China’s Anti-Satellite Test Widely Criticized, U.S. Says No New Treaties Needed

Standing bythe new spacepolicy the White Houseissued last year, a U.S. State Department official said China'sJan. 11 test of an anti-satelliteweapon in space is not cause to open negotiations on a new treaty thatwould place limits on what countries can do in space.

"We do notthink there is an arms race in space. The United States believes that theexisting body of existing international agreements -- including the Outer SpaceTreaty, as well as the liability and respective compensation conventions --provide the appropriate legal regime for space," the State Department officialsaid in a Jan. 19 telephone interview.

Theofficial said the space policy clearly states that the United States willoppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek toprohibit or limit U.S. access to, or use of, space and that no change inthat policy is warranted.

"Armscontrol is not a viable solution for space. For example, there is no agreementon how to define space weapon. Without a definition you are left with loopholesand meaningless limitations that endanger national security. No arms control isbetter than bad arms control," the State Department official said.

GordonJohndroe, the National Security Council's (NSC) chief spokesman, said in astatement provided by an NSC press official Jan. 18 that the Chinese used aground-based, medium-range ballistic missile to knock out an aging Chineseweather satellite orbiting the Earth at an altitude of about 537 miles (865kilometers). 

Johndroedescribed the incident as a kinetic strike, adding: "The United States believesChina'sdevelopment and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit ofcooperation that both
countries aspire to in the civil space area. We and other countries haveexpressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese."

The StateDepartment official said U.S. Defense Support Program missile warning satellites and "other assets"detected the launch of a ballistic missile and an event that generated debris."Our space-tracking sensors subsequently observed that an old Chinese weathersatellite is no longer on orbit. ... We will continue to track these pieces ofdebris. We are especially concerned about any increased risk to satellites, butmost importantly to human spaceflight, including the U.S. space shuttle and the International Space Station."

The StateDepartment official also said the United States received no advance notice fromthe Chinese. "We have expressed our concern to the Chinese and asked them toclarify their intentions in seeking to develop a ballistic-missile-basedanti-satellite capability. ... The Chinese have not responded to ourexpressions of concern."

A U.S.intelligence official told Space News Jan. 19 the Chinese had conductedtwo previous tests that were unsuccessful, but declined to provide anyadditional details.

A Senateaide said the Jan. 11 test was the first one that was successful. The aide alsosaid weather satellite was under control but dying.

"It made alot of debris potentially affecting other satellites in [low Earth orbit]. We have to track eachpiece to see where it goes to see which satellites specifically are potentiallyat risk," the aide said, adding: "I hope the U.S. does now spend more and takespace situational awareness more seriously."

BrettonAlexander, a former White House Office of Science and Technology Policy senioranalyst who worked on space issues for both the Clinton and Bushadministrations, said the Chinese anti-satellite test is a reminder of why theUnited States believes it needs to protect its space-based capabilities.

"The Bushadministration has been on the defensive about its policy language on the needto defend U.S. space assets," Alexander said. "But this highlights that thethreat is real and why we need to protect our assets."

Earlydetails of the event were first reported Jan. 17 in a blog written by JeffreyLewis, executive director of Harvard's Managing the Atom Project, on the Website and in a story posted Jan. 18 on the Web

"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 in atelephone interview Jan. 17.

Lewis saida U.S. Air Force database of objects in orbit showed the Chinese FY-11 weather satelliteintact on Jan. 11, but that the data a day later "showed about 40 pieces of debris,which is probably just the tip of the iceberg." Lewis said. isthe Air Force Web site that provides public satellite tracking data.

Lewis saidone positive result of the Chinese action could be a call for improved debrisfield modeling. "Our models of debris spread are quite speculative, so thisevent should help improve our models," Lewis said. 

Reactionwas almost universally critical of the Chinese actions.

"Spacetechnologies are critical to the U.S. military and to the U.S. economy, so anyaction that puts our space assets at risk is a matter of great concern," HouseArmed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said in a statementissued by his office. Skelton said the committee "will carefully monitoractivity that may impact the way the U.S. military utilizes space technology."

AU.S.-based China watcher, who asked not to be identified, said theChinese "shot themselves in the foot with this one. They couldn't resistthis demonstration of their capabilities after we came out with our spacepolicy saying, we are going to defend the heavens. The new [U.S] space policysays we can defend the heavens with technology. But we can't and the Chinesejust proved it."

ArthurDing, a research fellow at the National Chengchi University's Institute ofInternational Relations in Taiwan, said China's motivation is likely rooted intheir perception of the new U.S. space policy.

"Theperception is that the U.S. is attempting to dominate space and the U.S.refuses any space-related arms control," Ding said. "Further, China suspectsthat the U.S. is attempting to militarize space in the future." A possibleconsequence is that space-related arms control is likely to be added toU.S.-China dialogue in the future," he said.

JoanJohnson-Freese, chair of the Naval War College's department of nationalsecurity decision making and one of the United States' top experts on Chinesespace issues, said the long-term impact of the incident will probably notbe that severe.

"I thinkthere will 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," she said.

CorrespondentWendell Minnick contributed to this article from Taipei. Staff writer BrianBerger contributed from Washington.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Contributing Writer

Jeremy Singer is a former journalist who specialized in stories about technology, including cybersecurity, medical devices, big data, drones, aerospace and defense. He now works as head of communications at Morse Corp, a company that creates  algorithm development, software development and system integration services to solve issues in the aerospace industry.