Jeffrey LewisLolly Lolly Get Yer ASAT News Here

This diagram shows the debris from the Chinese ASAT test, as presented in a preliminary analysis by MIT’s Geoff Forden using his awesome new GUI Missile Flyout program (download).

The debris, Geoff notes, …

… split in orbits, with one group remaining in a fairly circular orbit and the other in a more eccentric group of orbits is characteristic of a highly energetic collision between two objects moving with speeds of at least several kilometers a second. We know this from some of the pictures the BMDO released after one of their early successful NMD intercepts. A group of debris, probably associated with satellite, leaves with velocities (both magnitude and direction of the speed) similar to the target’s while another group leaves with velocities similar to the interceptor.

Goeff is now working to derive the properties of the interceptor. He should have something cool, pronto.

Also, David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists has issued a statement out that I think is worth reading. The essential part is:

… the development and use of ASAT weapons threatens to
undermine relationships and fuel military tensions between space-faring

For these reasons, we:

  • urge China to abandon destructive ASAT weapons testing;
  • urge the United States not to resume an ASAT test program;
  • call on the United States to enter international discussions to develop rules guiding the use of space and to ban the testing and use of destructive ASAT weapons.

China and other countries have long called for discussions to develop a legal framework for space conduct, but the United States has been unwilling to join them. As a result, China’s ASAT test was legal.

The last sentence is crucial: Although the Chinese test was reckless, self-defeating and stupid … there is currently no prohibition on destructive ASAT testing.

There should be.


  1. Geoff Forden (History)

    I have been examining the orbital properties of the FY-1C debris that is in the NORAD database, and I want to emphasize that these are only the bits that have been cataloged. At first I thought that the gap between the two groups of debris was meaningful—in fact that gap was the thing that first convinced me that it was an interception rather than an explosion. Now, however, I believe that gap is an artifact of NORAD’s tracking since the orbit of the “target” satellite falls almost exactly between those two groups. Presumably this gap in tracking exists because the debris are too close together to resolve individual tracks between the 2 or 3 observations needed to calculate the orbital parameters. If so, many more objects will be added to the NORAD catalog in the weeks to come. This artifact of tracking might also explain why the existing tracks are so closely bunched along the track—those that had velocities significantly transverse to the original track have not yet been picked up. However, most pieces with significant radial (greater than 200 m/s, either up or down) velocities have already decayed because their orbits have taken them into the Earth’s atmosphere.

    As it is, when you backtrack the objects already existing in the catalog you get a wonderfully close bunching at 22:26 GMT on 11 January 2007 which defines the intercept very well.

    It is interesting to note that the objects in orbits with higher apogees have significantly greater velocities than the original satellite. I’m still trying to figure that out but I suspect that if you could identify where the pieces came from, the ones in high orbits would be very light components from the interceptor and the interception was head on as opposed to a “tail chase.” (I doubt that it’s due to any explosive in the kill vehicle.)

    I should also mention that the image shown on the original armscontrolwonk post is from SOAP and not GUI_missileFlyout which only does ballistic missiles efficiently.

  2. Dwayne Day (History)

    The big problem I have with statements like UCS is that essentially all the blame falls on the United States. It’s apparently our “fault” that China did this.

  3. Jian Liu


    Bush Sets Defense As Space PriorityU.S. Says Shift Is Not A Step Toward Arms; Experts Say It Could Be

    By Marc KaufmanWashington Post Staff WriterWednesday, October 18, 2006; A01

    The Clinton policy also said that the United States would develop and operate “space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space” only when such steps would be “consistent with treaty obligations.” The Bush policy accepts current international agreements but states: “The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.”

    A number of nations have pushed for talks to ban space weapons, and the United States has long been one of a handful of nations opposed to the idea. Although it had abstained in the past when proposals to ban space weapons came up in the United Nations, last October the United States voted for the first time against a call for negotiations—the only “no” against 160 “yes” votes.

  4. China Hand (History)

    The satellite story finally pushed its way onto the pages of Ming Pao, displacing a report on free massages in the Taipei airport. Most of it was recycled from western news services, but the final paragraph did say that the Global Daily (part of the Peole’s Daily media group) had a quote from Major General Peng Guangqian, who “indicated the report should be treated with skepticism. He also stated directly that America ‘seems a bit jumpy’ and that there were no grounds for such speculation concerning China’s activities in space. He said: ‘China already possesses the capability to send an astronaut into space and bring him back. With the possession of such capabilities for precisely operated and controlled aeronautical devices, from a technological perspective, destroying a satellite in space is the most ordinary technology. However, what should be especially emphasized is, historically China has advocated that space be demilitarized and has never conducted any space millitary activities to this day.’” FYI I’ll put the Chinese text up on my website in a little bit.

  5. China Hand (History)

    I made an interesting catch. General Peng has his own web page. On it, he links to a post by a self-described PLA soldier who describes the test as a slap in America’s face to get the US back to the negotiating table on a space demilitarization treaty. I posted some text with translation on my site:

  6. JB Zimmerman (History)

    I’m curious as to whether the KKV was unitary, or whether it was a sandcast or a netcast like the final form of the SRHIT/FLAGE interceptor. If there are multiple large debris pieces and no hazy large returns, I suppose that’s evidence against a sandcast. It would seem to have implications for the sophisticaiton of the KKV and its guidance/maneuvering systems as well as potential implications for countermeasures.

  7. Charles Liu (History)

    Have we seen any data to confirm the Chinese ASAT story? Any tracking of the launch, targeting, or identification of theoretical debris?

    I’m curious if the DF-21 actually have the range and payload capability. DF-21 is a 25 year old suborbital medium range ballistic missile. Even if it manages to go up 500 miles, it can’t carry a kill vehicle of significant size.

    This is while most comm sat are much, much higher.

    If it’s that easy why haven’t we done it? Why is our ASAT program focused on KE vehicle in space for the last 10 years?

    Even if the story is true, wouldn’t the Chinese claim “freedom of action” by citing our own October 2006 space policy?

  8. Jeffrey Lewis


    I agree that the UCS statement doesn’t hit the Chinese hard enough for what I have argued is an indefensible decision that cannot be justified by this US policy statement or some vague worries about the US.

    At the same time, we are citizens of the US and not China (thankfully) so our policy prescriptions are going to focus on what our government should do.

    But, had I written the statement, I would have led with my feeling that the Chinese test was stupid, reckless and in the interest of neither country.

  9. A reader in DC

    I agree with the observation China Hand noted above from the unnamed PLA soldier. This test was a 2×4 aimed smack between the eyes of the US. Essentially it was a declaration that two can play the space weaponization game, and the US has more to lose from a space war than China. In a Taiwan scenario, taking out all US reconnaissance satellites will severely limit US ISR capabilities.

  10. Mike

    Given a world where a treaty, as advocated by UCS, is not possible (whether because the next American administration can’t get it done, now the Chinese want to block it, etc., etc.), what should the US do? What is the best package of responses the United States can make, technologically, to deal with a Chinese ASAT capability?

  11. A reader in DC

    In response to Mike, the best package is to move away from the expensive NRO model of satellites and to a cost effective and replenishible TACSAT system of small satellites placed into orbit by Pegasus type launch vehicles.

  12. Charles Liu (History)

    Dwayne, even if it really happened, why does it have to be anyone’s fault, or more specifically China’s fault?

    Was it anyone’s fault when we did the same thing back in 1985?

    And we don’t even know if there was an interception. My apologies to all the experts here, but the debris data is not proof positive.

    The payload of the missle in question is 100kg. It would have to be some kind of miracle 220lb micro/nano ASAT kill vehicle.

    This reminds me of the wonk’s blog entry couple years ago where the Pentagon accused China of having submarine launch multiple entry warhead, while ignoring the fact there’s no Chinese missile with that kind of payload capability at sea.

  13. Jeffrey Lewis

    Unfortunately, in this case, the debris data—as well as everything else from the location of the break-up to the advance warning provided by the IC (the data shows that NORAD was clearly told to track the satellite)—is pretty conclusive.

    The KT-1—my presumptive nominee of the booster—is more than capable of carrying a couple hundred kilograms into LEO.

  14. Laura Grego (History)

    >The big problem I have with statements like UCS is that essentially all the blame falls on the United States. It’s apparently our “fault” that China did this.

    That is not the implication of this statement. While there’s no saying whether we could have got to a ban on destructive satellite weapons if the US had been willing to engage in discussions, there’s no question that the US’s refusal to even discuss the issue (and for years refusal to discuss not discussing it!) made it certain there would be no such agreement.

    A ban on destructive ASAT weapons seems to a natural place to start, and is what UCS has been advocating for years. Their use is in no spacefaring or spaceusing nation’s best interest. While a ban is no guarantee that these attacks won’t happen, they set norms and assign responsibility.

    >what should the US do? What is the best package of responses the United States can make, technologically, to deal with a Chinese ASAT capability?

    A good approach, in conjunction with banning destructive attacks on satellites, is to mitigate the vulnerability of satellite systems to attack by intelligent planning. While individual satellites are very difficult to defend from a determined adversary, critical capabilities should have backups. Either ground or air-based systems that can fill in, and/or satellite spares that can be launched quickly.

    If there’s a single point failure, that’s poor planning.

    Satellites are vulnerable and attractive targets. It makes sense to harden satellites to the threats you can and make them less vulnerable. But I think it’s just as important to keep them from being attractive—make sure their loss wouldn’t be crippling by planning well, and also make sure that it is very clear that attacks on them are illegal, to ensure that full weight of censure will come to bear on those that do attack satellites.

  15. Another reader in DC

    The UCS statement that China’s ASAT test was legal borders on the absurd. If the US conducted the same test many countries would proclaim it to be illegal and global media sources would not question it. I recently received some training on the laws of armed conflict. I realized that almost every law had been violated, repeatedly, by insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed the insurgents and terrorist should be categorized as unlawful combatants. Yet, the world focuses on actions at Abu Ghraib which have been investigated and the perpetrators have been brought to trial. Thus the 2X4 slap to the US is not the ASAT test but the response of UCS. It’s that out-of-proportioned response that just about justifies a US ASAT test. Perhaps that is what we should do.

  16. Claudius

    Hopefully it was an unrelated incident on Jan 11.

    Expensive new U.S. spy satellite not working: sourcesThu Jan 11, 2007 4:39pm ET

    By Andrea Shalal-Esa – Exclusive

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. officials are unable to communicate with an expensive experimental U.S. spy satellite launched last year by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), a defense official and another source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Thursday.

  17. A reader in DC

    Exactly how the Chinese test was illegal? If we’d done it, as we did in 1985, we’d insist there’s no international prohibition against it. The Chinese are simply using that legal vacuum to make their statement. They’d like the US to participate in an internationally agreed to regime to prohibit such tests in the future, which we’d rejected as recently as November in our national space policy. Maybe we’d like to reconsider

  18. Claudius

    Robert Hewson, a missiles expert with Jane’s, the weapons analysts, said yesterday: “The indications are that the system the Chinese used was a KT-2 ground-launched rocket.

    Telegraph news later edited out the above quote.

  19. marko beljac (History)

    One of the purposes of Ballistic Missile Defense is to give the US escalation dominance against China in regional contingencies, i.e. Taiwan etc. The NRDC and FAS just recently put up a good report on the role that China is playing in US nuclear war planning. For China to test an ASAT capability makes sense to me as an asymmetric response to these US moves.

    To say that China has begun the arms race in space after 2006 was declared as a “banner year” for BMD is over the top I reckon. You can’t just compare ASATs here; this jazz is all interconnected Dirk Gently style.

    The United States government has begun the arms race in space, one of the predictable consequences of BMD.Also, don’t forget that it’s generally acknowledged that a layered BMD system also has an ASAT capability. Nobody is talking much about that.

  20. Chungta Hsieh (History)

    It’s also interesting to note that Dr Hui Zhang, a former Chinese nuclear physicist and a Fellower at Harvard University, gave a presentation “The US Weaponization of Space: Chinese Perspectives” in May 2005 at NPRI Conference that stated:

    “China first pursues an arms control agreement to ban space weaponization (as advocating now). If this effort fails and if what China perceives as its legitimate security concerns are ignored, China would very like develop response to neutralize such a threat” (viewgraph #32)

    “China takes a “wait and see” approach at the moment, and follow closely future development of US plans.—- Based on the judgement of the threats of these plans posed to China’s vital national security interests, accordingly China would take some effective, feaible and affordable military countermeasures in due course to maintain its minimum nuclear deterrence. These responses would depend on the specific infrastructure of US MD and space weaponization programs” (viewgraph #33)

    This presentation is based on his paper “Act Now to Stop a Space Arms Race” in The Financial Times in June 2005.

    This is consistent with the comments from China Hand on General Peng Guangqian’s own web page that said “the test as a slap in America’s face to get the US back to the negotiating table on a space demilitarization treaty”

  21. Geoff Forden (History)

    One of the things that I find most disappointing, at least at a personal level, about the Chinese ASAT test is how contradictory it is to all the statements from Chinese policy makers and independent Chinese analysts. Over the last year, I have been to two conferences in China where every single one of them condemned various US defense programs that these Chinese analysts said were geared to weaponizing space. A favorite example that they used was NFIRE where a US space probe was designed to fly near a missile in flight and gather data to be used in missile defense. I still believe in my friends’ personal integrity and that they honestly believe it is wrong for any nation to spread weapons into a whole new frontier. Unfortunately, the fact that they have remained silent on China’s actual ASAT interception seems to me to indicate that China is still too repressive a regime to allow truly independent analysts freedom of expression.

  22. a reader in canada

    Are there any possibilities that 2 satellites were collided intentionally?

  23. Chungta Hsieh (History)
  24. Andy (History)

    Ok, let’s define some terms here. For one thing, it seems apparent from reading the comments that some have completely different ideas of what constitutes the “weaponization of space” or “space weapons” or a “space arms race.” Into these terms people are throwing a lot of systems and technology. Are satellites that provide sensor data, MASINT, communications, etc. that are part of other capabilities (such as BMD) generally recognized as falling into a “space weapons” category? If so, then it seems to me (as one not well versed in minutiae of this topic) that one could label GPS, communication and ISR satellites as “weapons” because they are space assets with a military function. What’s clear, however, is that ASAT’s are certainly space weapons and I agree with Jeffrey and others that this test was grossly irresponsible.

    I think it will also prove to be counter-productive. I’m still amazed the Chinese handed the anti-China faction in the US such a feast on a silver platter. Proponents of China as the next big threat to the US will be getting a lot of mileage out of this test. Furthermore, the test will likely have the opposite result the Chinese intended. The test was so clearly aimed as a provocation to the US that it will effectively prevent any negotiation as it would be seen as caving in to a threat. That China didn’t wait to see what the next (probably more moderate) Administration would bring was uncharacteristically stupid. This test will also make it harder for any future administration to alter course and negotiate a space treaty.

    Finally, after the test became public a few days ago, I remember seeing a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman on TV saying he didn’t know anything about the test and couldn’t comment. His ignorance surprised me and got me thinking that perhaps there is an internal Chinese political dimension here between some of the hardline elements in the Chinese military and moderates elsewhere in the government. Perhaps some China experts here could comment because it appears that parts of the Chinese government didn’t know about this test until after the fact.

  25. Jeremy (History)

    Can anyone explain why China would want to ban space weaponization anyway (meaning a ban on ASAT systems)? Wouldn’t that essentially lock in an American battlefield informational superiority? Nobody (that I know of) talking about using satellites as weapons platforms – they’re used for intelligence and guidance systems, right? And if its true that much of America’s military superiority is linked to our ability to hang sophisticated satellites in the sky above the battlefield, well isnt a Chinese ASAT program a perfectly logical strategy in the absence of a space-weapons-ban?

  26. A reader in DC

    Andy – It’s not surprising the Foreign Ministry not being in the loop on the test, this gives them plausible denial. But I am 100% certain the military was kept on a short leash, and this test didn’t occur without Central Military Commission approval.

  27. Mark Gubrud

    The Chinese would want to ban space weaponization because they’re not insane, they don’t think war with the US is or should be inevitable, and they would rather avoid the multiplication of destabilizing threats. But since, despite the long- and oft-repeated pleadings of China, Russia, most US allies and most of the world, the US has persistently declared and demonstrated its noninterest in any form of space arms control or rules of the road, and instead declared its arrogation of a unilateral right to “space control” while leading the world 10 to 1 in the development of advanced space weapons, the Chinese have gone ahead and sent American space hawks a blunt warning of where their folly is heading.

  28. Dwayne Day (History)

    “This presentation is based on his paper “Act Now to Stop a Space Arms Race” in The Financial Times in June 2005.”

    So, you think that China started development of this weapon in the past two years? That seems highly unlikely.

    China started their manned space program in 1992 and did not launch a human until 2003. They have fighter plane development projects that have taken two decades. They do not have a reputation for fast turnaround development.

    All that said, they have undoubtedly had this weapon in development since the 1990s—BEFORE the Bush administration. So why should we believe that “Bush made them conduct this test”?

  29. Jeffrey Lewis

    I think Dwayne is right to point out that these programs have been underway for some time.

    Chinese concerns about the “weaponization of space” (their term) date to the late-Clinton Administration.

    Both Administrations refused to consider any program of work in the CD that included discussions about military activities in outer space.

    I am, of course, extra annoyed that the Bush Administration appears to have sat and done nothing while the Chinese conducted three or four ASAT tests.

    I don’t know about the timeline on the direct ascent program, although I gather it involves a kill vehicle placed on the DF-21.

    Might be worth thinking about how long that program might have taken to get to flight testing starting in late 2005.

  30. David Le (History)

    Have anyone seen pictures of the new DF-21 warhead that is different with all other previous DF-21 versions? It has a much longer cone (2x) that may possible house guidance equipment and terminal vectoring thrusters. Assuming this is the kill vehicle, then we shouldn’t be surprised that this may still be a recent breakthrough in technology. These pictures only surfaced in mid 2005 but there have been Chinese scientific papers on terminal guidance warheads study that dates as early as 2002.

  31. Dwayne Day (History)

    “I am, of course, extra annoyed that the Bush Administration appears to have sat and done nothing while the Chinese conducted three or four ASAT tests.”

    Once again, it is the United States’ fault that China did this? That seems to be the implications of your statement—that the U.S. “allowed” China to continue testing. Should Secretary of State Rice have gone in front of the United Nations with a presentation based upon intelligence information?

    I fail to see the logic there.

    There could be many legitimate reasons for why the U.S. government kept this secret. For instance, maybe solid intel on the previous tests did not arrive until recently. Maybe American intel on the earlier tests consisted of a spy inside the Chinese weapons establishment. Maybe the U.S. was protecting technical sources and methods. Maybe the U.S. detected what they considered “failed” tests and they expected the Chinese to abandon the system. Maybe the U.S. decided that after their report on the “parasitic microsatellites” was debunked, the only way critics would listen to their concerns about Chinese weapons would be if there was incontrovertible proof. Now we have that proof.

    Here is a not-quite rhetorical question: Would it have been a good thing if word about these earlier tests had leaked to the Washington Times? Would you have reacted to such a report? Or would you have dismissed it as administration fear-mongering over an overblown Chinese threat?

  32. FSB

    Dwayne,Yes, it is the US’ fault that China did this since the US stood in the way of making this test illegal.