White House Confirms Chinese Anti-Satellite Weapon Test

BOSTON --The House and Senate Armed Services committees will get classified briefingsFriday about the destructionof a Chinese weather satellite by a Chinese-launched ballistic missile, anincident that is being widely interpreted as the test of an anti-satelliteweapon.

GordonJohndroe, the National Security Council's (NSC) chief spokesman, said in astatement supplied by an NSC press official that the Chinese used aground-based, medium-range ballistic missile to knock out an aging Chineseweather satellite orbiting the Earthat an altitude of about 537 miles (865 kilometers). Johndroe described theincident as a kinetic strike.

"The UnitedStates believes China'sdevelopment and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit ofcooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area," Johndroesaid. "We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this actionto the Chinese."

JeffreyLewis, executive director of Harvard's Managing the Atom Project was among thefirst to disclose the incident Jan. 17 in a blog he writes for the Web sitearmscontrolwonk.com.

Lewis saidin a Jan. 17 telephone interview that an analysis of orbital data that isgathered by U.S. Air Force space surveillance systems and posted online atSpace-Track.org and Heavens-Above.com indicated that the Chinese FY-1C weathersatellite, which was launched in 1999, disappeared from view about Jan. 11. Inan interview Jan. 18, Lewis said the satellite reappeared Jan. 12 in a differentorbit and in multiple pieces. Lewis said the orbital tracking data stronglysuggested the satellite was struck by a missile fired from the Chinesemainland.

"This is anenormous mess they [the Chinese] have created. There is no excuse for what is areckless, stupid and self-defeating decision on their part," Lewis said.

"Space-Trackis showing about 40 pieces of debris, which is probably just the tip of theiceberg," Lewis said. Space-Track.org is the U.S. Air Force Web site thatprovides public satellite tracking data.

There maybe one piece of good to come of the Chinese action -- improved debris fieldmodeling. "Our models of debris spread are quite speculative, so this eventshould help improve our models," Lewis said.

Phone callsto the press office at the Chinese Embassy in Washington were not returned bypress time.

In hispress briefing yesterday, White House spokesman Tony Snow indicated it was notyet clear exactly what China's intentions were but echoed Johndroe's comments:"we are concerned about [the incident] and we've made it known."

JoanJohnson-Freese, chair of the Naval War College's department of nationalsecurity decision making and one of the country's top experts on Chinese spaceissues, said she doubted there will be much long-term impact. "I think therewill be a lot of very vocal rhetoric, but I don't think it will have asubstantive impact. There are just too many reasons for both of us to worktogether on so many issues."

China waslisted alongside Russia as "the primary states of concern regarding militaryspace and counter-space programs" by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples,director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in written testimony submitted tothe Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Jan. 11, the same day the incidentoccurred.

 "Severalcountries continue to develop capabilities that have the potential to threatenU.S. space assets, and some have already deployed systems with inherent anti-satellitecapabilities, such as satellite-tracking laser ranger-finding devices andnuclear-armed ballistic missiles," Maples said in his written testimony.

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Colin Clark
Contributing Writer

Colin Clark, the founding editor of Breaking Defense, also started DoDBuzz.com, the world’s first all-online defense news website, He covered Congress, intelligence and regulatory affairs for Space News; founded and edited the Washington Aerospace Briefing, a newsletter for the space industry; covered national security issues for Congressional Quarterly; and was editor of Defense News. Colin, an avid fisherman, grill genius and wine drinker, lives in his native Washington, D.C. but will eventually be relocating to Australia where he will report on Asia and Pacific defense matters for Breaking Defense.