China's ASAT Test and its Impact on the United States
On January 11, 2007, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to have performed an anti-satellite (ASAT) operation successfully by destroying an aging low-earth orbiting weather satellite through the launching of a ballistic missile into orbit carrying a "kinetic kill vehicle" -- most probably a DF-21 missile, after similar operations with a DF-31 had repeatedly failed.
This Chinese ASAT mission, which some alarmists have unnecessarily termed "the first step toward a space war," deserves careful analysis both from a general strategic standpoint and, in particular, in relation to the space control aspects involved.
First of all, it should be clearly understood that an action such as this is not likely to give rise, in the short term, to a space war or a race for space supremacy between the United States and China. The reason is that a huge technological gap still exists between these two countries.
Moreover, an ASAT mission of this type does not constitute a breach of any international treaty, and in particular it is not in conflict with the most important international agreement on the military aspects of space, namely the Outer Space Treaty signed by the United States in 1967 and by China in 1983.
The event was certainly not greeted with beaming smiles in Washington, but this was due not to fear of some fantastic space war, but instead to the following three concrete reasons:
1. The launch confirms the advances made in the Chinese space program, today among the technological areas in which Beijing is investing most heavily and achieving the most rapid progress.
2. The success of this experiment reveals China's enhanced ability to protect its territory from observation by reconnaissance satellites or other space vehicles, both for defensive purposes (reconnaissance and intelligence satellites) and for potentially offensive uses (G.P.S. or similar systems).
3. For the U.S. military, satellite systems play a vital role not only in data acquisition, but also in the operation of high-precision weaponry. The Pentagon, therefore, is extremely sensitive to any actions that could undermine the use of these systems.
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