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China ASAT panel
Panelists discuss China's ASAT and missile defense programs. From left: Scott McMahon, Mark Stokes, Dean Cheng, and Jeff Kueter, President, The George C. Marshall Institute. (credit: D. Day)

China’s ASAT enigma


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China has been launching a lot of satellites over the past several years and has taken many people by surprise with a rapid build-up of military space capabilities. However, although the rate of increase has been alarming, nobody could have been completely in the dark about China’s development of military space capabilities. After all, in 2007 China announced their arrival on the military space stage with a bang, blasting one of their own defunct weather satellites into tens of thousands of pieces with a ground-launched anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. China has not repeated that highly controversial test, which substantially increased the amount of debris flying around in low Earth orbit and endangers many satellites as well as the International Space Station. However, China has conducted at least one other similar anti-ballistic missile test that US military officials have implied exercised their ASAT capabilities. More recently, only a few months ago there were rumors of an impending ASAT test, which so far has not happened. What is clear is that, more than six years after their ASAT test, very little is clear.

For the United States, deterrence means dissuading an adversary from doing something. But for China, their word for “deterrence” also includes the concept of compellance, forcing an opponent to submit.

On February 19, in Washington, DC, the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council and the George Marshall Institute held a forum discussing China's plans, programs, and intentions for its ASAT and missile defense programs. The panel discussion featured Dean Cheng, Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation; Mark Stokes, Executive Director at the Project 2049 Institute; and K. Scott McMahon, Senior Defense Research Analyst at the RAND Corporation.

The panel discussion focused on the international political as well as American military policy issues concerning the Chinese ASAT capability. The panelists did not discuss China’s actual technical capabilities, a subject for which public information remains scarce. Although the United States Department of Defense publishes a regular, congressionally-mandated report on China’s military capabilities, that report contains very limited details on the subject, presumably to avoid revealing what the American intelligence community has discovered about Chinese ASAT capabilities.

Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation spoke about what the Chinese themselves have said in their government publications and journals about their military space capabilities. Many in the United States understand very little about China, Cheng said. He tried to add some much-needed perspective about the way the Chinese view the world. China, Cheng explained, does not have experience with “bolt from the blue” attacks or inadvertent war. Therefore, whereas ever since Pearl Harbor much American military theory has been driven by the concept of surprise attack, the Chinese have an entirely different experience base. From their view, war has always been deliberate.

Cheng further pointed out that understanding the language is important to understanding what the Chinese really mean. For example, the Chinese definition of “deterrence” is different than the commonly-accepted Western definition. For the United States, deterrence means dissuading an adversary from doing something. But for China, their word for “deterrence” also includes the concept of compellance, forcing an opponent to submit. This makes it harder to determine what Chinese officials may be attempting to achieve by developing an ASAT capability allegedly to “deter” the United States. Although Cheng did not mention it, this fact also may affect how the Chinese view US actions. After all, if they hear that the Americans are trying to deter them, they may not immediately think that it is an effort to prevent action, but interpret that as an attempt by the Americans to force China to do something they do not want to do.

Cheng also somewhat dismissively referred to views held by American arms control advocates, who have used relatively slim evidence to conclude that Chinese officials were surprised by the amount of debris generated by their 2007 ASAT test and therefore had not intended it to be as aggressive an act as it appeared. Cheng pointed out that there are Chinese writings predating the 2007 test indicating that China was aware that a kinetic ASAT test would create orbital debris, and generate a strong reaction. According to Cheng, they conducted the test to demonstrate “look what could happen” if a conflict spread into space.

Mark Stokes, Executive Director of the Project 2049 Institute, spoke about the lack of clarity on Chinese military institutions. He said that China has long been interested in anti-satellite capabilities. They had an ASAT and anti-ballistic missile program as early as 1964 that apparently ended by the latter part of the Cultural Revolution, certainly by the early 1970s. Later they initiated their “863 Program” (86 indicating it started in 1986), which was apparently a response to the Strategic Defense Initiative by the US.

Chinese military journal articles often emphasize how reliant the Americans are upon space, particularly for information, Cheng notes. “If we do not want the Chinese to go and develop ASATs, then we need to not rely on space.”

Stokes said that it is difficult to figure out “who owns the ASAT mission;” in other words, what part of the vast Chinese military bureaucracy is responsible for procuring the equipment and running the operations? The most likely acquisitions agency is the General Armaments Department, one of four departments in the People’s Liberation Army. But that remains unclear. The General Armaments Department is responsible for space tracking as well as testing of spacecraft. Theoretically, if they are the sponsor, they should also be the user. Another option is the General Staff Department, which has signals intelligence responsibilities, or even the Chinese air force, which has some missile defense responsibilities. Stokes said that there has been some speculation that the ASAT is designated “HQ,” which is an air force designation.

Stokes speculated about which organizations might be responsible for different parts of the weapon and when it may have been approved and developed. The Chinese would have done ground tests and flight tests. He noted that there were reports that the Chinese had performed two less-than-fully-successful tests before the widely known one in 2007. After several tests, presumably the system would have been transferred to an operational owner. “We still don’t know” a lot about what has happened, he added. Stokes noted that it is not clear if the weapons system has become operational.

Dean Cheng said that the Chinese ASAT development has to be placed in a larger military and political context. It is in many ways a response to what they perceive as American military reliance upon space. “They are very close students of the American way of war,” Cheng explained. “They have come to the realization that space is essential for the American way of war.” Their military journal articles often emphasize how reliant the Americans are upon space, particularly for information. “If we do not want the Chinese to go and develop ASATs, then we need to not rely on space.” But Cheng noted that it’s unlikely that the United States will fundamentally change the way it goes to war. He further noted that the Chinese developed long-range missiles while ignoring strategic aircraft. So they too have made choices that have restricted their range of future options. “The US and China compete in space for the same reason that we compete on the oceans and at the United Nations.” It is all about power and influence.

Echoing Cheng’s comment about it being difficult to believe that the Chinese were ignorant about how much debris their 2007 test would generate, Stokes noted that the Chinese have long had a system for tracking space objects and debris, so somebody in China could have informed their military leadership that their ASAT test would generate a lot of debris. However, just because the Chinese may have been aware that their test would make a powerful statement doesn’t mean that statement was intended for the United States. Stokes noted that in the year before the test, Taiwan’s government had been involved in a contentious debate about funding several new, and expensive, satellite systems. With their limited resources, this was a major decision for the Taiwanese. Stokes explained that the Chinese political leadership is obsessed with Taiwan. The Chinese test may have been intended to derail the Taiwanese satellite programs by sending a message that if Taiwan builds such satellites, China could blast them out of the sky.

The panelists also addressed the question of how the United States and its allies could respond to this new threat posed by China. Scott McMahon stated that he believes that the United States has very little ability to limit Chinese development of ASAT capabilities. He thinks that the Chinese believe that it is valuable simply to be able to attack some part of American military capability.

McMahon suggested that one possible US response to China’s newly acquired ASAT capability is to coordinate with allies in Asia. For instance, the United States could work with Japan to use Japanese rockets to replenish satellite constellations.

In response to a question about whether China faces defense cutbacks like those currently being experienced in the United States, Cheng noted that the Chinese should produce a defense white paper soon that outlines some of their defense plans. Echoing one of his coworkers, Cheng said “most countries have to choose between guns and butter. China gets to buy guns soaked in butter.” But lack of information about China’s ASAT capabilities is not unusual when you consider that there is very little information available on what China spends on its military. “We don’t know what China’s space budget is. We don’t know what China’s space budget is relative to its defense budget.” We do know that they are developing a lot of space assets. And we do know that they are one of only three countries that have “hit a bullet with a bullet,” he said.

The panelists also warned that it would be a mistake to get overly focused on the kinetic ASAT capability alone. Stokes added that there is a lot more to an ASAT capability than simply hitting the satellite including tracking the target. The General Armaments Department has made no secret of the fact that it has a unit for jamming satellites, presumably communications and even GPS.

McMahon suggested that one possible US response to China’s newly acquired ASAT capability is to coordinate with allies in Asia. For instance, the United States could work with Japan to use Japanese rockets to replenish satellite constellations. Cheng suggested that one “pipe dream” could be for the Asian countries to “talk to each other.” Unlike Europe, the Asian nations have no history of cooperating with each other. South Korea and Japan don’t even cooperate in the most basic intelligence sharing operations. This has consequences because it emboldens China. China’s increasing assertiveness in the region is a direct result of the failure of its neighbors to unite in standing up to China. “China has long been the big power and its peripheral countries bandwagon with it, or at best keep their heads down and their mouths shut,” he explained. These neighboring countries don’t need to jointly acquire hardware, but could at least share information. Japan is talking with India, but there is less discussion than there should be, Cheng said. Until they show better signs of standing together to oppose the big power in their region, they may find that China will continue to throw its considerable weight around.

And inevitably, Western analysts will continue to be confused by the dragon.


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