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China's Shot Heard Around The Galaxy
by Staff Writers
Washington DC (SPX) Jul 03, 2008

The satellite the Chinese shot out of the sky was their own Fengyun-1C. This steadfast satellite had dutifully followed its orbit at 537 miles above the Earth for 10 years -- circling the globe several times a day from north to south and north again as the world turned beneath its gaze.

China's counterspace program - punctuated by the January 2007 successful test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon - poses dangers to human space flight and puts at risk the assets of all space faring nations. --U .S. Department of Defense.

The United States unquestionably holds the strategic high ground of space today. What is very much in question, however, is who will hold that strategic high ground in the many tomorrows that will follow.

Today, both the U.S. economy and military depend heavily on a complex network of more than 400 orbiting satellites that provide everything from reconnaissance and navigation to communication and information. The crown jewel of this network is the world's only fully functional GPS, the use of which the United States offers for free to the world.

America's GPS system has made it much easier for you and me to get around town; increased the efficiency of routing for ships, planes, and trains; and protected us from hurricanes and tornadoes.

GPS systems also provide farmers with precise guidance for everything from field operations and the detection of insect and disease infestations to cultivation and irrigation. All told, the economic benefits from civilian GPS applications alone are rapidly approaching more than $50 billion annually.

America's GPS and its broader U.S. satellite network are even more critical as targeting and guidance instruments for the military. Over the past three decades, satellite-guided precision munitions have proven time and again they can deliver deadly blows to highly specific targets in the midst of populated cities with a greatly reduced impact on civilians.

Using the vantage point of space, the United States has been able to fight a number of wars with decidedly asymmetrical casualties. For example, during the first Gulf War, fewer than 150 Americans died in combat while anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed. The results were similar in both Kosovo and in the initial invasion campaign for the 2003 Iraq War.

Whatever you might think of these military actions by the United States, the broader strategic point is that the U.S. domination of space has allowed most American troops to stay safely out of harm's way while inflicting massive damage on the enemy.

In this way, America's space advantage has lowered the human cost of war by many thousands of American lives. It has also made possible the "United States as world policemen" interventions the American public might not have otherwise tolerated.

The "game-changing" domination of space by the Americans has not gone unnoticed by China. In fact, the 1991 Gulf War was an epiphany for Chinese strategists because it graphically demonstrated that U.S. space superiority completely undermines their long-held tactic of "human wave" troop strength.

As Air Force General Thomas Moorman has put it, "Desert Storm was a watershed event in military space applications because, for the first time, space systems were both integral to the conflict and critical to the outcome of the war."

From the Chinese perspective, there are at least two ways to counter the U.S. space advantage. One way is to render the U.S. satellite surveillance system "deaf, dumb, and blind." The other way is to quite literally seize the highest strategic ground in space. That China is developing capabilities in both areas should be evident to anyone who bothers to look.

A New Type of Chinese Junk Sails into Space
Consider China's efforts to develop the capability to neutralize or destroy the U.S. satellite surveillance system. In January 2007, in a shot heard 'round the galaxy, China made it abundantly clear that it fully intends to develop anti-satellite weapons capabilities to challenge U.S. supremacy in space.

The details of China's anti-satellite weapons test -- that may be rightly described as the single most irresponsible act of space weapons development ever perpetrated by any nation -- are interesting in and of themselves.

The satellite the Chinese shot out of the sky was their own Fengyun-1C. This steadfast satellite had dutifully followed its orbit at 537 miles above the Earth for 10 years -- circling the globe several times a day from north to south and north again as the world turned beneath its gaze.

On a Thursday morning in January 2007, Fengyun-1C came over the horizon and faithfully transmitted its usual batch of weather data to its home country. About that time, a modified intercontinental ballistic missile lifted off from the Xichang launch facility in Sichuan Province and threw a "kinetic kill vehicle" onto a collision course with the innocent weather satellite.

Upon impact, the nuts, bolts, panels, and wires of the satellite, together with thousands of fragments and pieces of the kinetic kill vehicle, were scattered into a massive cloud of debris. The resultant field of Chinese space junk has quickly become a huge navigational hazard for the vast majority of satellites. As Nicholas Johnson, NASA's Chief Scientist for Orbital Deblis, has described the dangers:

"[China's] debris cloud extends from less than 125 miles to more than 2,292 miles, encompassing all of low Earth orbit. The majority of the debris have mean altitudes of 528 miles or greater, which means most will be very long-lived...Any of this debris has the potential for seriously disrupting or terminating the mission of operational spacecraft in low Earth orbit. This satellite breakup represents the most prolific and serious fragmentation in the course of 50 years of space operations."

At the time, many pundits and politicians would ask: What quite literally "on earth" would possess a developing nation desperately seeking international approval to pull such a dangerous stunt and risk such geopolitical fallout?

Given the Chinese government's lack of transparency, there really is no satisfactory answer to that question. Perhaps even more chilling, immediately after the event, Chinese diplomats and political leaders seemed as surprised as the rest of the world by this test!

In fact, China's civilian leaders were unable to describe the test or offer a coordinated explanation for several days. One alarming possibility is that the People's Liberation Army and its own rogue cadre of space hawks may have conducted this test without full disclosure to the politicians as a demonstration of their strength.

Regardless of whether China's anti-satellite weapons test was a renegade act by the military or a cold calculation by the political leadership, the North American Aerospace Defense Command continues to track more than 2,000 of the larger pieces of the late Fengyun-1C at altitudes ranging from 125 to 2,500 miles.

These pieces have begun to stretch out along the doomed satellite's inertial path. As the Fengyun-1C was in a "sun synchronous" orbit -- circling the Earth from pole to pole -- it has saddled the Earth with a small Saturn-like ring of trash running from north to south.

As noted previously, this trash poses a grave threat to all nations seeking to explore space -- including the Chinese. The reason is that most satellites and all manned space missions travel in more nearly equatorial orbits -- circling the Earth from east to west-and are therefore forced to traverse the Chinese obstacle course in space several times a day.

In fact, more than two-thirds of all the nearly 3,000 craft in orbit are at risk of disastrous collisions with this material, and the list of potential victims includes the International Space Station and its crew.

On top of this, every remaining U.S. Space Shuttle mission, with its delicate and all too fragile outer armor, will have to fly through China's ring of deadly space junk several times. Special care will have to be taken to avoid the larger tracked chunks, but many tens of thousands of smaller, yet deadly, pieces may go undetected.

Because these pieces are traveling at speeds of more than 18,000 miles per hour in an orbit roughly perpendicular to the path of the endangered satellites, the speed of impact is much higher than with most space debris that is traveling on the same general trajectory as the satellites themselves.

Of Would-Be Chinese Tojos and Bringing America to Its Knees
For countries that can never win a war with the United States by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking the U.S. space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice. --Wang Hucheng, Chinese military analyst

What specifically are the dangers posed by China's development of an anti-satellite weapons capability? Consider just the vulnerability of the American GPS system.

It was designed for 30 satellites in 6 orbital planes, with each orbital plane requiring 4 functional units as a minimum for full service to military and civilian users. A Chinese attack that disabled a mere dozen of these units would effectively result in a system failure.

As bizarre and irresponsible as China's anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) test was, its arsenal of kinetic kill vehicles that can literally knock a satellite out of space is but one component of a more complete counterspace program that China's People's Liberation Army has been aggressively pursuing in recent years. Indeed, China also has been covertly testing high-energy ground-based lasers capable of temporarily blinding satellites.

Jane's Defence Weekly reports that such lasers have already been successfully used against U.S. spy satellites over China. Submarine-mounted lasers that can literally melt the optical systems of satellites are also under development along with radio jammers directed at GPS satellite signals and plasma-based weaponry that can damage satellites using electromagnetic pulses.

This is all very serious business because a Chinese attack on optical and radar surveillance satellites could degrade U.S. capabilities far beyond China.

For example, the loss of geosynchronous and medium Earth orbit satellites could disrupt American military communications from Afghanistan and Iraq to Guam. Hits on several GPS satellites could render the entire system militarily unusable and cause serious economic damage to commercial users, too.

At greatest immediate risk from China's satellite killers is Taiwan. For years, the Chinese military has spent the largest portion of its budget and training time preparing to retake the "renegade province."

To date, U.S. air and naval forces have had to demonstrate American support for Taiwan three times -- in the first Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1954-55, during a second conflict in 1958, and the third time in 1995-96 when the U.S.S. Nimitz super aircraft carrier passed through the strait as a show of strength while China was firing "test missiles" dangerously close to Taiwan.

China's new satellite killers dramatically change the battlefield. Would-be Chinese Tojos within the hawkish wing of the People's Liberation Army can now credibly argue that a Pearl Harbor-like, preemptive strike on U.S. satellites would impair U.S. forces to a degree that would preclude swift U.S. action in the Taiwan Strait.

In this hawkish view, a defanged America will have learned its lesson about interfering in Chinese affairs, while a large number of other countries aligned more with China would surely applaud the removal of "arrogant U.S. astro-hegemony."

Lest anyone think that such a scenario is improbable, consider that Chinese strategists have specifically called for this scenario. Borrowing from the American playbook, they have labeled such an attack "Space Shock and Awe" and argued that such an attack must be devastating enough to deter any further American military action in a crisis and "bring the opponent to his knees."

The above is an excerpt from the book The Coming China Wars by Peter Navarro. Published by FT Press; May 2008;$15.99US/$17.99CAN; 978-0-13-235982-5. Copyright 2008 Peter Navarro


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