On January 11, 2010, China conducted a test on ground-based midcourse missile interception technology within its territory. The test has achieved the expected objective. The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country. (Xinhua File Photo)
Greetings from Andalo.
China announced that it has conducted a missile defense test. The announcement was very brief:
BEIJING, Jan. 11 (Xinhua) — On January 11, 2010, China conducted a test on ground-based midcourse missile interception technology within its territory. The test has achieved the expected objective. The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country.
The Foreign Ministry Spokesperson made slightly more detailed comments, including noting that “The test would neither produce space debris in orbit nor pose a threat to the safety of orbiting spacecraft.”
That China might move some of its “hit to kill” research into the missile defense arena is hardly surprising — Geoff Forden has a post appropriately titled, Told you so.
I am surprised, however, at how smoothly the Chinese have handled the announcement. China is handling this test completely differently than the January 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test — though it is possible the system is the same. In January 2007, China was silent for nearly two weeks following the test, including five days of awkward silence after word leaked to Arms Control Wonk and Aviation Week and Space Technology.
In the aftermath of that debacle, Gregory Kulacki and I were told, and wrote in the Nonproliferation Review, that China had instituted a new procedure for vetting “future tests of potentially sensitive technologies with significant international consequences”:
In the wake of the test many foreign governments criticized the Chinese government for authorizing the test, for not informing them before hand, for failing to respond to requests for clarification, and for blithely dismissing the potential impacts on the future peaceful use of space. Chinese leaders in both the Foreign Ministry and Central Military Commission have struggled to cope with the intensity of the international reaction and the failure of their subordinates to anticipate and respond effectively to foreign inquiries and concerns, a dysfunction that continued for months. A long-planned conference of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, scheduled to be held in Beijing in April 2007, three months after the test, was abruptly canceled without explanation just days before it was scheduled to begin. In retrospect, the Party leadership maintains (and multiple sources confirm as accurate) that the relevant agencies, military and civilian, failed to coordinate well. Somewhere along the line the paper stopped flowing, and responsible individuals at the lower levels of the bureaucracy who had no prior knowledge of the program or the decision to go forward with the test but who did have responsibility for crafting and delivering the post-test message never got their instructions.
There seems to be no dispute about the profoundly negative consequences of the Chinese government’s long-delayed response to the unanticipated, intense, and immediate international reaction to the ASAT test. All our sources agree that the delay reflected a significant breakdown in coordination within the Foreign Ministry, and between the Foreign Ministry and the military. In the wake of this failure, according to one source, the leadership will institute a new interagency review process that will be applied to future tests of potentially sensitive technologies with significant international consequences.
It looks like that procedure was in place, and worked very well in this case.
- China announced the test itself, rather than letting the US officials leak the information to Craig Covault at AvWeek.
- China had a prepared Foreign Ministry spokesperson ready to deliver talking points, rather than waiting almost five days to confirm the test with a not very convincing statement.
- China described the test as for missile defense — though it is not clear whether China flew an interceptor against a target — which is very difficult for the United States to criticize, especially in a week in which the US announced the sale PAC-3 interceptors to Taiwan.
- And, for good measure, China made sure to point out that the test “would neither produce space debris in orbit nor pose a threat to the safety of orbiting spacecraft.”
This is progress, though not exactly the sort I had hoped for.
It Might Not Have Been An HQ-9
I suspect this was the same sort of interceptor used in January 2007, though that is simply a guess at this point. (The reference to space debris, however, strikes me as particularly notworthy link to January 2007.)
Xinhua carried the announcement with the above photo —
of an HQ-9 air defense missile [of a Chinese air defense missile]. Some colleagues have assumed (quite reasonably) that the test must, therefore, have used [Chinese air defense missile, such as the] HQ-9 missile, which in many ways resembles the Russian S-300 air-defense missile.
I would not/not, however, conclude China used an HQ-9 on the basis of this image. The caption, which I have reproduced with the image, describes it as a “file photo” and the Xinhua photo gallery contains file photos of an HQ-9, an HQ-12 and a DF-21C.
One thing I notice about the statement and selection of pictures is that the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to appear to be providing information, but there really is nothing there at all about the interceptor, the objective of the test, and so forth.
China really could have tested anything at all, though my default assumption would be that the missile defense test mirrored the January 2007 ASAT test and its predecessors.
Spread of Hit to Kill Technologies
The event in China is interesting in light of another recent development: India has announced its ABM program will be expanded to include an anti-satellite program.
While China is migrating its anti-satellite research into the missile defense arena, India is doing the opposite. In both cases, however, the technology is fundamentally the same: the development of kinetic energy interceptors — so called “hit-to-kill” technologies that use a bullet to hit a bullet.
In 2007, I tried to make the argument that we were making a mistake to focus on “anti-satellite” weapons — which is a mission. The real danger was the increasing availability of the specific technology — hit-to-kill — that would inevitably spread for both missile defense and anti-satellite applications:
First, once uncommon hit-to-kill technologies are now at the early stages of spreading around the world. Second, the broad focus on space weapons and ASAT technologies, many of which are quite unrealistic and exotic, distracts from the technological challenge posed by the proliferation of hit-to-kill systems. Third, partial arms control measures, such as a ban on kinetic ASAT testing, may mitigate the most threatening aspects of hit-to-kill technology while avoiding some of the difficulties associated with more comprehensive agreements.
I think that is precisely where we are today: The US has pioneered a technology — and encouraged its spread to allies like Israel, Japan and Taiwan among others. Now China and India are racing to join the club. The result, I think, is going to be a significant increase in the vulnerability of space assets.
Upated | 12:49 pm Sean O’Connor, judging by the TEL, suggests that the missile is a Chinese S-300 rather than an HQ-9. Looking at images from the National Day parade and rehearsal, the TEL seems to look different. The most likely candidate is an S-300, but I can’t find a really reliable picture. And, frankly speaking, I haven’t spent much time staring at Chinese air defense missiles, though I suspect that is about to change. Comments are invited.