it is an integration of space- and ground-based national development of strategic infrastructure.”

“The group of CAS space specialists also argued that by virtue of having “vehicles that take up positions in space and the ability to possess part of the space resources”, a country would effectively extend its three territorial claims — land, sea and air — into space; thus the claim of the “fourth territory”. Chinese space scientists recognize that there is a fierce competition of space resources, but most nations do not currently have the capability to be a participant. Therefore China should not miss out the opportunity to be part of the “space civilization”.

“According to the authors of the consultation report, China has “in effect a substantial capacity to enter, develop and exploit space. One of the reasons that China has not utilized its full capacity is restricted by a lag in the consciousness of the people and the nation. “For a long time China has not given a serious regard to its capability to develop, exploit as well as reap huge political, military and economic benefits from the ‘fourth territory’. Speaking from this sense, the concept and perspective of ‘space territory’ needs vigorous promotion in China. Developing ‘space territory’ should be treated as a fundamental national strategy along with birth control planning and environment protection.”

“The report recommends eight areas of space-based infrastructure:

– Discuss issues in building a high-speed information highway;

– Increase steadily the level of performance in meteorology infrastructure;

– Plan resource [Ziyuan series] satellites as part of the national earth-resource infrastructure;

– Establish a 3-D navigation and positioning infrastructure based on the existing twin [Beidou series] navigation and positioning satellites foundation;

– Establish a national geographic information infrastructure based on the survey satellite foundation;

– Planned development of the ocean [Haiyang series] satellites into an ocean observation, monitoring and research infrastructure;

– Develop as quickly as possible a disaster and environment monitoring infrastructure;

– Develop a comprehensive civilian information network suitable for use during wartime.

“To implement the proposed space-based infrastructure, the report suggests to take a three-stage approach:

Use effectively satellites that are on-orbit and under development, and place them in the top tier of planning as a starting foundation. This stage would mark a change in the direction of Chinese space technology development: from primarily technology of entering space to technology of utilizing space functions.

Build and effectively use an elementary comprehensive information network, which would provide effective support of the national development of the space-based infrastructure. This stage would mark the completion of an elementary space-based infrastructure. Chinese space technology development enters the phase of fulfilling urgent requirements and gradually adapting to national development.

Develop sequentially the space-based infrastructure according to the blueprint. This stage would mark the initial achievement of the strategic development of China’s “fourth territory”. The space-based infrastructure would have formed a definite scale and continue to develop to perfection.”

11. A despatch dated October 6, 2006, of the All Headline News of the US said: “The Pentagon has confirmed that China has tested its anti-satellite laser and jammed a U.S. satellite but wouldn’t say which satellite was involved. The U.S. has 30 Global Positioning Satellites that it relies on for a number of tasks. That ranges from military uses such as targeting bombs and finding enemy locations to consumer uses such as automobile navigation systems and bank automatic teller machines. The Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald Kerr acknowledged the incident to Defense News last week, but said it did not materially damage the U.S. satellite’s ability to collect information. “It makes us think,” Kerr said. The incident has sparked worldwide concerns over the vulnerabilities of communications satellites and has made watchdog groups to re-consider if satellite problems are caused by malfunctions, weather anomalies like solar flares, or targeted attacks. Air Force Space Commander General Kevin Chilton said, “We’re at a point where the technology’s out there and the capability for people to do things to our satellites is there. I’m focused on it beyond any single event. “The reports of Beijing’s testing of the anti-satellite laser is likely to reignite the debate over the U.S.’ own anti-satellite program, Starfire, for which the House of Representatives attempted to block funding. The funds were reinstated after Air Force told lawmakers that the program would only be used for tracking.”

12. If the reports that China had its old weather satellite destroyed on January 11,2007, through a missile fired from the ground are correct, it has thus proven capabilities for damaging or destroying the space assets of its adversaries through laser directed from the ground as well as missiles fired from the ground. Does it also have the capability for using killer satellites and parasites? Parasite satellites are launched in peacetime and activated when war breaks out.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. e-mail: itschen36@gmail.com).

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