Share This!
Text SizeAAA Share Email

Understanding China's ASAT Test

Gregory Kulacki & Jeffrey Lewis

On January 11, 2007, China successfully tested a direct-ascent hit-to-kill interceptor against one of their old weather satellites. American analysts invariably attempted to decipher Beijing's ''message'' for the United States. Yet in the immediate aftermath of test, China sent no official message at all. This silence led to a foreign policy fiasco in which China was roundly condemned by most space-faring nations both for the test and for its failure to discuss the consequences.

American observers filled the vacuum with their own views about China and national security policy. Most American analysts placed the United States at the center of Chinese calculations, either by asserting that the test was part of a deliberate effort to acquire a comprehensive set of counterspace capabilities to offset U.S. military superiority, or an attempt to induce the United States into negotiations governing military uses of outer space. Eventually, China spoke up and rejected both assertions, claiming the test was an experiment that was ''not targeted at any country.''

To better understand the motivations behind the test and the history of China's

ASAT program we spoke directly to Chinese individuals who have knowledge of the history of this particular ASAT program and access to information about the decision-making process prior to and after the final test on January 11, 2007. We conducted more than eighty separate interviews with twenty-three individuals from eleven different institutions representing the Chinese government, the Communist Party, and the People's Liberation Army (PLA), as well as aerospace experts involved in debris calculations Most of these individuals were mid-level technical specialists; a few were senior managers with decades of work experience in their respective institutions. Our conversations were off the record and not for attribution.

The information conveyed to us about the history of the R&D program, the decision-making process that led to the test, and the foreign policy challenge that followed calls into question American analyses of the test. In particular, it suggests that American analysts tend to overstate the importance of the United States as a driver in China's decision to develop the technology and conduct the test.

We were told that the research and development program that produced the hit-to-kill technology tested in January 2007 began in the mid-1980s. Open source Chinese publications from this period confirm what we were told. At that time, the Chinese defense planners who authorized the project had no specific military mission or objective in mind. The program was not a high priority and was funded at modest levels throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. Annual across the board increases in defense spending beginning in 1999 accelerated the hit-to-kill research and development program. The decision to flight-test the interceptor was not determined by any particular external event or series of events, but by the maturity of the technology. The program managers selected the testing mode - as an ASAT as opposed to a missile intercept - largely because it is much easier to hit a satellite than to intercept a missile.

Multiple sources confirm these managers did not make the decision to test by themselves. The decision was carefully vetted, with the full participation of other stakeholders, including representatives of the Foreign Ministry. An internal report laying out the pros and cons worked its way up the bureaucracy for review and comment before finally being put before the ultimate decision makers. Standard vetting procedures were followed and there was no dispute among any of the participants from the government, the party, or the military about the legitimacy of the decision.

Powered by Convio
nonprofit software