Through a glass, darkly: Chinese, American, and Russian anti-satellite testing in space
The proliferation of hit-to-kill systems and the end of space as a sanctuary
The preceding discussion of Chinese, American, and Russian ASAT testing and weapons development programs illustrates three main points. First, it is clear that efforts to develop the ability to intercept and destroy satellites have been under development since satellites first became reality. Originally, ASAT development was driven by the need to counter satellites that could be carrying nuclear weapons for de-orbiting over a target without trigging the detection and warning systems that were in place at that time. ASATs were thus seen as the only policy option to prevent such systems being used for coercion. As the Cold War progressed and space systems became an increasingly important part of national technical means of verification (NTMV) for various arms control agreements, interest in ASAT development tailed off. However, the increased use of space capabilities for force enhancement in towards the end of the Cold War rekindled interest in ASATs. More recently, the development and deployment of midcourse missile defense systems have brought with them ancillary ASAT capabilities. The increasing number of states using satellites to provide national security capabilities, and concerns over ballistic missile and WMD proliferation, will only accelerate this trend.
Second, the technology to destroy a satellite using rockets has been well understood for at least five decades. The requirements are a rocket that can loft the kill vehicle to the altitude of the target satellite or place the interceptor into orbit, the ability to track a satellite and communicate that information to the interceptor, and an interceptor that can track and home on the target. The launch portion can be done by any SLV in use today and most medium-range ballistic missiles, and there has always been a cross-flow between ballistic missile programs and SLV programs in virtually every country that has developed them. It is common for ballistic missiles to become SLVs or parts of SLVs after retirement from their missile role. A hit-to-kill kinetic intercept is much more challenging than using a stand-off device such as a nuclear warhead, but the technology to target and track satellites with the precision to do a physical intercept has existed since at least the 1970s and has only gotten easier with modern electronics, computers, and software.
Third, there is no meaningful difference between midcourse ballistic missile defense and hit-to-kill ASAT capabilities. Because midcourse ballistic missile systems are intended to destroy warheads travelling at speeds and altitudes comparable to those of satellites, all midcourse ballistic missile defense systems have inherent ASAT capabilities. Typically the only difference between the two systems is the software and control algorithms used to detect, track, and home in on a satellite as compared to a warhead. In fact, these systems are likely more effective as ASAT weapons than missile defense systems due to most satellites being easier targets to detect, track, and target than warheads, which are likely accompanied by penetration aids to confuse potential defense.
This duality presents a significant political problem for the United States, which is trying to simultaneously promote the development of midcourse missile defense capabilities by itself and its allies while stigmatizing the development of ASAT weapons by its potential adversaries. To this end, the United States has gone to great lengths to try and create artificial difference between the two capabilities. An example of this is the definition of the Chinese SC-19 as a “kinetic energy weapon” and the American SM-3 as a “low-altitude, direct-ascent interceptor” in the “Space System Threats” chapter of the Air University Space Primer, when in reality they are both low-altitude, direct-ascent interceptors that utilize kinetic energy kill vehicles. This duality may also play a significant role in the unwillingness of the United States to go public on China’s ASAT weapons development because it would also invite criticism of its own midcourse missile defense development.
Given the well-known history of ASAT weapons testing by both the United States and Russia, one might wonder why the Chinese ASAT program, and in particular the May 2013 launch, caused so much consternation within the US government. There could be several factors at work. First, it may be that the US intelligence community estimated China’s capabilities in this area to be at a certain level and that estimate turned out to underrepresent their progress. They may also have forecasted China’s development of ASAT capabilities to be progressing at a much slower rate than reality. So as in the case of a publicly traded company failing to meet or exceeding Wall Street’s estimates of performance, the US government’s reaction to the test may be based in part on a reaction to its previous assessments.
However, given the array of ground, air, sea, space and cyber intelligence capabilities the United States has at its disposal, it likely has a very good assessment of where China’s capabilities stand now and, in particular, the capabilities of the ASAT systems that have been tested. What is more difficult to assess is the intent behind those capabilities. Given some of the public statements and writings from senior Chinese military leaders as well as parts of Chinese military doctrine on space (see “Staring into the eyes of the Dragon”, The Space Review, November 14, 2011), at least some in the US government are concerned that China’s ASAT capabilities are for more than just a political bargaining chip or show of force. If the increasing tensions between China and its neighbors in the East China Sea do escalate to a military engagement, there is a concern by some that attacks on US satellites may take place. It is the combination of the theoretical potential for this scenario, the uncertainty and lack of information about China’s decision-making process, and the lack of clarity of intent behind China’s ASAT testing and weapons development, that leads to a significant amount of concern in US national security circles.
Some have claimed that China’s ASAT testing and the May 2013 launch in particular represent a fundamentally “new” capability and a new threat to US national security space systems. This is true only in the strictest sense. No other country has tested a direct ascent ASAT weapon system with the potential to reach deep space satellites in MEO, HEO, and GEO. However, the publicly available information does not indicate that developing such a system involved developing new technology. The United States or Soviet Union could have developed it long ago, but lacked the incentives to do because there was nothing of value for either to attack in deep space orbits that was worth risking the sanctuary of their own satellites or nuclear war. Moreover, development of such a Chinese capability would not represent the first time US national security satellites in deep space orbits were at risk. The vulnerabilities of such satellites have been known for decades and in many cases are the result of a deliberate choice by system architects. The Russian Naryad program resulted in a highly maneuverable platform that could theoretically be used to attack those same satellites and potentially posed an even more dangerous threat by being able to persist in orbit until such time as the weapons would be needed. High-level US officials claimed in 1988 that the Soviets were then developing mobile ASAT weapons based on their ballistic missile TELs, similar to what China appears to be doing now. Thus neither the mobile nor deep space threat is entirely new.
Another factor could be the long-standing preference of the US intelligence community to keep quiet about China’s activities in space, sometimes even within the US government. The intelligence community, and particularly the space portions of the intelligence community, has evolved a deep culture of secrecy. The origins of this culture trace back to the beginnings of the space-based reconnaissance program during the Eisenhower Administration. At the time, the existence of the WS-117L effort to develop the world’s first satellite reconnaissance capability was highly classified and even kept from many in the US military. The main impetus for this was not to hide it from the Soviets, but rather to avoid provoking the Soviets by not publicly “rubbing it in their noses” that the United States possessed such a capability. This policy of secrecy was extended by the Kennedy Administration and eventually resulted in a classified 1962 Department of Defense directive that mandated the “blackout” of all US military space activities. Although some parts of that blackout policy have been rolled back over time, this culture of secrecy has become deeply ingrained in the space intelligence community even long after the original impetus for it went away. The more recent addition of cyber intelligence capabilities has only reinforced the culture of secrecy across the whole intelligence community.
A significant part of this culture of secrecy is protecting the capabilities the United States has for collecting intelligence by not revealing its “sources and methods.” Such revelations could lead to discovery of the means by which the United States determined the information and changes to systems or operational practices that undermine future collection efforts. This was the primary rationale for the complete secrecy surrounding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program for mass collection of telephone metadata and its program for collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers. In regard to China, this has led to a policy of the United States not revealing anything it knows about Chinese space activities, unless information about such activities is available from other sources or revealing it is overwhelmingly in the interests of the United States (as was the case of the 2007 Chinese ASAT test.)
It is likely that not everyone in the US government is behind this secrecy approach, as it is not a unitary actor and has its multiple factions and interest groups. Those in the State Department or even in the Pentagon who are backing efforts to engage with China and other countries on developing norms of behavior for space activities and those who are tasked with protecting US national security space assets are likely pushing within the interagency process to reveal more about what China is doing. However, space-based satellite reconnaissance has long held a particularly privileged position in US national security circles owing to the importance of such capabilities to US decision-makers. Thus, the intelligence community has what almost amounts to veto power over any national security decision that could theoretically jeopardize its interests.
This tendency towards overwhelming secrecy is not new and has contributed to significant negative impacts on US national security in the past. For example, Soviet efforts to build and launch a satellite in the late 1950s were well known to the upper echelons of the Eisenhower Administration because of its intelligence collection efforts. At the same time, the efforts of the United States to develop its own rockets and satellites, including the WS-117L surveillance satellite program, were also under way (and by some measures on par with or even ahead of the Soviets.) The lack of details in the public domain about either the Soviet or American programs laid the groundwork for the public shock that resulted after Sputnik. This was a shock the Eisenhower Administration never recovered from and one that deeply affected the American public. More recently, DNI Clapper has said that the US government should have been more open about some parts the NSA’s surveillance programs from the very beginning to create legitimacy and avoid some of the current controversy created by the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. One wonders if the overbearing secrecy regarding intelligence about Chinese ASAT testing might end up negatively impacting US policy efforts down the road, including efforts to develop norms of behavior in space.
It is also clear that there are elements within the United States that have an interest in portraying China as a substantial threat to America. This is not a conspiracy per se but rather a direct result of economic and organizational incentives. The intelligence community has a vested interest in protecting its ability to collect intelligence data and also to expand its data collection efforts. There is also an ongoing battle within the Pentagon over what the future national security threat landscape looks like and whether the US military should align itself to conduct counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism operations as in Iraq and Afghanistan or fight regional conventional wars with Iran, North Korea, China or even a resurgent Russia. There are also factions within Congress and the broader punditry universe for whom a more dangerous China aligns with a range of ideological and political worldviews and desired outcomes.
Given the paucity of information about what China is really doing and their intentions, it is impossible to state with certainty what the reality is concerning China’s ASAT weapons program. The secrecy surrounding the issue and the rampant opportunities for manipulation and spin only exacerbate the situation. The combination of the secrecy of the intelligence community, the desire by some to have a new “near peer” adversary, the opportunity for a lot of defense contractors to make money re-equipping the Pentagon to fight such an adversary, and grandstanding by members of Congress to use China as a means to their ideological and political ends, and the likely reaction by China to all these US actions results in a very troubling feedback loop that drives the two countries towards confrontation.
The uncertain, risky future
There is the potential that a similar blanket of official government secrecy over the developments in China’s ASAT testing program (and perhaps other efforts that the public is not yet aware of) will create its own negative consequences. It is becoming increasingly difficult for any government, including the United States and China, to completely hide all knowledge of these events from the public. As this article has clearly pointed out, there are many photos, videos, papers, presentations, and eyewitness accounts to draw from, even in China. In the United States there are also anonymous sources within the national security community that have repeatedly leaked classified information on Chinese ASAT activities to select members of the media. The danger is that these trickles and leaks can be deliberately manipulated by various parties to serve their own political or ideological interests. This type of agenda control is not uncommon in media reporting and government leaking, but its persuasive effects are enhanced by the lack of other information and facts to weigh it against. Attempting to exert control over an issue area by withholding information gives others the opportunity to seize control by providing their own information.
The US government should release more precise details about where the pieces from the May 13, 2013, launch re-entered. Its capabilities to do so are commonly known and doing so should not reveal sources and methods. Providing such information would add significant weight to the US claim that this launch went much higher than China claimed, and also add credence to the US claims that this launch was a test of a new ASAT capability. This could open doors to political pressure on China, especially if China conducts future tests of the system and is considering an actual intercept. At the same time, the Chinese government could back up its claims that it was merely a scientific test itself by providing more information on the launch. For example, details on what type of sounding rocket was used and what pad it launched from could add credibility to its story. If there was a scientific package onboard that conducted experiments, announcing when and where the data and results will be published would also add credibility. Furthermore, if there are any indications that China or any other country is considering a destructive test in or near GEO, preventing such a test should be the top priority for the entire space community.
A bigger issue than this one event is the significant changes taking place in the space security world. There is increasing evidence that hit-to-kill midcourse missile defense and ASAT systems are proliferating around the world. The United States and its Japanese and European allies plan to deploy 43 Aegis BMD ships, loaded with 486 SM-3 Block 1A/1B missiles, and Aegis Ashore installations in Romania and Poland with 14 Block IIA missiles by 2018. In 2012, the Russian media reported that the Russian military would be restarting work on its airborne laser ASAT system. The Russian media also reported in 2013 that the Duma called for the Russian military to restart the Kontakt air-launched ASAT program. Largely in response to the Chinese ASAT developments discussed above, India has also made several statements about their interest in developing an ASAT capability from their ongoing missile defense program to deter attacks on Indian space assets (see “India’s missile defense/anti-satellite nexus”, The Space Review, May 10, 2010).
At the same time, a growing number of countries are integrating space into their national military capabilities and relying on space-based information for national security. This increased reliance means there is also an increased chance that any interference with satellites could spark or escalate tensions and conflict in space or on Earth. This is made all the more difficult by the challenge of determining the exact cause of a satellite malfunction: whether it was due to a space weather event, impact by space debris, unintentional interference, or deliberate aggression. All of this suggests a much more dangerous and uncertain security situation in space for all, and particularly the United States, which is the most dependent on space and has the most satellites in orbit. How the United States and the world deals with that future and what the repercussions will be is an extremely difficult question to answer.
Framing that question in terms of the weaponization of space or an arms race in space is likely not a useful path towards finding an answer to this problem. Those debates typically revolve around the placement of weapons in outer space and thus exclude the ASAT weapons launched from the ground, air, or sea that make up the vast majority of the systems described above. The core issue is not the placement of weapons in space but rather the proliferation of ASAT capabilities in general, regardless of whether they are space-based, ground-based, air-based, or sea-based. As more and more countries begin to rely on space capabilities for national security, the development and testing of ASAT capabilities is more likely to undermine political and strategic stability. The actual use of ASAT capabilities against space systems is also increasingly likely to spark or escalate conflict on Earth. All of this could jeopardize the long-term sustainability, safety, and security of space for all and humanity’s ability to utilize space for its many benefits, both known and unknown.
We do have some idea what the United States’ strategy is for dealing with this uncertain and risky future. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2014, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro outlined the Pentagon’s strategy for dealing with these challenges. The strategy includes five main elements: building and reinforcing international norms of responsible behavior in space, improving space situational awareness (SSA), making DoD space systems and architectures more resilient against attacks, deterring aggression against US space systems, and being able to defeat attacks on those systems. This represents a comprehensive and multi-layered approach, but also one that will take a decade or longer to implement, leaving a critical near-term vulnerability. Explaining the rationale behind this strategy and how this near-term vulnerability might be addressed will be the subject of a future article.