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Is China Challenging Space Security
by Ajey Lele
New Delhi, India (SPX) Oct 24, 2013

File image: Taiyuan Space Center.

There is a view that the recent China's attempt to capture a satellite in space by using mechanical arm actually demonstrates their capability to develop counter-space technologies. This article attempts to put this experimentation in space by China into context.

The 'test' under discussion was initially viewed as a scientific experiment. China had launched three satellites on July 19, 2013 by using their Long March-4C launcher.

Officially, China has identified these satellites as 'scientific experimentation satellites to perform experiments on space maintenance technologies.' Also, these satellites are expected to be used for the observation of space debris. Amongst these three satellites (Chuang Xin-3, the Shiyan Weixing-7 and the Shijian-15) the satellite Shiyan Weixing-7 made a sudden manoeuvre on Aug 19, 2013.

It was a surprise rendezvous with a completely different satellite, Shijian 7 (SJ-7, Practice 7), launched by China in 2005. Interestingly, since its launch Shiyan Weixing-7 (SY-7) had completed a series of orbital changes and was put close to Chuang Xin-3(CX-3) but as mentioned, suddenly it conducted an unusual manoeuvre with a different satellite.

Space analysts are of the opinion that SY-7 has a robotic arm and it could rendezvous with CX-3 which might have been developed to act as target for the robotic arm experiment. But, instated it rendezvoused with SJ-7.

Presently, there is no clarity in regards to the exact nature of this 'maintenance technology' tested by China by doing such manoeuvre. It is likely that the mechanical arm was used to capture another satellite in space. But, as per some analysts, another possibility is that, 'the test involved detaching a part of one satellite and its release into a separate orbit, and the subsequent recapturing of this component by using the extension arm'.

Now, the basic challenge is to know whether this activity is a part of China's space warfare programme. The concept of the use of mechanical arm in space is not new, but actually a three decades old reality.

In 1981 Canada arm (Canadarm), Canada's most famous robotic and technological achievement, made its space debut in connection with space shuttle and space station experiment. Presently, China is developing their space station programme. It is but obvious that they also would be interested in testing mechanical arm technology. So why suspect them?

Is China becoming a victim of its own past, the 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) test? Are any other Chinese activities have been a suspect post January 2007? Is it because China has not shown any transparency while undertaking various recent space missions that the world is becoming more suspicious? Or is it because the peculiarity of recent space manoeuvre is so intricate that is raises the needle of suspicion? Would it be correct to view the recent Chinese activity in space only as a part of their scientific endeavor or it is too naive to do so?

China is responsible for making the almost dormant subject of space weaponsiation active by conducting 2007 ASAT test which ended up in creating huge space debris. As per the factsheet made available by the Secure World Foundation providing details about the known or suspected Chinese ASAT Test in Space: China has been working on various possibilities of conducting ASAT test since 2005.

Before the 2007 ASAT they had conducted a rocket test (2005) and a likely flyby of the orbital target (February 2006). Subsequently, two ballistic missile tests (Jan, 2010 and Jan, 2013) hitting unknown targets but not creating any debris (low altitude tests, may be at around 250km above the earth's surface) were conducted.

On May 13, 2013 China had launched a rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center (called it a high-altitude scientific research mission), which probably was a covert test of a new ballistic missile related to China's ASAT programme.

Also, over last couple of years there have been few unconfirmed reports in regards to China developing expertise in the arena of satellite jamming technologies including ground based laser jammers. Around 2001, there were some reports mentioning about the development of parasitic satellite capable of interfering or destroying the host satellite.

This recent test by China brings to the fore two important aspects (apart from issues like possible space arms race etc) in regards to weaponisation of space. One, the absence of a global architecture in respect of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and two, the requirement of a strong space arms control and disarmament regime.

Presently, the United States (US) military operates the most expansive network of space surveillance sensors in the world based on geographically dispersed setup of phased array radars and optical telescopes. This system is known as the Space Surveillance Network or SSN and is managed by US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). Their job is to monitor various space debris (not possible to monitor all) and issue warning in respect of any possible collision with the satellites in the space.

Voluntary they are found regularly providing advance warning to all the concerned satellite operators globally. Apart from the US, the states like Russia and China also have limited ability in this regard and few other states also have some inadequate monitoring capabilities.

The only operational and reliable Space Surveillance and Tracking network in the world is presently available with the US alone. Mainly this system would only inform about ASAT related 'happenings' in the space to the reset of the world. Some useful inputs could be provided by other actors and few private groups of sky watchers (non-government space trackers) but they need to be corroborated. Hence, the possession of such unique capability with the US alone theoretically offers following possibilities:

+ The US would share the information of any event in the space with the rest of the world immediately after its confirmation.

+ The US could decide to share such information as per their choice. The US could opt for total information blackout or selected leakage of information depending on their geostrategic calculations could be made. Moreover, the US could decide about the time-when to share such information and also with whom to share this information.

+ The US could conduct various experiments in space as per their requirement and still manage to keep the world in dark about it.

In the recent past the US had destroyed (kinetic method) their falling unserviceable satellite on Feb 20, 2008 in lower altitude to avoid debris. This was a very transparent operation and the rest of the world was constantly kept updated about their actions. It was obvious that the US used this 'opportunity' to demonstrate their capabilities in response to the Chinese 2007 ASAT test.

However, because of the transparency factor and avoidance of debris creation no furor to their action was witnessed. Interestingly, today the US is silent about their spy plane experiments (2010 onwards). Already, two flights of their X-73 spy space plane have taken place each lasting for eight and fifteen months respectively. Presently, the X-37B mission is in progress since Dec 11, 2012.

Over the years various activities are found happening in space which are detrimental to space security. However, absence of globally acceptable space regime is limiting any measures to stop their proliferation.

For last few years honest efforts are in progress in regards to development of a globally acceptable space regime. Very recently a United Nations (UN) sporsered Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs) in Outer Space Activities have submitted their report.

Also, presently the fourth draft (September 2013) of the Space Code of Conduct (CoC) is being debated upon. The state parties would be meeting during November 2013 at Bangkok for further deliberations. CoC is a European Union (UN) brainchild and is being debated since 2007 onwards.

Essentially both GGE and CoC are soft laws and are voluntary and non-binding in nature. Human rights agreements and 2007 Space Debris Mitigation guidelines are good examples to project that the soft laws are meaningful. But, the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCoC, 2002) indicates otherwise. Presently, it appears that many states in the world are favoring a formation of a soft law mechanism for space security.

The recent Chinese 'experimentation' in space exposes the limitations of soft law and raises a question about the future of space security. Various ongoing experimentations in space undertaken by various states have the dual-use capability.

There is a need to have clarity in respect of the future of on-orbit robot servicing, innovative methods for space debris removal, asteroid mining, commercial human space travel, ideas like space solar power, space elevator etc. The issue is would soft law help to address emerging challenges?

Space has become congested, contested and competitive medium and is expected to remain so. However, it is important to bring in new thinking towards the management of space affairs. There is a need to develop global space situational awareness architecture first to understand what is happening in space. Overall the aim should be to work towards an effective mechanism which could actively address all overt and covert acts of ASAT and space weaponisation.

Author: Ajey Lele, Research Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi, India. The views are personal.


Related Links
China National Space Administration
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from

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