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former IAEA Director-General

China Conducts Missile Defense Test
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Timothy Farnsworth

China successfully launched a land-based missile interceptor Jan. 28, according to Xinhua, the country’s official news agency.

In a statement released after the test, a Chinese Defense Ministry official said it had accomplished “the pre-set goal,” but did not say what the goal was. The test was “defensive in nature and target[ed] no other country,” he said.

It was not clear from the Chinese statement whether the test involved a target for the interceptor to hit. China’s only previous missile interceptor test, on Jan. 11, 2010, did involve a target.

In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test, destroying one of its own satellites instead of a test warhead. (See ACT, March 2007.) That test prompted objections from numerous countries, in part because of the debris it created. The two later tests took place at a lower altitude and created no debris.

In a Feb. 12 interview, Li Bin, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the latter two tests were focused on developing and understanding missile-intercept technology rather than assessing the performance of a deployable missile defense system.

According to Li, the Chinese versions of the statements released after each of those tests were identical. Li said, however, that the official English translation of the Jan. 28 statement omitted the word “technology” from the phrase “land-based mid-course missile interception technology test,” the term that China used in 2010. He said the use of the word “technology” indicates that China was trying to better understand missile defense capabilities and was not testing in order to deploy a national missile defense system.

Li said Beijing has three options: keeping the technology in reserve, deploying a regional missile defense system around major cities, and deploying a national system. Li said the first two options are more likely because it would be too costly to create a national system that could defend against an adversary that has a large number of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Experts disagree on whether the main goal of the Chinese program is to develop a national missile defense system or an ASAT system. In a Feb. 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, David Shlapak, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said that there are differences in the development paths for the two systems. The numbers of interceptors and the “engagement dynamics”—the way the interceptors strike the target object—associated with targeting an enemy’s satellites “are much easier to manage than those associated with large-scale missile defense,” he said.

“I don’t think that the testing we’ve seen to date reveals much about China’s intentions. China could be experimenting with technology, seeking to develop a real capability, or sending a message,” he said. “Unless and until we see more activity, it’s going to be hard to make a conclusive determination.”

Previous Tests

In 2007, China destroyed an aging weather satellite with a hit-to-kill interceptor approximately 850 kilometers above the earth. According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, the tally of space debris created by the test had reached 3,037 pieces as of September 2010, of which 97 percent remained in orbit. Much of the international community, including the United States, condemned the test, which U.S. officials often cite as an example of how space has become more “congested, contested, and competitive.”

According to a January 2010 State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks, the target of the 2010 test was a CSS-X011 medium-range ballistic missile rather than a satellite and took place at an altitude of 250 kilometers, much lower than the 2007 test. But the two tests used the same interceptor vehicle, the SC-19, the cable said. The cable also said that U.S. missile-warning satellites detected the launch of the interceptor and the target missile, as well as the actual interception.

International Reaction

The United States and other countries have expressed concerns about China’s ASAT and missile defense tests. In a Jan. 29 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a State Department official said, in regard to the 2007 ASAT test, “the United States has consistently urged Beijing through diplomatic, military-to-military, and scientific channels not to conduct further anti-satellite weapons testing in space.”

India, another country that has nuclear weapons and a growing space program, recently increased its own missile defense testing and closely watches China’s ASAT and missile defense tests. (See ACT, January/February 2013.)

According to Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, the 2007 Chinese ASAT test sparked a debate within and outside India’s government, “forcing a re-evaluation of India’s policy against militarization of space.” In a Feb. 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Rajagopalan, a former assistant director of India’s National Security Council Secretariat, said that since the 2007 test, “there has been fresh pressure brought about for an Indian ASAT system” and “a need for India to have demonstrated ASAT capability.” Although the Indian government has not made a total shift in its policy, “[t]he growing Chinese capabilities (be it ASAT or missile defense capabilities) have clearly upped the ante in the region,” Rajagopalan said.

She questioned the effectiveness of the “space security regime” and the ability “of the major global powers to respond [to] and affect” China’s behavior. “India has continued to argue for [a] legally binding mechanism to deal with the myriad challenges [of the] space domain,” Rajagopalan said.

Posted: February 28, 2013