Chinese ASAT Tests

US Milstar satellite

During the Cold War the USA established and maintained a lead over the USSR and every other country in the use of photo-reconnaissance and ELINT satellites, deploying a whole series of increasingly sophisticated vehicles from low earth to geosynchronous orbit, which kept their intelligences service furnished with vast amounts of data from behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere. The end of the Cold War had little effect on this on-going programme of intelligence gathering, instead the ‘Peace Dividend’ cutbacks that took place in the 1990’s and advances in technology, resulted in the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the National Security Agency (NSA) placing an increased reliance on satellites derived intelligence.

US Lacrosse radar imaging satellite

However, US satellites are launched in full view of the public, and initially follow a clearly visible track, allowing their orbital elements to be easily predicted. Indeed, there is a worldwide network of amateur astronomers who use stopwatches, sky maps, personal computers and telescopes or binoculars to calculate and then at dusk observe and report on the position of satellites in low earth orbit. US intelligence gathering satellites are regarded by this amateur community as a special challenge and they frequently mount systematic efforts to detect their orbital elements, which then allow them to take an educated guess at the classified payload onboard. One of these groups maintains a weekly updated list of the last observed position of the various KN-11/12 ‘Advanced Keyhole’ photo-reconnaissance and Lacrosse radar imaging satellites on an internet bulletin board, which can be easily accessed by foreign intelligence agencies. Nevertheless, any country with an established economy and a decent military infrastructure that wishes to track over-flying satellites will probably have invested in a large phased-array radar or a system that uses a series of powerful radio transmitters to radiate fan-shaped beams into space and separate receivers to detect the echo of a satellite as it passes through the beams.

Chinese laser attack

Over the past 10 years, in tandem with a booming economy, China’s military forces have undergone considerable improvement and, overtly and sometimes covertly, they have adopted an increasingly more belligerent attitude towards Taiwan and its guarantor of military security – the USA. It has recently been revealed that China has secretly fired a powerful laser at overflying US spy satellites, with the various Keyhole satellites coming under attack several times in recent years. Exactly what China is aiming to achieve by this activity is difficult to determine, but the general consensus is that the Chinese are simply demonstrating to the US that they have the capability to track and either blind or even destroy over-flying satellites. A vast amount of power is required to shoot a laser beam through the earth’s dense lower atmosphere, whilst retaining sufficient energy to ‘blind’ an over-flying satellite, in addition, the laser also has to be linked a sophisticated tracking system capable of continuously pointing the laser in the right direction – no mean undertaking.

These incidents are further evidence that, whilst for economic and geo-political reasons China wants to avoid direct confrontation with the USA, it has adopted military strategy of asymmetric confrontation. As part of this overall strategy, China has outlined a series of capabilities, referred to as ‘Assassins Mace’, and which aims to keep US forces in the surrounding area at risk, away from China’s borders and is tailored to undermine every US military advantage from submarines to satellites.

The US has long appreciated the vulnerability of their satellite assets, but have always adopted the position that if another nation chose to attack their satellites, they could easily inflict similar damage back themselves – a version of mutually assured destruction. Hardening satellites to circumvent laser attacks is possible, but would add additional weight, thereby reducing the reconnaissance payload. The response adopted by the US military is not known, but, given the Bush administration’s attitude to foreign policy, I imagine they have adopted a similar response themselves and have instructed that US lasers be directed at Chinese reconnaissance satellites as they overfly the United States. The Chinese must also know full well that, given their extensive US research into high powered lasers, if they wanted to the US have the capability to seriously damage or even destroy a Chinese satellite, so perhaps they are just ‘tweaking the tigers tail’ to see what response they get.

Possible Satellite cloaking device

Perhaps its no coincidence that the NRO have invested considerable money in a programme to develop a series of‘stealth’ satellites, known as ‘Misty’, that cannot be easily tracked in orbit. The first Misty satellite is believed to have been launched by the STS-36 space shuttle Atlantis mission on 28 Feb 1990 and de-orbited sometime after 1997. Although the satellite maneouvered a number of times whilst in orbit, it was tracked by various amateur observers in late 1990 until it appeared to vanish, aparently following an explosion. However, the same satellite was eventually re-discovered in 1996 and 1997 and it is believed that the 'explosion' was actually the satellite deliberately jettisioning operational debris to disguise its position. This stealth satellite is believed to be able to deploy an inflateable cover which deflects radar beams and makes it almost impossible for the vehicle to be tracked in orbit. A second Misty satellite was launched on 22 May 1999 by a Titan 4B and is still in orbit, presumably overflying China with impunity. In addition, they have also developed and deployed the Counter Communications System (CCS), a land-based system that can jam an adversaries satellite communications system.

US High Powered Laser

Many in the right-wing Republican US administration will take a very dim view of China's provocative action. Over the last 20 years the USA have invested hugh sums in developing high powered lasers and has already deployed the most powerful lasers currently available, consequently, they can easily respond to any attack on US satellites by knocking out the satellites of the country involved. Furthermore, any aggressive action against US satellites will only encourage US efforts to develop even more effective countermeasures. I suspect this is just the Chinese leaderships way of 'testing the water' to see what response their action will generate. However, as many people believe that the West will eventually have to confront an expansionist, prosperous China, intent on finding more living space for it's huge population, I just wonder how this aggressive action by China will be reviewed in 30 years time.

Not content with demonstrating their ability to interfere with overflying US spy satellites by firing a high powered laser at them in 2006, in early 2007 China decided to go one stage further by destroying a satellite with a ground launched missile - demonstrating an even more effective ASAT capability.

Chinese Long March 3A missile launching FY-1C weather satellite

On 11 Jan 07 China launched one of their KT-1 missiles from or near the Xichang Space Centre at one of their Feng Yun (FY-1C) polar orbit weather satellites that was launched in 1999 and had become redundant. The test was successful and the 0.88 ton FY-1C satellite was destroyed over 530nms above the earth. The KT-1 is a four stage missile and the fourth stage kill vehicle could well have been equipped with an onboard sensor and side thrust motors to enable it to adjust its trajectory as it homed in on the satellite. The interception was made head-on, suggesting that the fourth stage simply used kinetic energy to destroy the satellite, rather than an explosive warhead. US Intelligence reports suggested that there had been three previously unsuccessful attempts by China to achieve the destruction of a satellite in orbit prior to this test.

Chinese ASAT homing missile

After the KT-1 fourth stage slammed into and destroyed the FY-1C satellite it created a debris field of hundreds of small orbiting pieces that pose a severe risk to other satellite in low-earth orbit. As a result, the US, UK, South Korea, Japan and Australia all condemned the Chinese test as irresponsible and unnecessary. However, despite these protests China is unlikely to be deterred from developing other weapons to try and negate the huge advantage the US has in both space assets and systems to defend them against interference.

Chinese ASAT Systems

Now that they have demonstrated their ASAT capability, there’s little to be gained by China continuing to fire lasers at overflying satellites or destroying their old ones with a ground launched missile. Instead it’s more likely that China will concentrate their efforts on trying to interfere with the ground based satellite links that control the craft in orbit and receive the intelligence data they collect by using high powered radio jammers. China has already started to probe the IT defences of the West with concentrated cyber attacks on both civilian and military networks and these attacks are only likely to increase in frequency and intensity. The creation of the US Air Force Cyber Command some years ago shows that the US has already prepared for this change in tactics and I imagine they are already engaged with their Chinese adversaries in this new 21st century battleground.