"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004

Taiwan Buys U.S. Arms; U.S. Eyes China

Taiwan’s legislature recently approved buying a dozen anti-submarine planes, a modest portion of an original $18 billion U.S. arms package offered six years ago. The purchase comes amid persistent U.S. questions about China’s military modernization and a new move to prevent American technology from aiding that drive.

Soon after taking office, President George W. Bush authorized selling Taiwan an array of weapon systems, including destroyers, diesel-electric attack submarines, and aircraft. (See ACT, May 2001.) Later, the United States added short- and medium-range anti-missile systems. Taiwan agreed to acquire four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, the final two of which were delivered last September. The rest of the package, however, became entangled in politics. (Continue)

Wade Boese

Taiwan’s legislature recently approved buying a dozen anti-submarine planes, a modest portion of an original $18 billion U.S. arms package offered six years ago. The purchase comes amid persistent U.S. questions about China’s military modernization and a new move to prevent American technology from aiding that drive.

Soon after taking office, President George W. Bush authorized selling Taiwan an array of weapon systems, including destroyers, diesel-electric attack submarines, and aircraft. (See ACT, May 2001.) Later, the United States added short- and medium-range anti-missile systems. Taiwan agreed to acquire four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, the final two of which were delivered last September. The rest of the package, however, became entangled in politics.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has urged making the deals, but his Democratic Progressive Party does not control the legislature, the Legislative Yuan. Led by the Nationalist Party, the majority coalition in the Legislative Yuan has blocked funding for the weapons, arguing that they are too expensive and too provocative to China, which opposes foreign arms sales to the island. Beijing asserts Taiwan is a renegade province that should be under the mainland’s control and does not rule out using force to accomplish that objective.

On June 15, the Legislative Yuan approved buying 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft and upgrades to its current anti-missile systems, the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2. The parliament declined to seek newer PAC-3 batteries. Lawmakers also endorsed further study of the submarine option.

The Legislative Yuan’s shift has been attributed to Nationalist Party maneuvering to increase the appeal of its candidate in the presidential election next March. Speculation also exists that the recent move was orchestrated to ease a separate requested purchase of 66 U.S. F-16 fighter jets. Washington has resisted moving ahead on the proposal, insisting that Taiwan first complete the 2001 offer.

U.S. officials have repeatedly rebuked Taiwan for not acting on the package. In a May 3 press conference, Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, noted that “Taiwan’s friends” question whether Taipei is “serious about maintaining a credible defense.” The institute serves as the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.

Although Taiwan has essentially forgone major arms purchases the past several years, China has been working to improve its armed forces. The Pentagon noted May 25 in the latest edition of its annual report Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, the “balance of forces [is] continuing to shift in the mainland’s favor.”

The report highlights China’s 2006 receipt from Russia of the last of four Sovremenny-class destroyers and a final pair of eight Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines. Beijing also boosted its conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan by at least 100 to approximately 900.

On the strategic side, the Pentagon upgraded the status of China’s road-mobile, solid-fuel DF-31 missile, which has an estimated range of some 7,000 kilometers, from developmental to “initial threat availability.” A Pentagon official told reporters May 25 that the phrase meant that the missile “could be employed in actual military operations.”

A longer-range variant, the DF-31A, which could target all of the United States, was still assessed as “developmental.” The Pentagon suggested that missile might become operational as early as this year, similar to China’s new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2.

These newer missiles have been in development for some time. The 2002 edition of the Pentagon report estimated that they would become available around mid- to late decade. All told, China’s current force of ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States remains at approximately 20—no change since the Pentagon issued its first annual report in 2000.

Chinese leaders, according to the report, see space and counter-space capabilities as signs of prestige and power similar to nuclear weapons. China’s Jan. 11 destruction of an aging satellite in orbit (see ACT, March 2007 ) revealed only one element of what the Pentagon describes as a “multi-dimensional program” to “deny others access to outer space.”

China is funding its arms purchases, missile developments, and space capabilities with a growing military budget. In March, Beijing announced a nearly 18 percent spending increase from last year, to approximately $45 billion. The Pentagon, which in February asked Congress for $623 billion for one year, says China’s actual military budget could be as high as $125 billion.

China rails at such allegations. On May 28, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu blasted the Pentagon report as spreading the “myth of the China threat by exaggerating China’s military strength and expenses out of ulterior motives.” Qin Gang, another ministry spokesperson, defended China’s military modernization June 21 as “moderate and reasonable.”

Although the annual Pentagon report focuses on China’s capabilities, Washington says what it is really interested in and unclear about is Chinese intentions. “We wish that there were greater transparency, that [the Chinese] would talk more about what their intentions are [and] what their strategies are,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said May 24.

Possible conflicts with Taiwan are the near-term military focus of China, the report concludes. Yet, it also assesses that China is creating a base for pursuing “broader regional and global objectives.”

China’s growing capabilities has caught the attention of some U.S. lawmakers. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, warned at a June 13 panel hearing that China has “stepped into the superpower shoes that had been vacated by the Soviet Union with respect to military power.” But Undersecretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Richard Lawless told the panel that Beijing “is not necessarily interested in the ability to stand toe-to-toe and go into a major conflict with the United States.”

Greater openness on China’s part could diminish the possibility of future conflict, U.S. officials say. Lawless noted that, without Chinese transparency, the United States is “put in the position of having to assume the most dangerous intent a capability offers.”

U.S. officials contend China is opening up slightly but not enough, particularly in the nuclear realm. Beijing has begged off recent U.S. invitations to engage in a nuclear policy dialogue, but Gates and other U.S. officials are strongly promoting the offer. “That kind of dialogue, whether or not it involves specific proposals for arms control or anything else, I think, is immensely valuable,” Gates said June 2.

The two governments are expected to begin exploring establishment of a military hotline this September. Still, Lawless cautioned that “there’s a lot left to finalize.”

Although seeking to improve relations with China, the United States is wary of China’s military rise. In its 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon observed that China “has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages.”

Aiming to prevent U.S. companies from abetting such developments, the Department of Commerce June 15 announced new rules on exporting dual-use goods to China. Dual-use items have civilian and military applications.

The recent measures expand the list of items that require U.S. companies to obtain a license when shipping to known military end uses in China. These 20 product categories include some high-performance computers, lasers, aircraft, aero-gas turbine engines, and machine tools.

At the same time, the Commerce Department is seeking to reward Chinese entities with records of not re-exporting or diverting imports to unauthorized purposes. Such importers will be eligible to become “validated end users” that will be exempted from getting licenses for some dual-use goods. In addition, the threshold for obtaining licenses for some dual-use items that are not destined for military uses will be increased from $5,000 to $50,000.

In a June 15 press statement, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez described the new rules as a “common-sense approach” that will facilitate U.S. exports to “pre-screened civilian customers” while denying goods that “would contribute to China’s military.”


Nuclear Minimalism

A Review of The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age by Jeffrey Lewis. (Continue)

The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for Security in the Nuclear Age. By Jeffrey G. Lewis, MIT Press, March 2007, 200pp

Brad Roberts

China has always been something of a footnote for the U.S. expert community interested in nuclear weapons issues, and nuclear issues have always been something of a footnote for the U.S. expert community interested in China. The result is a gap in our understanding of the past, present, and future of China’s nuclear forces. Since the publication two decades ago of the path-breaking historical review China Builds the Bomb by John Lewis and Xue Litae, there has been only a trickle of new historical and analytical material. This relative paucity of analysis contrasts sharply with the importance of the issues at stake. The choices China makes about its nuclear future will have wide-ranging implications in Asia and beyond, as will the choices others make about their nuclear relationship with China.

Jeffrey Lewis’s new book, The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age, is thus an important addition on a significant topic. It is based on detailed analysis and fieldwork conducted for a doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland. Lewis observes that China’s search for security in the nuclear age has been poorly understood by outsiders, an observation validated every time an American speaks about China as “that country with 20 nuclear weapons” (20 is the number of warheads understood to be deliverable on the United States by long-range missiles, whereas the actual number of nuclear warheads in China’s possession is larger by a factor of 10 or more—a topic about which there is great uncertainty and no Chinese transparency).

Accordingly, Lewis begins with a survey of the evolution of China’s nuclear forces over the last four decades and the key strategic concepts that have informed its force planning. He then offers two case studies exploring the thinking of China’s leadership on the requirements of strategic stability: China’s participation in the Conference on Disarmament and its efforts there to expand prohibitions on the military uses of outer space. He also conjectures about the impact of developments in U.S. nuclear policy and posture on future Chinese force planning. The result is part history and part polemic. Its ultimate value rests on the validity of three core propositions Lewis puts forward.

The first is that China developed nuclear forces with a commitment to “the minimum means of reprisal.” Lewis begins his study with a quotation from Marshal Nie Rongzhen, a founding father of China’s nuclear program: “My attitude was clear throughout. For more than a century, imperialists had bullied, humiliated, and oppressed China. To put an end to this situation, we had to develop sophisticated weapons such as the guided missile and the atomic bomb, so that we would have the minimum means of reprisal if attacked by the imperialists with nuclear weapons.” Lewis goes on to demonstrate the ways in which this commitment to minimalism informed the development of China’s military doctrine, force structure, and national nuclear policy.

Of course, this first proposition is not controversial. Lewis’s unique contribution is to plumb the case studies to lend credence to the argument that such minimalism is deeply ingrained. He brings home the important point that China’s experts do not equate strategic stability with quantitative parity. In their view, the strategic situation is stable when China can resist attempted coercion by outside powers with nuclear weapons, an ability that rests directly on a capacity for limited but certain retaliation for any actual nuclear attack on China. Numbers do not matter, they argue, so long as the number of weapons that might penetrate to an attacker in retaliation is higher than zero.

Lewis’s second core proposition is that China’s force planners continue to be guided by this principle. This argument is more contentious, and his case in support of it is less persuasive. Lewis collects and recounts all of the information in common usage among the expert community about the numbers and types of deployed nuclear forces. China, he reports, has approximately 80 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads, with perhaps 30 on ICBMs (18 on DF-5s and 12 on DF-4s) and another 44 associated with medium-range ballistic missiles (the DF-3 and DF-21). He reports that China has no tactical weapons. He notes also China’s deployment of a large number of shorter-range missiles that are not understood to be intended for nuclear delivery. He makes brief mention of the fact that China tried to develop both air and sea legs of its nuclear triad but has allowed the former to fall into disrepair while struggling to keep even a single nuclear missile submarine functioning.

Lewis sees no reason to think that Chinese force planners intend to do anything other than preserve these existing capabilities, albeit with more-modern technologies over time. Indeed, although a few caveats are sprinkled through this analysis, his bottom lines are fairly stark. He states, “China has not yet revised the deployment pattern of its strategic forces, nor does it need to…. China will continue to maintain a modest retaliatory capability.” China “has not taken even the rudimentary steps to give its leaders the option of expanding their arsenal beyond current modernization plans.” He characterizes China’s modernization of these forces as “proposed” and asserts that China prefers the development of new systems to the deployment of them. He is dismissive of predictions by the U.S. intelligence community of anticipated growth in these nuclear forces, a case that is strengthened by the record of misprediction that he rightly notes.

These days it is difficult to read assessments such as these without recalling the findings of the Silberman-Robb Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Although focused originally on the problem of pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the commission came to a broad conclusion about WMD intelligence more generally: “we still know disturbingly little.” This obliges us to ask here, How good is the evidence? How probing is the analysis?

In this reader’s view, the evidence is more mixed than Lewis depicts it. His work says very little about the dramatically increased flow over the last decade of money and political commitment to the Second Artillery. This is the part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) responsible for China’s strategic missile forces, nuclear and otherwise, and it has gained higher prominence in Chinese defense planning and decision-making over the last decade. Its doctrine has been thoroughly updated, reflecting enhanced reliance on missile warfare by the PLA more generally. There is only one reference to the buildup of short-range missiles across the strait from Taiwan, which over the last decade has put roughly 100 new missiles into the field each year.

Although these short-range missiles are not believed to be nuclear tipped, the dramatic buildup is illustrative of a significant change in the way the PLA thinks about the wartime role of the Second Artillery. There has also been a considerable flow of military literature reflecting sustained recent effort to think nuclear policy and strategy issues through. Lewis only briefly describes a long-running Chinese debate about the continued credibility of a no-first-use policy. This is the pledge, in place since the founding of China’s nuclear capability, not to be the party in a conflict that initiates the use of nuclear weapons.

China’s December 2006 Defense White Paper helps to bring home just how much is changing in the PLA. It offers a vision of dramatic military transformation for all of the major elements of the PLA. It describes an overall strategy aimed at creating a “solid foundation” of military capabilities by 2010, “major progress” by 2020, and a fully modern military by 2050. What might this imply for the future of China’s nuclear force? The White Paper gives only a few hints in this regard. It reports that the Second Artillery “is quickening its steps…to increase its capabilities of land-based nuclear counter-strikes” and promises strengthened naval nuclear counterstrike capabilities.

The strongest case for the argument that something else may be afoot is made by Lewis himself: developments in the U.S. strategic posture seem to be creating major pressure on China to adapt its force structure in significant ways. As the United States moves toward stronger missile defenses, more-effective non-nuclear strategic strike capabilities, and enhanced intelligence and surveillance systems, China will have to adjust its posture in order to ensure that it remains effective and sufficient in the face of possible U.S. pre-emptive attack. This will mean a larger force and also a force that is more capable and ready. At the very least, China seems headed toward the deployment of a new sea-based leg of its nuclear deterrent plus a new land-based leg consisting of at least two new road-mobile missiles.

Chinese military experts also talk increasingly frequently about a deployment of five to seven warheads atop the existing silo-based missiles as a counter to U.S. missile defense. Steps such as these could result in an increase from 20 to 100 or more nuclear weapons deployed by China capable of reaching the United States.

Perhaps these quantitative and qualitative improvements are in the realm of what Lewis sees as consistent with “current modernization plans.” Many others would interpret a dramatic increase in the number of deployed weapons capable of striking the United States as a “fundamental revision of deployment patterns.” The truth may be a bit of both. The buildup is seen by many in China as an effort to restore the status quo ante, meaning the viability of a deterrent put at risk by improving U.S. defensive and offensive capabilities. Lewis argues that the Bush administration’s envisioned “new triad” does not yet exist in any tangible form and thus that China is not yet compelled to respond to it. China’s experts are more impressed by what they see as progress by the United States in deploying initial missile defense capabilities, new non-nuclear strike capabilities, and improved surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

Lewis does note that, “within China, of course, voices for much larger deployments do exist.” Without elaboration or substantiation, however, he goes on to argue that “these voices seem unlikely to exert much influence over the next decade given the nature of the Chinese political system.” At another point, he offers the surprising proposition that “changes in the U.S. force posture will probably not be the decisive factor affecting the future direction of China’s nuclear forces,” also without elaboration.

In short, the evidence about the state of China’s current nuclear force modernization plans is mixed. From this author’s perspective, it is not strong enough to lead to confident predictions of any kind. Lewis’s analysis would have been stronger had he at least sketched out and tested some of the alternative interpretations that the available data suggest.

Lewis’s third core proposition is that future Chinese restraint in the posturing of its nuclear force requires a promise of restraint by the United States in the form of an explicit acceptance of mutual vulnerability as the basis of strategic stability. In other words, so long as the United States chooses not to deploy capabilities that undermine China’s deterrent, China will not have to undertake any of that “proposed” modernization.

The notion that Chinese restraint is contingent on U.S. restraint strikes me as sound. The notion that stability requires some mutual understanding of the mutual, reciprocal nature of restraint also strikes me as sound, although it does strike some as appeasement, as a willingness to acquiesce to the competitive instincts of a rising power.

There are two more fundamental problems with this proposition. One is that Washington cannot promise Beijing not to develop the U.S. strategic posture in ways that damages China’s perceptions of the credibility of its deterrent. The question is how much damage and how much of it is intentional. The United States is motivated to develop a strategic posture that insulates it from the attempts by “rogue states” to create relationships of mutual vulnerability, and this posture will also affect U.S.-China strategic relations. A limited missile defense that is effective against a small North Korean nuclear missile force will have some effectiveness against the small nuclear missile force of its neighbor. Analogous arguments can be made about the impact of improved strategic strike capabilities encompassing better and more-prompt non-nuclear options.

Thus, even in the absence of a U.S. intention to challenge the Chinese deterrent, China must take steps to preserve the viability of its deterrent. The issue is not how to avoid this. Instead, the issue is how to manage this. How can the two countries modernize their capabilities and transform them for new challenges without an intensification of competition and a harmful intrusion of nuclear issues into the political relationship?

The other problem is with Lewis’s expectation that the United States can make a promise to China that it accepts a relationship of mutual vulnerability. As it turns out, this is much easier said than done. Lewis’s view seems to be that the Bush administration has it all wrong about China, and he calls for a repudiation of the ideas in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as the shortest route to the goal he seeks. He attacks the NPR with gusto and along the way makes claims that simply are not supported by his evidence. “China is prominently featured in the 2001 NPR,” he asserts, although it apparently rated only a single mention in what was the Bush administration’s first effort to move from military planning against specific threats to military planning aimed at bringing into being a suite of capabilities suited to a broad range of plausible contingencies.

He argues further that “China’s strategic forces are increasingly supplanting Russia’s arsenal as the primary benchmark for determining the size and capabilities of U.S. forces,” a bit of argument that seems to miss the relevance of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which capped the size of U.S. and Russian operationally deployed strategic warheads at 1,700-2,200 each in 2012. He adds that “assumptions about the configuration and purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal determine not just the overall U.S. force posture but also the mix of capabilities identified in the 2001 NPR,” a case that is even more difficult to support.

Lewis is setting up an argument that all of this wrong thinking should be swept aside, thus enabling a return to a view of the strategic landscape that would make possible the promise he deems central to stability. Alas, it is not that simple. The Clinton administration was no more willing than this Bush administration to offer China such a promise. This decision was apparently taken after some serious internal discussion.

This points to an important theme left undeveloped in Lewis’s book: the underlying continuity, from China’s perspective, in the development of U.S. strategic thinking since the end of the Cold War. In the common Chinese view, the end of bipolarity increased U.S. freedom to maneuver, which it has exercised liberally by military and other means for nearly 20 years. Already in the late 1980s, the United States began to develop improved non-nuclear strategic strike capabilities. Already in the early 1990s, members of the George H.W. Bush administration and then the Clinton administration were discussing pre-emptive options at high levels and doing so publicly. Already in the mid-1990s, the United States was moving aggressively to create first theater and then national missile defenses.

Lewis might have done more to bring out the ambivalence evident over the last decade or so in the United States about offering China a promise of mutual vulnerability in the name of stability. It may well be the right call, but the ambivalence deserves some attention. It has something to do with profound uncertainty about what the rise of a powerful China weakly governed by an unaccountable one-party system might mean for the future security order. It also has something to do with a sense that stability is important, but after the Cold War, nuclear stability need not have a sacrosanct place in the hierarchy of security values.

Lewis rightly argues that a laissez-faire attitude toward this particular strategic relationship will not suffice. Avoidance of an intensification of strategic competition as China and the United States modernize and transform their strategic postures requires management. Lewis recommends a strategic stability dialogue, arguing that China has eagerly sought such a dialogue for at least a couple of decades. He would focus that dialogue on a pre-Bush arms control agenda encompassing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a fissile material cutoff treaty with verification measures, among other items, including a bilateral no-first-use pledge.

The recommendation for strategic dialogue has an obvious appeal, but alas, it is not particularly well developed. Lewis fails to mention two prior efforts at nuclear dialogue by the Clinton and Bush administrations that both faltered on an absence of Chinese transparency. He offers no commentary on the Bush administration’s separate effort to build a nuclear dialogue with China around the “responsible stakeholder” theme first articulated by then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. Moreover, his book apparently was finalized before the April 2006 summit commitment by Presidents George W. Bush and Hu Jintao to initiate a military-to-military dialogue on nuclear issues. A year later, at the time of this writing, the Chinese have yet to accept an invitation to schedule what was to be the first step in the dialogue process, a visit by the head of the Second Artillery to Strategic Command. This raises a basic question about the eagerness for strategic dialogue that Lewis imputes to China’s leaders.

Lewis has done us a service by helping to raise a debate about the future of China’s nuclear forces, the interaction of China and U.S. modernization/transformation efforts, and the desirability of a dialogue that effectively manages the relationship. His assessment of the problem strikes me as a bit lopsided, with its singular emphasis on the United States as the driver of instability and his convenient assumption that changes are not already afoot in the Chinese posture. His prescription strikes me as lacking an adequate understanding of China’s search for nuclear security and of America’s search. Yet, after a decade or two of U.S. debate about how to achieve the necessary and desirable strategic relationships with the “rogues” and Russia, it is time to have the debate Lewis invites about how to achieve the right U.S. nuclear relationship with China.

Brad Roberts is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He is co-author with Robert Manning and Ronald Montaperto of China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control (2000).

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After China's Test: Time For a Limited Ban on Anti-Satellite Weapons

China 's Jan. 11 test of a sophisticated hit-to-kill anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon should have shattered complacency about the dangers posed by these arms. Much press commentary has focused on the threat to U.S. military systems, but these are less vulnerable than is popularly perceived. The real danger lies less in the military realm than in the long-term risk to civilian communications, weather forecasting, and pure scientific research conducted by all space-faring nations. (Continue)

Geoffrey Forden

China 's Jan. 11 test of a sophisticated hit-to-kill anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon should have shattered complacency about the dangers posed by these arms. Much press commentary has focused on the threat to U.S. military systems, but these are less vulnerable than is popularly perceived. The real danger lies less in the military realm than in the long-term risk to civilian communications, weather forecasting, and pure scientific research conducted by all space-faring nations.

The possibility of great harm to the major civilian economies and a lack of real military utility should bring all nations together to outlaw these weapons. To date, it has proved difficult to achieve international consensus on banning these systems and is likely to remain so. China , for one, is concerned about the U.S. missile defense system, and the Bush administration wants to keep open the option of fielding these weapons.[1] If these disagreements can be overcome, however, a technical agreement detailing limits on “closing speed” and maneuvering provides the appropriate basis for a verifiable and robust ban on the most dangerous of these arms.

The Chinese ASAT Test

Closing speed is the key to understanding the sophistication of China 's ASAT capabilities. This relative speed between the interceptor and the satellite determines the complexity of the ASAT weapon's onboard tracking and guidance systems and the control of its rocket engines. After all, one cannot simply “plug in the satellite's coordinates” because one risks making an error of at least several kilometers in locating where the satellite is at any given moment.[2]

China 's ASAT weapon hit its target, the obsolete Feng Yun-1C weather satellite, almost head on with a rapid closing speed of just more than 8 kilometers per second.[3] To accomplish this, it almost certainly used an onboard optical tracker. This is basically a video camera that would see the satellite as a bright star, albeit one that moved very fast relative to the other stars. If so, China has been developing this weapons system for quite some time with previous flight tests of the tracking system, perhaps mounted on experimental satellites.

China 's ASAT weapon, unlike those tested by the Soviets, for example, appears not to have used an exploding warhead. It relied instead on the interceptor's substantial kinetic energy; at the time of the collision, it packed as much energy as 10 times its weight in TNT. No wonder it created substantial debris, more than 1,000 pieces large enough to be tracked from Earth. Debris from this collision has been observed at altitudes as great as 3,600 kilometers, four times as high as the original target satellite. It is possible that some pieces actually escaped the pull of the Earth's gravitational field altogether.

Although we cannot determine the ASAT weapon's mass precisely, we do know from an analysis of the resulting debris pattern that it was less than 600 kilograms, possibly much less.[4] Therefore, at least three such interceptors could be placed on China's smallest space launch vehicle capable of lofting satellites into geostationary transfer orbits. At these orbits, they could attack more strategically important satellites, such as communications and early-warning satellites or, at somewhat lower orbits, GPS satellites.

Assessing the Threat

Even though this was a test of a very sophisticated weapon, it was still only a single successful test. China , with its history of deliberate weapons development, is unlikely to feel confident in this system until it has undergone a significant number of additional tests against similar targets. China would then almost certainly want to test many of the ASAT weapon's subsystems in geostationary transfer orbits so Beijing could have confidence in attacks against higher-orbit satellites. China might choose to do so using close flybys that would not create the debris or international uproar its last test did.

Contrary to some analysts' assertions,[5] China would then likely have an ASAT system capable of threatening all U.S. space assets, not just those in low-Earth orbit. China has already mastered the techniques of placing satellites in medium[6] and higher orbits: first placing the satellite and its booster's third stage into low-Earth orbit, then using the third stage to boost the satellite into a highly elliptical transfer orbit,[7] and finally using the satellite's onboard engine to place it in a higher-altitude circular orbit. An ASAT attack against a navigational satellite or higher communications satellites would almost certainly involve the first two steps.[8]

At higher altitudes, moreover, the final attack is easier because at these altitudes satellites need to move less quickly to stay in orbit because of the Earth's weakening gravitational field. Likewise, an ASAT weapon does not need to approach its target satellite with as great a closing speed (information graphic available in the print edition). Thus, an attack on a geostationary satellite would be considerably less stressing for an ASAT weapon's tracking, guidance, and control systems than the scenario already successfully tested by China 's ASAT system.

It might be possible to protect low-Earth-orbit satellites either by passive countermeasures (maneuvering out of the way of the interceptor) or active defenses (destroying the incoming interceptor before the collision). Active defenses are possible at such low altitudes because most of a suborbital interceptor's debris would fall to earth within minutes. Unfortunately, neither measure is effective at higher altitudes and could be counterproductive. If it missed the first time, an ASAT weapon placed in an elliptical transfer orbit could simply wait for its next pass. For a geostationary satellite, the interceptor would have another shot about 24 hours later. Furthermore, to escape, the target satellite would undoubtedly have had to accelerate at several times that of gravity, likely causing booms or large, high-gain antennas to shear off. If on the other hand, the defender was foolish enough to try to destroy the interceptor, it would simply create a shotgun blast of debris traveling in essentially the same trajectory as the interceptor; eventually this widening swarm would destroy the target. The advantage is definitely on the side of the attacker.

On the other hand, an attacker would have to destroy a considerable number of satellites in order to have an immediate effect on military operations. There are on average about 10 GPS satellites visible at any given time and point on the Earth's surface even though a high positional accuracy requires only six. An attacker would have to destroy at least six satellites to affect precision-guided munitions even momentarily because other GPS satellites would soon appear as their orbits took them into view. A country would need to disable nearly one-half of the United States' 24 NAVSTAR/GPS satellites currently in orbit to eliminate the ability to employ precision-guided munitions for more than a few hours each day.[9] Likewise, the United States has a number of alternatives for communications satellites in the short term. Other space assets, such as weather and mapping satellites, although important in the long term, are not as time critical.

Missile Defense and ASAT Systems

Any attempt to ban ASAT weapons development will have to figure out how to square such an agreement with the existence of U.S. ballistic missile defenses. Although the effectiveness of these defenses against missiles has been questioned, there is no doubt that they could hit a satellite in low-Earth orbit. Their tracking, guidance, and control systems have been developed and successfully tested against incoming warheads in engagements that have closing speeds in excess of 11 kilometers per second. Such closing speeds are much higher than those it would encounter against even the lowest satellite and certainly higher than those the Chinese overcame in their January test.

Missile defenses also pose an obstacle to making diplomatic progress on ASAT weapons systems. The United States believes these defenses are critical to protecting itself from attacks by rogue states, but China fears they could also be used to deter it in any conflict with the United States, such as over Taiwan.[10] In recent years, China, at first alone but later with Russia, has made several proposals to the United Nation's Conference on Disarmament on possible elements for a future treaty banning the weaponization of space. At times, the proposals have taken in all U.S. missile defenses, not merely U.S. consideration of deploying space-based interceptors.

Beijing 's and Moscow 's June 2001 proposal, for example, required signatories not to “test, deploy or use in outer space any weapons, weapon systems, or their components.”[11] As part of the proposed treaty, a list of definitions was offered that included defining outer space as starting at an altitude of 100 kilometers and a weapon as any device or facility that could “strike, destroy or disrupt directly the normal functions of a target.” These definitions are hardly controversial, but they would ban the United States from even testing its current defense shield, which is supposed to strike and destroy an incoming warhead at altitudes far higher than 100 kilometers.

In what could very well have been a response to these difficulties, China , in collaboration with Russia , proposed a new draft in June 2002.[12] This draft obligated signatory countries to “[n]ot place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons.” Because the U.S. system is tested and deployed on suborbital boosters, as is China 's ASAT system, it would be allowed under this first part of the treaty. The draft treaty then goes on to ban “the threat or use of force against outer space objects.” Because the treaty does not define either “outer space” or “object,” there is a certain amount of ambiguity about whether it allows the U.S. missile defense system. It is difficult to imagine an interpretation of these obligations that would allow the Chinese ASAT system.

Proposed Solutions

Codes of Conduct: Creating an International Taboo

Many feel that these definitional problems are impossible to overcome if international agreement is to be reached.[13] In answer to this, the Henry L. Stimson Center , in collaboration with a number of other nongovernmental organizations, has proposed a Code of Conduct for Space-Faring Nations. This code is still evolving,[14] but its key feature is a pledge to avoid creating persistent space debris by following the guidelines of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC).[15] Such a pledge would go a long way in protecting the world's economic interests in outer space by creating an international taboo against creating dangerous space junk. It would be an effective first step in banning the weaponization of space if it can strengthen the political commitments to the IADC's guidelines, guidelines with which the major space-faring nations' technical experts have already agreed.

Another important aspect of the proposed code is the call for nations of the world to share space surveillance data. Through a series of radars, ground-based optical telescopes, and even a camera onboard a satellite, the United States observes and tracks almost all the objects in space with diameters greater than 10 centimeters. The parameters necessary to calculate the orbits for most of these are provided on a website open to the public.[16] Other countries also maintain such observations but do not share them. It would be an important confidence-building measure for all countries to share this information. It would even improve satellite tracking because satellites are occasionally “lost” for days or months at a time because of a lack of observations at a crucial moment.[17] The situational awareness of objects in space that tracking provides is important for two reasons: in avoiding collisions between satellites, particularly for geostationary satellites and for the International Space Station, and preventing false alarms by the North American Aerospace Defense Command early-warning radars misidentifying a satellite for an incoming warhead.[18]

The Stimson Center 's code has been designed to avoid bans on activities that would simulate attacks on satellites because of the definitional problems discussed above. As a result, countries unfortunately could still test complete ASAT systems under the proposed code by using close flybys.

A Treaty Banning ASAT Testing

Other analysts have attempted to make progress with proposals banning the testing, development, and deployment of ASAT systems above some threshold altitude.[19] Such methods certainly avoid the missile defense problems that have stymied previous treaty attempts, but they also leave open the development of these weapons at lower altitudes, even if combined with a code of conduct for lower altitudes. It would, unfortunately, be a relatively minor step to move an ASAT weapon that had been developed for lower altitudes and mount it on a more powerful rocket, especially for countries such as China or India that have already orbited geostationary satellites.

A better approach might be simply to ban one spacecraft from approaching another orbiting spacecraft[20] at excessive speeds. A technical annex to the treaty, one that could be adjusted by a standing committee of experts, might define these as closing speeds greater than 100 meters per second if they are within 100 kilometers of each other. These speeds and distances are great enough not to interfere with much of the normal operating procedures in space and yet would still obstruct the development of the tracking, guidance, and control of any ASAT weapon. At the same time, they do not prevent the testing and deployment of ground-based missile defenses because the target is not in orbit.

Space is far from empty, however. For instance, within a single 100-minute orbit, an equatorial satellite “violated” the proposed treaty limits several times by passing closer than 100 kilometers (at closing speeds of more than 100 meters per second) to 18 cataloged space objects, including two functioning satellites. Of the 16 pieces of debris, six were from the satellite destroyed in China 's ASAT weapons test, which, for this orbit, increased by 50 percent the risk of collision with a large piece of debris.

To prevent such false violations, the treaty should be limited to cases where spacecraft were maneuvering within this region, which is the essence of the tracking-guidance-control system. Thus, although it would still be possible to develop individual components of an ASAT system such as the optical tracker with in-orbit tests under this proposed treaty, it would not be possible to gain enough confidence in the complete system to deploy a weapon.

Space-based satellite surveillance, which has already been implemented on a single satellite, could be used to detect spacecraft maneuvering in close proximity to other satellites by observing the exhaust plumes from the interceptor's jets.[21] The satellite tracking system at present, however, could not verify this ban because it does not have the space-based surveillance assets necessary for such continuous coverage. The United States would need to implement a complete constellation of satellites dedicated to tracking other satellites, as proposed by the Congressional Budget Office in 2000.[22]

What Is Not Covered by the Proposed Treaty

The proposed treaty discussed here is aimed at stopping the testing and deployment of some of the most dangerous ASAT systems currently on the horizon: high-speed kinetic-kill ASAT weapons. It does not stop the development of other types of ASAT weapons, such as the space mines with which the Soviets experimented in the 1980s. These weapons slowly approach their targets and then detonate. It is very difficult to ban the development of such slow-speed approaches because they have a number of legitimate peaceful uses. For instance, the International Space Station is regularly resupplied by unmanned Soyuz spacecraft.

Micro- or even smaller satellites, which would be nearly impossible to track, are also being developed to service the International Space Station.[23] These too are not covered by the proposal when used as space mines. Microsatellite know-how, however, possibly will be turned into high-speed kinetic-kill ASAT weaponry sometime in the future and would be covered by the treaty; it would just be difficult to detect. This is an example of why space-tracking technology must continue to be improved for verification purposes as well as for keeping our space situational awareness up to date.

This discussion has focused on the kinetic-kill type of ASAT weapon that China tested in January, but significant damage to low-flying satellites can be caused by blinding lasers, which China also has allegedly used.[24] This type of weapons system should also be banned, but specialized methods of verification would need to be developed.

The time is right for a treaty banning the testing of the most dangerous ASAT systems. The world has expressed grave concern at the space debris China 's last test created that put at increased risk both manned spaceflight and commercial space assets.[25] If the United States acts now while it is still technologically dominant in space, it could prevent other countries from gaining the experience and confidence needed to field such weapons. China , for its part, has shown the world that ASAT weapons are not a Western monopoly, and if it believes in its rhetoric of the past decade, it could negotiate an end to an entire class of weapons.

Geoffrey Forden is a research associate with the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served as chief of the multidisciplinary analysis section of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).


1. Michael Krepon, “Weapons in the Heavens: A Radical and Reckless Option,” Arms Control Today , November 2004, pp. 11-18.

2. The parameters determined by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracking of satellites give an uncertainty about where the satellite is at any given moment, of about 10 kilometers along the orbit and approximately 2 kilometers transverse to that.

3. This is a combination of the satellite's orbital speed of 7.4 kilometers per second and the interceptor's speed of 1.8 kilometers per second at the time of the interception.

4. For a technical analysis and explanation of how these estimates were made, see Geoffrey Forden, “An Analysis of the Chinese ASAT Test,” Jane's Online, April 2007.

5. See Michael O'Hanlon, “A Space Weapons Race Is Not the Answer for America ,” The Financial Times, January 22, 2007.

6. A medium-Earth orbit is defined as any orbit greater than 2,000 kilometers in altitude and less than geostationary Earth orbits at 35,786 kilometers in altitude.

7. The lowest point in a transfer orbit is at the original low-Earth orbit's altitude while its highest point is usually just greater than the desired end orbit.

8. The U.S. national missile defense booster and interceptor, if used as an ASAT weapon, could directly attack satellites as high as 18,000 kilometers. Although this altitude is well above 2,000 kilometers, it is lower than the altitude of NAVSTAR/GPS navigational satellites.

9. Geoffrey Forden, “Sensitivity of GPS Coverage to Loss of One or More Satellites,” Technical Appendix D, in Ensuring America's Space Security: Report of the FAS Panel on Weapons in Space (October 2004).

10. See Hui Zhang, “Action/Reaction: U.S. Weaponization and China ,” Arms Control Today , December 2005, pp. 6-11.

11. Hu Xiaodi, “Possible Elements of the Future International Legal Instrument on the Prevention of the Weaponization of Outer Space,” CD/1645, June 6, 2001.

12. Hu Xiaodi and Leonid Skotnikov, “Possible Elements for a Future International Legal Agreement on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects,” CD/1679, June 28, 2002.

13. Michael Krepon, e-mail to author, February 10, 2007.

14. Previous versions of the Stimson Center 's code also asked states to forgo “simulating an attack on a satellite.” Stimson Center , “Model Code of Conduct for the Prevention of Incidents and Dangerous Military Practices in Outer Space,” May 19, 2004.

15. The Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee is composed of representatives of national space agencies including NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia's space agency, and China's space agency.

16. Space-Track, located at http://www.space-track.org. Space-Track does not list the parameters for classified U.S. satellites. Most, if not all, of these are tracked by amateurs in the backyards using very inexpensive equipment. See Visual Satellite Observer's Home Page, located at http://www.satobs.org/satintro.html.

17. Grant H. Stokes et al., “The Space-Based Visible Program,” Lincoln Laboratory Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1998), pp. 205-229.

18. A false alarm of a nuclear attack, fortunately caught before it triggered a “response,” was caused by a satellite appearing to a radar in Moorestown , New Jersey , to rise from Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. See Scott Sagan, Limits of Safety (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 130-131.

19. For some previous proposals for high-altitude bans, see Donald Hofner and Bhupendra Jasani, “An Arms Control Proposal Limiting High-Altitude ASAT Weapons,” in Strategic Defenses and the Future of the Arms Race: A Pugwash Symposium, eds. John Holdren and Joseph Rotblat (London: MacMillian Press, 1987), pp. 226-239; Ashton B. Carter, “Satellite and Anti-Satellite: The Limits of the Possible,” International Security, Spring 1986, pp. 46-98.

20. The operative phase here is “orbiting spacecraft.” “Orbiting” would mean making more than one circuit of the Earth, and “spacecraft” is used to avoid the thousands of times per day of accidental close encounters with space debris. A standing panel of experts would have to be created to discuss such definitions in the light of experience.

21. The existing space-based tracking asset has already demonstrated a rudimentary capability to do this. See Stokes et. al., “Space-Based Visible Program,” p. 218.

22. Geoffrey Forden, “Option 3-08: Establish a Space-Based Capability to Search for and Track Adversaries' Spacecraft,” in Budget Options for National Defense ( Washington , DC : Congressional Budget Office, March 2000), pp. 37-39. The United States has undertaken the development of such a constellation in the form of the Space Based Space Surveillance Pathfinder single satellite project scheduled for launch in 2007. See Boeing Integrated Space Systems, located at http://www.boeing.com/defense-space/space/satellite/sbss.html.

23. See NASA Exploration Systems, located at http://exploration.nasa.gov/programs/station/STP-H2-MEPSI.html.

24. “Top Commander: Chinese Interference With U.S. Satellites Uncertain,” Inside Missile Defense, October 22, 2006.

25. See “European Union Expresses Concern Over Chinese ASAT Test,” Defense Daily, January 24, 2007.

Chinese Proud, Defensive About ASAT Test

After shooting down one of its weather satellites Jan. 11, the Chinese government maintained a baffling silence until Jan. 23 when it confirmed foreign reports of the event...

Scarlet Kim

After shooting down one of its weather satellites Jan. 11, the Chinese government maintained a baffling silence until Jan. 23 when it confirmed foreign reports of the event. Since then, government leaders in Beijing have said little, but the same cannot be said for some of China’s 1.3 billion people, who are expressing patriotic pride and defending their military’s technological achievement.

News of the anti-satellite (ASAT) test trickled into the Chinese mainland hours after the first official U.S. reports appeared Jan. 18. Shortly thereafter, commentary emerged on major Chinese internet forums, a proxy barometer of public opinion. Although some Chinese initially voiced doubts about the authenticity of the news, the reaction was generally positive. A typical opinion appearing on the military forum bbs.military.china.com stated, “[The test] is of great political significance to our country…and a milestone in our country’s scientific advancement. Our army can no longer be considered backwards.”

In a Jan. 26 interview with Arms Control Today, Professor Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at the Beijing-based People’s University, stated that “100% of internet public opinion…enthusiastically applauds this development.” He cautioned, however, that internet views might not be an entirely accurate reflection of Chinese sentiment, noting that those who harbor reservations about the test may fear expressing their opposition openly.

Shi also noted that most Chinese may not be fully aware of the event, owing to sparse Chinese media coverage of the satellite destruction. Still, he concluded, “for those who do know, I suppose that the overwhelming majority is in favor of this development of space military capabilities.”

While Western media have been busy scrutinizing China’s test and growing ASAT capabilities, China’s state-run media has spotlighted the space capabilities and plans of other countries, particularly the United States. As a result, many Chinese may not realize the seeming contradiction between China’s official position in support of limits on space weapons and its recent ASAT test. In the last few weeks, the Chinese government has continued to insist that it wants to prevent the “weaponization” of space.

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency published a Jan. 28 article, “United States Issues New Space Policy: An Inventory of American Anti-Satellite Warfare Capabilities.” Relying primarily on U.S. nongovernmental analysis, the article outlines U.S. missile defense capabilities and concludes that Washington is determined to deploy space-based weapons. Other Chinese news outlets have run variations of this piece.

At the same time, some Chinese are concerned that the test could bolster some claims in Washington and elsewhere that China is a growing military competitor. A student at the People’s University wrote in an online academic forum that the test will only “add fuel to the ‘China Threat’ argument,” supporting those “Western conservative politicians who want to restrain China even if she is rising peacefully.”

The Chinese military has dismissed such claims. In a Feb. 2 article in the Global Times, a weekly Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper, Major General Zhang Zhaozhong noted that “if a strong military indicates a large threat,” then by that logic “ China is not the country that poses the biggest threat to the world.”

Chinese Satellite Destruction Stirs Debate

Wade Boese

In January, China for the first time used a weapon to destroy one of its satellites. Beijing says its feat was not hostile, but it polluted space with a huge amount of potentially harmful debris and sparked debate over China’s professed desire to prevent a space arms race.

China Jan. 11 demolished an aging weather satellite, the Feng Yun-1C, orbiting Earth at an altitude of approximately 850 kilometers. The satellite disintegrated when struck by a projectile carried into space by a ballistic missile launched from the Xichang space launch facility in southwestern China.

The United States and the Soviet Union pursued anti-satellite weapons programs throughout much of the Cold War. Before China’s test, Washington in 1985 had carried out the only previous test in which a satellite was destroyed. In that experiment, an F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft fired a missile armed with a kill vehicle that collided with the U.S. Solwind satellite.

Beijing provided no advance notice of its test and stayed silent for days afterward. The U.S. government confirmed the incident Jan. 18.

China publicly acknowledged the test Jan. 23. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao said that day that the test was “not targeted at any country.” He reiterated China’s long-standing position that it opposes the “weaponization” of space, but Liu did not discuss the reasons for the test, an approach the Chinese government has maintained.

Broad speculation has filled the void. Some have interpreted the experiment as a Chinese show of strength and a warning to Washington that its space assets would be vulnerable to attack if the United States and China ever went to war. Others have seen the test as Beijing’s attempt to stimulate the United States to drop its long-standing opposition to Chinese- and Russian-advocated negotiations on prevention of an arms race in outer space.

If the latter was the intent, China appears to have miscalculated, at least in the short term. U.S. Ambassador Christina Rocca told delegates to the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva Feb. 13, “Despite the [anti-satellite] test, we continue to believe that there is no arms race in space, and therefore no problem for arms control to solve.”

Rocca’s statement meshes with the Bush administration’s stance in its national space policy released last October, ruling out future arms control measures for space. In general, the policy emphasized that “freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power.” (See ACT, November 2006. )

Rocca assured CD members that the United States is “not out to claim space for its own or to weaponize it.” But she also stressed Washington would defend its space assets from threats, noting that the Chinese test “reminds us that a relatively small number of countries are exploring and acquiring capabilities to counter, attack, and defeat vital space systems.”

Pointing out that China launched its satellite-smashing weapon from earth, Rocca questioned whether a space weapons treaty would include terrestrial-based anti-satellite arms. She suggested such definitional issues and potential verification difficulties posed immense problems and pitfalls for any negotiations. Past Chinese and Russian proposals have included obligations against “the threat or use of force against outer space objects.”

Other CD members pressed China for an explanation of its test, but some also urged the United States to revise its anti-space negotiations stand. German Ambassador Bernhard Brasack, speaking Feb. 13 for the 27-member European Union, declared it “irresponsible to block the further discussion on [the space issue] for fear of too ambitious goals.” The CD operates by consensus, and the United States for years has staunchly objected to space talks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Feb. 10 that Moscow would soon be submitting to the conference a draft treaty banning space weapons. The Kremlin is keen on stopping possible deployment of U.S. anti-missile systems in space, an option the Pentagon wants to start testing around 2012.

Meanwhile, Canada’s ambassador to the CD, Paul Meyer, promoted a multilateral moratorium on anti-satellite tests. He argued Feb. 13 that it was an urgent step, given increasing space debris, which refers to any man-made item in orbit that no longer has a use.

Meyer did not explicitly say so, but China’s test created a lot of space garbage. Indeed, Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris, told Arms Control Today Feb. 22 that the obliteration of the Feng Yun-1C marked “the worst satellite breakup” ever in terms of creating large debris and long-term effects on the “near-Earth environment.”

The United States tracks large debris, any item greater than 10 centimeters, because it could collide with and damage or destroy satellites or manned spacecraft. Because items in space are traveling so fast, even debris as small as one centimeter could prove harmful.

Johnson said the United States is currently tracking approximately 1,000 large debris items out of the more than 35,000 pieces of debris one centimeter or larger that NASA estimates the Chinese test produced. Before the test, roughly 10,000 large debris units existed in space.

Although some of the new debris will soon re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, satellites and spacecraft will have to navigate around some chunks for years, decades, and perhaps a century or more. If the new test debris damages any country’s space assets, China would be liable under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which aims to preserve space for peaceful purposes and protect national and international space assets. Beijing acceded to the treaty in 1983.

Given the high cost of satellites and their significant commercial and military utility, many countries are eager to prevent additional space debris. In February, a subcommittee of the 67-member UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which includes China, Russia, and the United States, adopted nonbinding space-debris mitigation guidelines. The full committee is expected to adopt the guidelines later this year.

The space debris problem clearly ranked as an immediate worry for U.S. officials after the Chinese test, but they also questioned the Chinese political and military motivations behind the test. Senior administration officials labeled the test variously as “very troubling,” “very worrisome,” “destabilizing,” and “quite unpleasant.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 6 that the test showed a capability but does not reveal how it fits within China’s “strategic outlook” or potential-use calculations. U.S. officials say they are seeking such clarifications from Beijing.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) argued Jan. 29 that Beijing’s intentions are self-evident and that United States should pursue space weapons capabilities, including anti-satellite systems. “We need to have the capability to eliminate a hostile satellite when necessary,” Kyl said.

A senior Air Force official told reporters Feb. 5 that the United States is not interested in such a destructive capability. “We don’t want to do that,” said the official, who also added that the United States is “not real eager to cause a lot of debris in space.”

One idea the official proposed exploring was adding sensors to each satellite to enable it to “see if somebody is coming up close” or to know if it has been “hit by a laser.” Both China and the United States allegedly have been exploring microsatellites that could maneuver close to and disable another satellite, as well as lasers to blind or impair satellites.


The USSR’s Past Anti-Satellite Testing

Wade Boese

The Soviet Union pursued anti-satellite (ASAT) programs for decades but apparently never smashed a satellite into bits as China did recently and the United States did in 1985. Still, Washington assessed Moscow’s capabilities as a viable threat to U.S. satellites.

Before instituting a moratorium on ASAT test launches in August 1983, the Kremlin conducted at least 20 ASAT tests beginning in 1968. The Soviet tests involved the use of interceptor vehicles with explosives designed to detonate near their intended target.

None of the Soviet tests resulted in a target’s complete destruction. Indeed, Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief expert on orbital debris, told Arms Control Today Feb. 24 that “only one Soviet ASAT target ever released debris as a result of an ASAT engagement.” He reported that four pieces of debris were detected from a November 1968 test.

Nevertheless, Johnson noted that even though targets were not obliterated, the tests were not necessarily failures. “In [the November 1968 test] and other successful engagements, the target satellite might well have been ‘destroyed’ from an operational viewpoint,” he stated.

The Pentagon assessed the Soviet Union as first attaining an operational ASAT capability in 1971. The now-disbanded congressional Office of Technology Assessment reported in an extensive September 1985 report on ASAT systems that “Soviet ASAT capabilities threaten U.S. military capabilities to some extent now and potentially to a much greater extent in the future.”

Moscow continued to investigate ASAT systems, allegedly including lasers, after its 1983 test moratorium, but it is uncertain how extensive and productive those efforts were and what Russia’s exact ASAT capabilities are today.

Chinese Anti-Satellite Test Demands Explanation, Outer Space Talks



Note for Reporters by Daryl G. Kimball

Immediate Release: January 26, 2007
Press Contact: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 x107 (Office)

Since the beginning of the space age, countries have contemplated how they might protect their military and civilian space assets from attack by others. China’s destruction of one of its satellites using a ground-launched ballistic missile January 11 reaffirms the fundamental reality that space assets are physically vulnerable to attack, as U.S. and Soviet anti-satellite testing first demonstrated decades ago.

The January 11 event also raises many questions that Beijing should answer. Most importantly, why did China shoot down its own satellite and what did China hope to gain from this provocative act? Was China signalling that U.S. satellites would not be safe in a potential conflict with China? Was China hoping to push the United States toward negotiations on controlling space and anti-satellite weapons? Or both?

It is essential that Beijing clarify its intentions in order to help avert an unnecessary and destabilizing space weapons competition. It is also essential that the United States and other countries respond in a manner that reduces, rather than stokes, space weapons concerns.

All countries share a strong and enduring interest in preventing space from becoming a future battlefield and would benefit from limitations on the development and deployment of weapons that could be used to impair or destroy valuable space-based assets. Consequently, the United States, China, Russia, and other spacefaring nations should begin negotiations to prohibit space-based weapons and anti-satellite arms. James Clay Moltz outlined what such an agreement could entail in a 2002 Arms Control Today article, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2002_04/moltzapril02.asp.
The logical forum for such talks is the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD). Unfortunately, the conference, which operates by consensus, has been deadlocked over competing negotiating priorities since 1996. Driven in part by its concerns about the United States’ rudimentary but evolving missile defense programs, China has been a leading advocate of CD talks on outer space. For its part, the United States has been staunchly opposed to the proposal, arguing that there is no need for such an agreement.

A trio of articles by notable arms control experts in the December 2007 Arms Control Today, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_12/, provide several recommendations for reviving the conference, including talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit and on celestial bodies, but contains no provisions against developing anti-satellite weapons or deploying kinetic or laser weapons in orbit. If countries pursue and attain such capabilities, the consequences would be serious and devastating, as Michael Krepon argued in a November 2004 Arms Control Today article, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_11/Krepon.asp.   

U.S. policymakers should seize on the Chinese anti-satellite test as an opportunity to constructively address mutual concerns and plug the current loopholes in the existing space security framework.

If the United States forsakes negotiations, continues with plans to test space-based missile defense systems, and seeks to ensure its own “freedom of action” in space as outlined in a recently unveiled space policy (see http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_11/ACSpace.asp), Washington will only further spur China to pursue anti-satellite weapons. Harvard scholar Hui Zhang warned of the negative implications of such an action-reaction cycle in this December 2005 Arms Control Today article, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2005_12/Dec-cvr.asp.

For more information on space and related weapons issues, see the ACA space resource page at http://www.armscontrol.org/subject/space/. Additional information on the CD and its ongoing deadlock is available at a separate ACA resource page at http://www.armscontrol.org/subject/cd/.  

# # #

The Arms Control Association (ACA) is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting effective arms control policies. ACA publishes the monthly journal Arms Control Today.

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China Updates Nuclear Export Regulations

Paul Kerr

For the first time in almost 10 years, China has updated its export controls on nuclear technology. China’s State Council published the changes Dec. 1, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

According to Xinhua, the regulations, originally issued in 1997, are intended to give the government “more control over the end use” of exported nuclear technology. The revised regulations also provide more explicit guidance for importers and exporters of Chinese nuclear technology.

For example, the regulations give what appears to be new power to China’s customs authorities, which may now request that Chinese exporters obtain proper documentation of their shipments.

The regulations also describe more specific penalties for export control violations. The previous regulations said only that violators would be punished according to the relevant laws.

Furthermore, recipients of Chinese uranium-enrichment technology are now prohibited from using it to produce uranium containing more than 20 percent uranium-235.

Uranium enrichment, which increases the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235, can be used to produce both nuclear reactor fuel and fissile material for nuclear weapons. Uranium used as fuel in nuclear power reactors is typically enriched to less than 5 percent uranium-235; enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons typically is about 90 percent uranium-235.

The revised regulations also place new emphasis on preventing nuclear attacks by terrorists, adding, for example, “guarding against nuclear terrorist acts” as a rationale for controlling nuclear technology. Moreover, the regulations contain a new provision that allows Beijing to “suspend” nuclear exports to a recipient “if there is the danger of…nuclear terrorism.”

These changes continue a positive trend. In 1998, Beijing issued regulations governing the export of dual-use nuclear items. In 2004, China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a voluntary group of states that have agreed to coordinate their export controls governing transfers of civilian nuclear material and technology. (See ACT, June 2004.)

The regulations do not appear to affect China’s 2004 agreement, completed before its accession to the NSG, to supply Pakistan with a nuclear reactor. Although governments are not obliged to follow NSG standards for any contracts completed before joining the group, the deal has been controversial because it is inconsistent with NSG guidelines.

Beijing also has been strengthening other types of export controls. For example, in 2002 it adopted regulations governing the export of missiles and related components, as well as chemical and biological materials and related equipment. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)

U.S. statements acknowledge that Beijing has improved its efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation but also claim that Chinese entities continue to aid certain countries’ nuclear programs.

For example, Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation, told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in September 2006 that China’s nuclear export control system “appears designed to ensure adequate review for those [nuclear materials and technology] exports that come to the attention” of the relevant authorities. But Washington is concerned about “whether these authorities choose to properly exercise their authority,” she added.

Similarly, a CIA report covering 2004 stated that “ China’s record is strongest with respect to nuclear nonproliferation, as Beijing has largely curtailed government-sanctioned assistance to most countries.”

However, an August 2005 Department of State report indicates that Beijing may be aiding two unnamed countries’ nuclear weapons programs. U.S. intelligence officials have testified as recently as 2004 that Chinese entities have provided such assistance to Iran and Pakistan.

China's Growing Missile Force


American Enterprise Institute Panel Featuring ACA Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball
American Enterprise Institute Panel Featuring ACA Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball, July 11, 2006.

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Australia, China Conclude Nuclear Deal

Paul Kerr

Australia and China April 3 concluded two agreements to increase nuclear cooperation. Although the agreements must still be ratified by each country before entering into force, they appear to pave the way for Canberra to help supply Beijing’s expanding nuclear power industry.

In doing so, Australia brushed aside domestic concerns that the agreement could indirectly augment China’s nuclear arsenal. Canberra also denied that it was planning to change policy and allow similar uranium sales to India.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Chinese Foreign Minster Li Zhaoxing signed the agreements, including relevant safeguards, governing the transfer of nuclear material from Australia to China, as well as cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The agreements will enter into force 30 days after each side has fulfilled all relevant “domestic requirements.” They are to remain in force for an initial period of 30 years.

Beijing mines its own uranium but is trying to secure access to additional supplies as it seeks to increase its nuclear power-generating capacity to cope with increases in energy demand. Australia is the world’s second-largest producer of uranium, according to a 2004 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It is not yet clear when the transfer would begin. Australia’s resource minister, Ian MacFarlane, said that Canberra is still “some distance” from exporting uranium to China, Xinhua Financial Network News reported April 3.

The agreements must enter into force before the uranium can be transferred, although contracts can be concluded before then. Downer stated April 3 that the agreements must still be reviewed by the Australian parliament but did not specify a date for the review. An Australian diplomat told Arms Control Today April 24 that “[t]he review process takes several months. At this stage, we do not have an estimate for when it will be completed.”

No specific nuclear cooperation agreements have yet been concluded. But such cooperation is “likely to include” research at a new reactor belonging to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, according to a fact sheet from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Canberra has declared repeatedly that the agreements will not help China augment its nuclear weapons arsenal. Downer stated April 3 that the agreements “establish strict safeguards arrangements and conditions” to ensure that Australian uranium, as well as “any collaborative programs in applications of nuclear technology…[are] used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

According to the nuclear material supply agreement, China is not to use Australian nuclear material for “direct military applications,” such as fissile material for nuclear weapons or fuel for nuclear reactors used for powering naval ships or submarines.

China acceded to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992 as a nuclear- weapon state. Australia will supply nuclear material only to Chinese nuclear power facilities under IAEA safeguards, which allow the agency to monitor those facilities to ensure they are not used for military purposes. Beijing’s military facilities are not under such safeguards, according to Australia’s foreign affairs department. Australia and China must still agree on a list of facilities that will receive uranium.

In the event that the IAEA stops administering its safeguards, the two countries can “arrange for the application of safeguards satisfactory to both parties.”

The nuclear material supply agreement also places other restrictions on China. For example, Beijing is required to obtain Canberra’s permission before reprocessing spent reactor fuel, producing uranium with a uranium-235 isotope concentration of 20 percent or more, or transferring nuclear material to countries that do not have a nuclear transfer agreement with Australia.

China currently enriches uranium for its nuclear reactors as well as for some of its nuclear weapons. Uranium used in weapons typically contains about 90 percent uranium-235.

Reprocessing spent reactor fuel can produce plutonium for use as fissile material or as fuel in certain specialized nuclear reactors. China does not currently use plutonium for reactor fuel, but it does use plutonium in its nuclear arsenal.

According to Australia’s foreign affairs department, Canberra can suspend or terminate the nuclear material transfer agreement if Beijing does not abide by either the agreement’s terms or by China’s IAEA safeguards arrangements.

Moreover, Australian officials denied that the deal would free up indigenous Chinese uranium and thereby help Beijing increase its arsenal. The officials noted that China is widely believed to have ceased production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. However, unlike the other four nuclear-weapon states under the NPT— France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States— China has yet publicly to announce a moratorium on fissile material production.

Asked whether Australia plans to supply uranium to India, Downer said in an April 4 interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that the two countries could “certainly not” conclude such an agreement “under present circumstances.” Australian law prohibits Canberra from exporting uranium to countries that have not signed the NPT.

Washington has recently concluded an agreement with New Delhi that would allow India to obtain U.S.-supplied fuel for its nuclear reactors. Congress must still approve the Bush administration’s proposed changes to U.S. law, which currently prohibits such transfers (See "Congress Ponders Conditions for U.S.-Indian Deal").


Action/Reaction: U.S. Space Weaponization and China

Hui Zhang

Chinese officials have expressed a growing concern that U.S. space and missile defense plans will stimulate a costly and destabilizing arms race. In particular, the prevailing view in Beijing is that the United States seeks to neutralize China’s strategic nuclear deterrent, freeing itself to intervene in China’s affairs and undermining Beijing’s efforts to prod Taiwan to reunify. If U.S. plans are left unchecked, therefore, Beijing may feel compelled to respond by introducing its own space weapons.

Beijing, however, would prefer to avoid this outcome. Chinese officials argue that weaponizing space is in no state’s interest, while continued peaceful exploitation redounds to the benefit of all states. Rather than battling over space, China wants countries to craft an international ban on space weaponization.

U.S. Moves Toward Space Weaponization

China ’s concerns are prompted by evidence that U.S. moves toward space weaponization are gaining momentum. In January 2001, a congressionally mandated space commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, who is now secretary of defense, recommended that “the U.S. government should vigorously pursue the capabilities called for in the National Space Policy to ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests.”[1]

Moreover, the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 has given the United States a free hand to move forward with missile defenses, and space-based missile defenses are envisioned as part of the U.S. mix. In the clearest official sign yet of support for space weaponization, last year the U.S. Air Force publicized its vision of how “counterspace operations” could help achieve and maintain “space superiority,” the “freedom to attack as well as the freedom from attack” in space.[2]

Already the United States is pursuing a number of military systems[3] that could be used to attack targets in space from Earth or targets on Earth from space. To China, current U.S. deployment of a Ground-Based Midcourse Missile Defense system represents an intentional first step toward space weaponization.[4] China experts argue that the interceptors of the system based in Alaska and California could be used to attack satellites.[5]

After all, such systems could be easily adapted to target satellites, which are more fragile and more predictable than ballistic missile warheads. If the United States is determined to ensure “space dominance,” it would first want to use such weapons to negate an adversary’s satellites.

Beijing is even more concerned about U.S. plans for a robust, layered missile defense system. Such a system would provide the capability to engage ballistic missiles in all phases of flight: soon after they are launched, at the height of their trajectory, and as they descend. These are known as the boost, midcourse, and terminal phases, respectively. In particular, China is concerned about interceptors and other defenses that the United States would like to position in space.

The Pentagon announced in December 2002 that the United States would continue the “development and testing of space-based defenses, specifically space-based kinetic energy [hit-to-kill] interceptors and advanced target tracking satellites.” The Pentagon has indicated that a Space-Based Interceptor Test Bed, intended to develop and test plans for a lightweight space-based kinetic kill interceptor, is expected to conduct its first experiment in 2012.

Within the next year, the Pentagon expects to launch into low-Earth orbit (LEO) its first Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) satellite, designed to gather information on ballistic missiles during the first few minutes of their flight. Although the NFIRE at this point is only charged with gathering information, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had originally planned to include a kill vehicle in the NFIRE’s payload and could presumably change its mind again.

Moreover, research on a Space-Based Laser (SBL) had been conducted for some time for boost-phase missile defense. Although MDA cancelled the SBL program in 2002, a number of directed-energy initiatives can still be found in various other programs. The possibility of reviving the SBL program in MDA is still there.

Similarly, other space programs could be turned into weapons. For instance, the Air Force has a research project on small satellites, the Experimental Satellite System (XSS), that seeks to use such satellites to conduct “proximity operations,” maneuvers around other satellites. Some have said the XSS satellites could be used to inspect, service, or attack other satellites.[6] The Air Force in April launched the satellite XSS-11 as part of the series. In addition, the Air Force has considered using weapons for prompt global force projection through space, such as the common aero vehicle and Hypervelocity Rod Bundles (often termed “rods from God”).[7] Such space-based global strike capability would allow the United States to target and strike any point on earth in less than 90 minutes with complete surprise and provide the capability for flexible strikes for different types of targets, such as hard and deeply buried targets or mobile targets.

Space Weapons and China’s Security

The United States clearly has legitimate concerns about its space assets, given that U.S. military operations and the U.S. economy are increasingly dependent on them. Satellites are inherently vulnerable to attacks from many different sources, including ground-based missiles, lasers, and radiation from a high-altitude nuclear explosion. However, it does not mean that the United States currently faces credible threats from states that might exploit those vulnerabilities.[8] Most analysts believe no country seriously threatens U.S. space assets.[9]

Only the United States and, in the Cold War era, the Soviet Union have explored, tested, and developed space weapons; Russia placed a moratorium on its program in the 1980s. To be sure, a number of countries, including China, are capable of attacking U.S. satellites with nuclear weapons, but such an attack would be foolhardy, as it would almost certainly be met by a deadly U.S. response. Moreover, as many experts point out, space-based weapons cannot protect satellites because these weapons are nearly as vulnerable to attack as the satellites themselves.[10] No wonder that many countries, including China and Russia, have sought multilateral negotiations on the prevention of space weaponization.

A Loss of Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Capability

Many Chinese officials assume that China is the real target for U.S. missile defense and space planning. From Beijing’s perspective, it is inconceivable that Washington would expend such massive resources on a system that would be purely defensive and aimed only at “rogue” states. As seen by Chinese leaders, China’s own small strategic nuclear arsenal appears to be a much more plausible target for U.S. missile defenses.[11]

Chinese experts are concerned that even a limited missile defense system could neutralize China’s fewer than two dozen single-warhead ICBMs that are capable of reaching the United States. “It is evident that the U.S. [national missile defense] will seriously undermine the effectiveness of China’s limited nuclear capability from the first day of its deployment,” said Ambassador Sha Zukang, the former director-general of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “This cannot but cause grave concerns to China,” he said.[12] Some Chinese fear that, whether or not the U.S. missile defenses are as effective as planned, U.S. decision-makers could act rashly and risk a disarming first strike once the system is operational.

Beijing is particularly concerned about the refusal of the United States, unlike China, to declare a no-first-use nuclear policy. The Bush administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) feeds these anxieties. The NPR specifically mentions the possibility of using nuclear weapons during a conflict in the Taiwan Strait and the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. The Pentagon’s draft Doctrine on Joint Nuclear Operations would maintain an aggressive nuclear posture including the possible use of nuclear weapons to pre-empt an adversary’s attack with weapons of mass destruction and increasing the role of such weapons in regional (theater) nuclear operations.[13] Thus, some experts fret that the U.S. policy of possible first use of nuclear weapons, in combination with its missiles defenses and a lowered nuclear threshold, could encourage Washington to resort to the threat or use of nuclear weapons against China over Taiwan.

U.S. plans for global force projection would pose another threat to China. Some proposed space weapons such as common aero vehicles would be used to target hard and deeply buried as well as mobile targets. Such weapons would pose a major threat to the nuclear arsenal of mobile ICBMs that China is in the process of developing.

Consequently, China worries that the combination of future U.S. space weapons and its missile defense system could subject China to political or strategic blackmail. Such systems would give the United States much more freedom to intervene in China’s affairs, including undermining China’s efforts at reunification with Taiwan. This concern is enhanced by U.S. moves in recent years to boost cooperation in research and development of advanced theater missile defense with Japan and potentially with Taiwan.

Arms Competition in Space and On Earth

One major Chinese concern about U.S. space weaponization plans, as addressed frequently in statements at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), is that the deployment of space weapons “will disrupt strategic balance and stability, undermine international and national security and do harm to the existing arms control instruments, in particular those related to nuclear weapons and missiles, thus triggering new arms races.”[14]

Because space weapons are at once threatening and vulnerable, it is reasonable to assume that other countries would attempt to block such a move by political and, if necessary, military means. One possible response, for example, would be the development of anti-satellite weapons to target space-based weapon systems. It is widely believed that space weapons and sensor satellites would themselves become prime high-value targets and the most vulnerable elements for defense suppression attacks.[15] It is reasonable to believe that other countries could resort to a number of low-cost and relatively low-technology anti-satellite devices to counter those critical and vulnerable U.S. space-based weapons. Eventually, China fears that the U.S. space weaponization plan would lead to an arms race in outer space and turn outer space into a battlefield.

Moreover, space weaponization would seriously disrupt the arms control and disarmament process. The initiation of U.S. space-based missile defenses would likely cause Russia as well as the United States (in response to Russia) to make smaller reductions in their nuclear arsenals. China would likely be forced to build more warheads to maintain its nuclear deterrent, which could in turn encourage India and then Pakistan to follow suit. Also, Russia has threatened to respond to any country’s deployment of space weapons. Failure to proceed with the nuclear disarmament process would also further undermine the already fragile nuclear nonproliferation regime. As Ambassador Hu Xiaodi warned in 2001, “With lethal weapons flying overhead in orbit and disrupting global strategic stability, why should people eliminate [weapons of mass destruction] or missiles on the ground? This cannot but do harm to global peace, security and stability, hence be detrimental to the fundamental interests of all states.”

Limitations on China’s Civilian And Commercial Space Activities

As addressed in a Chinese proposal to hold talks on a proposed agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space (PAROS) at the CD in 2002, Beijing argues that “outer space is the common heritage of mankind and plays an ever-increasing role in its future development.” In its 2004 defense White Paper, Beijing further emphasized that “ China hopes that the international community would take action as soon as possible to conclude an international legal instrument on preventing the weaponization of and arms race in outer space through negotiations, to ensure the peaceful use of outer space.”[16]

China is particularly concerned that space weaponization could limit its civilian and commercial space activities and negatively affect its economic development. Today, China has various operational civilian satellites in space, a family of launchers, a modern space-launch complex, and a growing list of customers in the international satellite-launch market.[17] Since launching its first satellite in 1970, China has made steady progress both in launch vehicle design and in other areas of space technology development for civilian and commercial purposes. China has developed manned spacecraft and a high-reliability launching vehicle. Between November 1999 and December 2002, China launched four unmanned experimental Shenzhou (Magic Ship) spacecraft. In October 2003, China successfully launched the Shenzhou-5 manned spaceship and, in October 2005, the Shenzhou-6 manned spaceship. China is now planning to explore the moon with unmanned spacecraft. The U.S. pursuit of space control would threaten China’s civilian and commercial space activities and perhaps even deny China access to space.

Space Debris

China also fears the increasing population of space debris. Such debris, resulting from 50 years of space activity, already poses a considerable hazard to spacecraft. Under U.S. space weaponization plans, this crowding problem could worsen as a large number of space weapons could be deployed in LEO. The launching and testing of weapons would also increase space debris. Moreover, deploying space-based weapons in the increasingly crowded realm of LEO would leave less room for civilian systems.

Those problems would also occur during periods of peace. If a number of satellites were to be destroyed during the course of a war, some scientists warn, they would create so much debris that it would prevent future satellites from being stationed in space and generally limit space access. Indeed, pointing to the debris problem, Chinese scientists and officials have said that space weaponization should be considered an environmental threat as well as a security problem.

China’s Options

Historically, China’s stated purpose for developing nuclear weapons was to guard itself against nuclear blackmail. Beijing’s official statements do not discuss potential responses to U.S. space weaponization, but many Chinese officials and scholars argue that China must ensure that U.S. efforts do not negate the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent. As one Chinese official stated:

China is not in a position to conduct an arms race with the United States and it does not intend to do so, particularly in the field of missile defense. However, China will not sit idly by and watch its strategic interests being jeopardized without taking necessary measures. It is quite possible and natural for China to review its military doctrine and a series of policies on the relationship with big powers, Taiwan issues, arms control and nonproliferation, etc.

Certainly, the best option for China is to reach an arms control agreement to prevent space weaponization, as it is advocating now. However, if this effort fails and if what China perceives as its legitimate security concerns are ignored, China would very likely develop other responses to neutralize the perceived threat. Because it is not clear what type of missile defense system the United States will finally deploy or whether the U.S. space control plans will be implemented, it is difficult to identify conclusively China’s specific countermeasures. Yet, there are certain options that it would be likely to consider. It should be noted that these discussions are based on China’s capabilities and do not characterize China’s intentions.

Build More ICBMs

One of China’s simplest options would be to build more ICBMs. Until now, although China has the smallest declared nuclear arsenal of the five nuclear-weapon states, its modernization efforts have been aimed more at quality than quantity. The current effort focuses mainly on enhancing the survivability of its strategic nuclear force through greater mobility. By contrast, the size of the force has grown quite modestly. Absent U.S. missile defense plans, China might be expected to build no more than 50 ICBMs by 2015.

China’s plans could change significantly were the United States to deploy a more comprehensive or more operationally successful missile defense. To maintain a credible minimum retaliatory capability, the size and quality of China’s nuclear arsenal would have to shift.

Predicting an exact response is difficult without knowing the specifications of a U.S. missile defense system, including the numbers of interceptors and the firing doctrine. However, one could project the potential changes in size of China’s nuclear arsenal based on a few simple assumptions. For example, China might need about 100-300 ICBMs to defeat the current U.S. system if that system employed 100-250 interceptors. Clearly, China would need even more warheads to penetrate a layered ballistic missile defense system.

Missile Defense Countermeasures

China could also employ a number of technically feasible and cost-effective measures so that its warheads would stand a strong chance of penetrating a missile defense system.

A number of countermeasures could defeat a midcourse missile defense system like the current one in Alaska.[18] For example, each ICBM could be deployed with decoys. Conversely, China might also disguise the warhead as a decoy by enclosing it in a radar-reflecting balloon, covering it with a shroud, hiding it in a cloud of chaff, or using electronic or infrared jamming measures. Beijing has already demonstrated that it can use decoys and similar capabilities. It has been reported that China has already made some missile flight tests with penetration aids, such as the 1999 flight test of China’s new DF-31 ICBM.

Similarly, a number of measures could be developed to counter a space-based interceptor.[19] One countermeasure would be to develop technology to boost rockets faster, rendering important boost-phase defenses impotent. China has already made steps in this direction by developing solid-fuel ICBMs that burn faster than its previous liquid-fueled missiles.

If the spaced-based laser were to be revived, specific countermeasures could be developed. The countermeasures could include rotating the missile to distribute the laser energy over a wide area, thus preventing the missile from being damaged, or protecting the vulnerable parts of the ICBM with reflective or ablative coatings.[20] Moreover, the attacker could simultaneously launch several ICBMs or an ICBM with some theater or tactical ballistic missiles used as decoys from a compact area to overwhelm space-based weapon systems.

Anti-Satellite Weapons

Moreover, it is reasonable to believe that China could resort to asymmetric methods, such as anti-satellite weapons, to counter critical and vulnerable space-based components in LEO such as space-based interceptors, a space-based laser, or space-based tracking satellites.

China’s best anti-satellite pick might be small, ground-launched kinetic-kill vehicles, which can be used to destroy their target by colliding with it at extremely high velocity. Such weapons are relatively cheap and technically easy and should be well within China’s grasp. These vehicles could reach a satellite in LEO; if mated with a larger booster, they might be capable of reaching higher orbits. Another possible anti-satellite weapon would be a space mine armed with conventional charges. China could also resort to using missiles to deliver a cloud of shrapnel to a particular spot in LEO at a precise time and destroy a space-based interceptor or space-launch satellite as it arrives there.

Countries such as China that have the ability to place objects in orbit or lift them to geosynchronous altitude can also track objects closely in space. Beijing should thus have the ability to develop weapons that could attack satellites either in low-Earth or geosynchronous orbit.

Still, it should be noted that, although China has some technology capabilities that could be used potentially as anti-satellite weapons, it does not mean China has already developed them or has the intention to do so. Several recent editions of the Pentagon’s Chinese military power report claim China is developing and intends to deploy such weapons, including a direct-ascent system, ground-based laser anti-satellite weapons, and microsatellites for weapons purposes.

However, there is no evidence to back up these claims, and China would have been foolish to pursue such weapons, given the diplomatic damage it would have caused amid its two-decade-long ardent support for preventing the weaponization of outer space. However, if the United States moves forward with space-based weapons, there would far less diplomatic cost to doing so.

Reconsidering China’s Arms Control Participation

U.S.-led space weaponization might also lead China to reconsider its participation in some multilateral nuclear arms control treaties. As Ambassador Sha Zukang stated, “ China cannot afford to sit on its hands without taking the necessary measures while its strategic interests are being jeopardized. China, inter alia, may be forced to review the arms control and nonproliferation policies it has adopted since the end of the Cold War in light of new developments in the international situation.”

For example, a need for more weapons would mean a need for more plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel those weapons and thus likely hurt China’s support for a proposed fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). My conservative estimate is that China’s existing stockpile contains about two tons of weapons-grade HEU and one ton of separated plutonium, which could fuel approximately 300 warheads. Thus, this existing stockpile would be sufficient for its current modernization program. However, if China were driven to expand its ICBM arsenal significantly because of missile defense deployments, it might feel compelled to be able to retain the option to restart production of fissile materials and be unwilling to join an FMCT.

Indeed, China has linked these issues since 2000, contending that the space weaponization issue “is just as important as fissile material cut-off, if not more.” For several years, China demanded that FMCT and PAROS talks be launched at the same time. But the United States opposed any negotiations on the outer space issue, and the disagreement prevented the CD from continuing any arms control negotiations for several years. Aiming to break the deadlock at the CD and to promote the international arms control and disarmament process, China dropped in 2003 its linkage between an FMCT and the PAROS negotiations and agreed to a negotiation of an FMCT. China is still seeking PAROS talks, however.

A U.S. move into space could also lead China to reconsider its support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). China signed the CTBT in 1996 and has not yet ratified it, partly because it was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1999. However, U.S. missile defense and space weaponization plans would make Chinese ratification even more difficult. China may feel the need for additional nuclear tests if the need to counter a missile defense drives Beijing to develop new warheads that include decoys or maneuverable warheads. Already, China faces concerns from some experts who think that the CTBT will put more direct constraints on China’s nuclear weapons program than on the weapons programs of other states.

Conclusion: A Ban on Space Weaponization

Given the possibility of effective and cheap countermeasures, it seems foolish to many Chinese that the United States would bother to deploy highly expensive space-based weapons or anti-satellite technologies. If Washington really wants to reduce the potential vulnerability of its space assets, there are a number ways to improve space security, including technical approaches, rules of the road, and arms control agreements. By contrast, weaponizing space can only further worsen space security. As Hu emphasized recently, “[F]or ensuring security in outer space, political and legal approaches…can still be effective, while resorting to force and the development of space weapons will only be counter-productive.”

In China’s view, the most effective way to secure space assets would be to agree on a ban on space weaponization. As its working paper to the CD emphasizes, “Only a treaty-based prohibition of the deployment of weapons in outer space and the prevention of the threat or use of force against outer space objects can eliminate the emerging threat of an arms race in outer space and ensure the security for outer space assets of all countries which is an essential condition for the maintenance of world peace.”

China’s stance on banning weapons in outer space has been consistent since 1985 when it first introduced a working paper to the CD on its position on space weapons. China’s most recent working paper on the issue, introduced in June 2002, emphasizes three basic obligations:

  • Not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons, not to install such weapons on celestial bodies, or not to station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

  • Not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects.

  • Not to assist or encourage other states, groups of states, and international organizations to participate in activities prohibited by this treaty.

In order to advance the CD work on the PAROS issue, in August 2004 China together with Russia prepared two nonpapers on the issues of “verification aspects of PAROS” and “existing international legal instruments and the prevention of the weaponization of outer space” and in June 2005 one more nonpaper on the issue of “definition issues regarding legal instruments on the prevention of weaponization of outer space.”

The nonpaper on verification offers a view that a verification regime in a future outer space treaty will be highly complicated and difficult and will encounter great technological and financial challenges. It does not rule out a verification protocol in the future but seeks to sidestep this from becoming an obstacle to getting started on PAROS negotiations. So, it urges that an outer space legal instrument be formulated without verification procedures for the time being. It cites the case of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to show that, even without a verification mechanism, a treaty can be effective and play an important role.

The Chinese initiative has considerable support. In recent years, the UN General Assembly has adopted by overwhelming majorities resolutions calling for the CD to start a negotiation on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space agreement. These votes do not appear to have impressed the United States. John Bolton, then-U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and nonproliferation, told the CD in 2002 that “the current international regime regulating the use of space meets all our purposes. We see no need for new agreements.”

Yet, Bolton is clearly in error. No existing treaties effectively prevent the testing, deployment, and use of weapons other than those of mass destruction in outer space. In addition, none of these instruments covers the threat or use of force from Earth, including land, sea, and atmosphere, against objects in outer space. If the history of proliferation tells us anything, it is that banning the testing and deployment of weapons from the outset is much more effective than attempting disarmament and nonproliferation after the fact.

Hui Zhang is a research associate in the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.


1. “Report to the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization,” Washington, DC, January 11, 2001.

2. U.S. Air Force, “Counterspace Operations,” Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1, August 2, 2004.

3. The scope of space weaponry, generally accepted by many Chinese, includes not only weapons stationed in outer space but also weapons anywhere that target objects in outer space. See Liu Huaqiu, ed., Arms Control and Disarmament Handbook ( Beijing: National Defense Industry, 2000).

4. Fu Zhigang, “Concerns and Responses: A Chinese Perspective on NMD/TMD,” Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defense & Alternative Security Arrangements, Ottawa, September 28-30, 2001.

5. Qiu Yong, “Analysis on the ASAT Capability of the GMD Interceptor,” Presentation at the 16th International Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs, Beijing, July 17-25, 2004.

6. Jeffrey Lewis, “Programs to Watch,” Arms Control Today, November 2004.

7. Bob Preston et al., Space Weapons, Earth Wars, MR-1209 ( Washington, DC: RAND, June 2002); Bruce DeBlois et al., “Star-Crosses,” IEEE Spectrum, May 2005.

8. See Federation of American Scientists, “Ensuring America’s Space Security: Report of the FAS Panel on Weapons in Space,” October 2004.

9. See Jeffrey Lewis, “False Alarm on Foreign Capabilities,” Arms Control Today, November 2004.

10. See David Wright et al., The Physics of Space Security: A Reference Manual ( Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, May 2005); Bruce DeBlois et al., “Space Weapons: Crossing the U.S. Rubicon,” International Security, vol. 29, no. 2 (Fall 2004).

11. Sha Zukang, “U.S. Missile Defense Plans: China’s View,” Disarmament Diplomacy, no. 43, 2000.

12. Sha Zukang, “The Impact of the U.S. Missile Defense Programme on the Global Security Structure,” CPAPD/ORG Joint Seminar on Missile Defense and the Future of the ABM Treaty, Beijing, March 13-15, 2000.

13. Hans Kristensen, “The Roles of U.S. Nuclear Weapons: New Doctrine Falls Short of Bush Pledge,” Arms Control Today, September 2005.

14. Statement by Ambassador Hu Xiaodi at the Plenary of the 2nd Part of the 2005 Session of the Conference on Disarmament, June 30, 2005.

15. See Ashton Carter, “The Relationship of ASAT and BMD Systems,” in Weapons in Space, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986).

16. Information Office of the PRC State Council, “White Paper on China’s National Defense in 2004,” December 27, 2004.

17. Information Office of the PRC State Council, “White Paper on China’s Space Activities,” November 22, 2000.

18. Andrew Sessler et al., “Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned U.S. National Missile Defense System,” April 2000; Huang Hai, “Technical Analysis of National Missile Defense and Its Effects on World Arms Control,” Presentation at the 13th International Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs, Berlin, July 21-30, 2001.

19. American Physical Society, “Report of the APS Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense,” Washington, DC, July 2003.

20. See Du Xiangwan, Science and Technology Foundation for Nuclear Arms Control (Beijing: National Defense Industry, 1996).



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