12 November 2015
The latest Chinese anti-missile test, carried out under usual secrecy, has sparked speculation among observers that Beijing is testing a hypersonic weapon aimed at taking down enemy satellites in the Earth’s orbit – technology the US considers a major threat.
Launched from the remote Korla facility in China’s sparsely-populated Xinjiang province on October 30, the missile in question allegedly traveled at hypersonic speed in a complex upward trajectory. The spiral contrails it left during an energy-management steering maneuvers have been widely captured and shared on China’s social media.
Beijing, which customarily releases minimal information about its military programs, has acknowledged the launch, saying it was a missile intercept test. When questioned by the media about the launch, the Chinese embassy in Washington said it did not possess “detailed information.”
“China advocates for the peaceful use of outer space, and opposes space weaponization or arms race in space,” said the official reply to the Washington Free Beacon.
However two US defense officials told the Beacon’s Bill Gertz, a journalist known for his inside sources, that it was a direct-ascent missile that in a combat situation can potentially take out a satellite in a lower orbit.
Another source referred the journalist to last year’s speech by a senior State Department official who called China’s anti-satellite program “destabilizing” and said it “threatens the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment.”
Whether an interceptor or satellite killer was launched is impossible to tell, but missile defense expert Jeffrey Lewis told the Daily Beast that the “tech is the same.”
US satellites under threat?
An as-yet-unpublished US-China Economic and Security Review Commission report, obtained by Gertz, claims that at least seven anti-satellite test launches have been conducted by the Chinese in the past decade.
“Although China has called these tests ‘land-based missile interception tests,’ available evidence suggests they were indeed anti-satellite tests,” claims the report. “China is pursuing a broad and robust array of counter-space capabilities, which includes direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital anti-satellite systems, computer network operations, ground-based satellite jammers, and directed energy weapons.”
The last of these tests reportedly took place in July 2014, from the same Korla launching pad. A test in 2007 resulted in an old weather satellite being destroyed 865 kilometers above Earth by a kinetic kill vehicle.
As the US heavily relies on its satellites for communication, navigation, intelligence and targeting, future improvement in Chinese tech, outside observers believe, will provide a fundamental challenge.
“We are quickly approaching the point where every satellite in every orbit can be threatened,” the House subcommittee heard this March from Jay Raymond, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space.