China Conducts ASAT Test, U.S. Says

Timothy Farnsworth

China conducted “a non-destructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites” on July 23, according to the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. comment appeared to differ from the Chinese statement on the test. According to Xinhua, China’s official news agency, the Chinese defense ministry called the test a “land-based anti-missile technology experiment,” suggesting that it was a test of a missile defense system rather than of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon.

During his Aug. 13 remarks at the U.S. Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium in Omaha, Neb., Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, said the United States “has high confidence in its assessment” that China was testing an ASAT weapon.

Neither China nor the United States provided additional details to support its characterization of the test. China said the test took place within its territory and successfully reached the anticipated goal. The U.S. statement called on China to “refrain from destabilizing actions” that threaten the security and sustainability of space.

Also in its statement, the State Department said that, in the test, China had used the same missile system as in a 2007 test in which China shot down one of its own weather satellites. That event, which created thousands of pieces of debris that continue to present a danger in space, used an SC-19 missile. (See ACT, March 2007.)

China has claimed that subsequent tests of its SC-19 missile in 2010 and January 2013 were part of an effort to develop and understand missile-interceptor technology, not to develop ASAT capabilities, but the two technologies are very similar. (See ACT, March 2013.)

In an Aug. 12 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Brian Weeden, a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, said the July 23 U.S. statement marked the first time since the 2007 test that the State Department had publicly declared that China conducted an ASAT test. The United States has never publicly acknowledged the 2010 test or two tests in 2005 and 2006, Weeden said. Information related to those tests was made public after the website WikiLeaks published a 2010 State Department cable about the 2010 test.

Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force space analyst, pointed out the lack of specific details from Washington and Beijing about the July 2014 test, saying that, after the 2010 and January 2013 tests, both countries mentioned another missile that had been launched as a target. The lack of information about the target for the recent test makes it unclear whether this was actually another test of the SC-19 missile tested in 2007, 2010, and 2013 or possibly a test of a new ASAT system—believed to be in development and capable of reaching geostationary orbit, about 36,000 kilometers above the earth—that might have been tested in May 2013. (See ACT, April 2014.)

The State Department’s description of the recent test as nondestructive, combined with the lack of details from Beijing about the test, could point to the testing of this new ASAT weapon in geostationary orbit, Weeden said. “It would be distinct enough from a missile defense profile to allow the US to confidently characterize it as an ASAT test,” said Weeden. As the second test of a new system, it would be consistent with the pattern that China followed for the SC-19, carrying out two nondestructive tests in 2005 and 2006 before conducting an actual intercept in 2007, he said.