Jeffrey LewisChinese direct ascent ASAT

“China is believed to be conducting research and development on a direct-ascent ASAT system that could be fielded in the 2005-2010 timeframe.” Well that sounds very serious, but is it true?

The statement, which comes from the 2003 edition of Chinese Military Power, is sometimes cited as a sign of impending Chinese ASAT capabilities. But DOD provides no additional evidence, anywhere. In fact, the claim isn/’t repeated in any of the previous (1997-2002) or subsequent (2004) editions of CMP, which all mention Chinese research on laser technologies and micro-satellites. So, what gives?

The claim may simply reflect the judgment, outlined in the Cox Report several years ago that China “has the technical capability to develop direct ascent anti-satellite weapons. The CSS-2 could be modified for use in this role.”

My guess is that the statement in CMP is misleading. Here is a portion of Donald Rumsfeld/’s testimony before the House Appropriations Committee regarding threats to space assets:

As we become increasingly dependent on space for communications, situational awareness, positioning, navigation and timing, space will necessarily become an area we have to defend. Adversaries are likely to develop ground-based lasers, space jamming and “killer” micro-satellites to attack U.S. space assets.

They will do so whether or not we improve U.S. space capabilities-because the U.S. economy and our way of life are growing increasingly dependent on space-making U.S. space assets inviting targets for asymmetric attack. Consider for a moment the chaos that would ensue if an aggressor succeeded in striking our satellite networks: cell phones would go dead; ATM cards would stop functioning; electronic commerce would sputter to a halt; air traffic control systems would go offline, grounding planes and blinding those in the air. U.S. troops in the field would see their communications jammed; their precision strike weapons would stop working.

Today, in so far as we know, no nation has the capability to wreak such havoc. We must make sure no one can.

Okay, let/’s review the testimony: Lasers? Check. Microsatellites? Check. Direct ascent interceptors? Um, Direct ascent interceptors?

What are the odds that the Secretary of Defense, appearing before Congress, fails to mention a threat to space systems that could be deployed in as little as three years? Remember, this is Rummy c. 2002, before the chastening from the Iraq WMD debacle. If he isn/’t willing to go out on the Chinese ASAT limb during Congressional testimony, wow.