China used a top-secret SC-19 anti-satellite (ASAT) missile in a test last year against a target missile as part of a missile-defense system that remains shrouded in secrecy.
The ASAT missile was fired against a new medium-range missile and details were disclosed in a State Department cable made public recently by WikiLeaks that included an outline of a diplomatic protest note to Beijing about both Chinese weapons programs.
The cable provides the first detailed U.S. assessment of what defense officials say is a major strategic advancement in China’s military buildup. It reveals that China’s anti-satellite system was developed for use not only against satellites but is part of a larger strategic missile-defense system.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates offered to hold strategic talks with China on missile defenses, as well as space, nuclear and cyberweapons, during a recent visit to Beijing. The offer was rebuffed by China’s defense minister, who said only that it would be studied.
Defense officials and private specialists said the cable further highlights official Chinese government duplicity in opposing U.S. missile defenses and promoting an international agreement to limit weapons in space at the same time it is secretly working on its own space weapons and missile defense programs.
Details of the Chinese SC-19 test are not expected to be included in the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on the Chinese military that was due March 1 but remains under review by the Obama administration.
Chinese state-run media announced the January 2010 test in a two-sentence statement that made no mention of the use of the SC-19. The SC-19’s first successful test destroyed a Chinese weather satellite in January 2007, resulting in thousands of pieces of debris in orbit that remain a threat to both manned and unmanned space flight.
The current U.S. strategic missile defense has no direct capabilities for shooting down satellites. However, the Navy modified a ship-based SM-3 anti-missile interceptor to shoot down a falling U.S. satellite in 2008.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong repeated the comments of a Foreign Ministry spokesman who said the 2010 test was “defensive in nature and targeted at no country.”
The U.S. Intelligence Community assesses that on 11 January 2010, China launched an SC-19 missile from the Korla Missile Test Complex and successfully intercepted a near-simultaneously launched CSS-X-11 medium-range ballistic missile launched from the Shuangchengzi Space and Missile Center,” the State Department cable said.
Little is known about the CSS-X-11, which could be an extended-range variant of the CSS-7 short-range missile.
U.S. missile warning satellites detected the launches and the intercept some 155 miles in space but detected no debris, the cable said.
“An SC-19 was used previously as the payload booster for the January 11, 2007, direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) intercept of the Chinese FY-1C weather satellite,” the cable said. “Previous SC-19 DA-ASAT flight-tests were conducted in 2005 and 2006. This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT and ballistic missile defense (BMD) technologies.”
The cable said the U.S. government in its protest would not disclose that it knows China’s ASAT and missile defense programs are linked.
The draft demarche demanded to know the purpose of the test and whether it is part of a missile-defense system; whether China plans to deploy missile defenses for its forces and territory; what “foreign forces” is China planning to target with the missile defenses; and whether China tried to limit space debris.
The protest note also said that, if asked by the Chinese about U.S. objections to anti-satellite tests, they should state: “U.S. concerns voiced at the Conference on Disarmament and at the United Nations are still valid and reflect the policy of the United States.”
China apparently gave in to U.S. and international pressure and since January 2007 has not conducted another ASAT test.
Mark Stokes, a Chinese arms specialist with the 2049 Institute, a think tank, said the missile-defense system was significant.
“The space-intercept test conducted last year further demonstrates advances that China has made in its ability to track and engage targets in space, whether satellites or ballistic missiles,” Mr. Stokes said.
John Tkacik, a former State Department China specialist, said he was surprised that the Pentagon did not disclose the link between the missile-defense test and China’s anti-satellite system.
“All we got last year was Assistant Defense Secretary Chip Gregson vaguely saying that the U.S. was seeking an explanation,” Mr. Tkacik said. “We have since been stiff-armed by the Chinese in every proposal we’ve made to sit down and discuss rules of the road on space and strategic weapons. But the Obama people apparently are trying to play-down China’s BMD capabilities.”
Mr. Tkacik said the Obama administration was so overly focused on arms talks with the Russians aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals that it neglected U.S. missile defenses and ignored China’s advances in that weaponry.
“We have to start taking China’s space capabilities very seriously,” he said. “The Chinese have a dozen academies filled with world-class space and missile scientists, they know what they’re doing, and they have unlimited funds to do it with.”