Jeffrey LewisWhen Did China Start ASAT Testing?

I’ve seen reports that China had three unsuccessful or non-intercept tests before the January 11th shootdown of FY-1C:

MCINTYRE: According to U.S. government officials, after three misses, China last Thursday succeed in shooting down one of its own aging weather satellites with a medium range ballistic missile fired from the ground. U.S. [s]ensors tracked the satellite as it disappeared from its polar orbit 537 miles above the Earth and was reduced to hundreds of pieces of space debris after impact with a kill vehicle carried by the missile.

(I recall reading another description that suggested previous attempts might not have been non-intercept tests rather than misses, but I can’t seem to find that right now.)

Anyway, NORAD’s interest in FY-1C spiked three times in the past 18 months, suggesting launches on November 30, 2006, April 20, 2006 and October 26, 2005.

I mention this because National Security Adviser Steve Hadley said something peculiar in an interview with the New York Times. He suggesting that the most senior leaders in China might not have been aware of the testing:

In an interview late Friday, Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, raised the possibility that China’s leaders might not have fully known what their military was doing.

‘’The question on something like this is, at what level in the Chinese government are people witting, and have they approved?’’ Mr. Hadley asked. He suggested that the diplomatic protests were intended, in part, to force Mr. Hu to give some clue about China’s intentions.

‘’It will ensure that the issue will now get ventilated at the highest levels in China,’’ he said, ‘’and it will be interesting to see how it comes out.’’

Well, that’s all and good, demarching them now to produce high-level intervention. But—if Hadley thinks the PLA was out ahead of the senior leadership—shouldn’t we have called Hu’s attention to this before the successful test?

Or, maybe, if we were so interested in getting this issue “ventilated” at the highest levels, we could have offered the Chinese a code of conduct that prohibited debris creating ASAT tests in Geneva, or agreed to issue a no first deployment of weapons in outer space pledge as the Russians did.

I have my doubts about whether this really came as a surprise to the central leadership, but then Hadley is the frickin’ National Security Adviser.

Oh, I was being somewhat elliptical when I referred to the Russian proposal not to be the first to deploy “space weapons” (a term that I loathe). The operative part—to “ventilate” ASAT policy issues among the senior Chinese leadership—would have been a moratorium on, obviously, ASATs … something the inelegant Russian definition clearly includes. A better formulation might be along the Richard Garwin’s “not to be the first to test or deploy space weapons or to further test destructive anti-satellite weapons.”


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Anyway, NORAD’s interest in FY-1C spiked three times in the past 18 months, suggesting launches on November 30, 2006, April 20, 2006 and October 26, 2005.

    Considering the speed with which the laser incident got leaked, it’s amazing that not a word got out over that span of time about three attempted ASAT tests. Unless the US didn’t realize that they were ASAT tests until now?????

    This whole story just keeps getting weirder.

  2. A reader in DC

    This crazy idea Hadley is floating is beyond laughable. Any China analyst worth his/her salt knows the military, especially the 2nd Arty, will do NOTHING without Central Military Commission approval. What really is happening is that since we didn’t get the response we wanted from the demarche, we’re now trying to coax Hu Jintao into saying he’s not dead yet.

  3. Bill

    I’m not so sure that Hadley’s idea is crazy. I can’t speak specifically to the 2nd Artillery Corps and things could’ve changed but the incident with the EP-3 in 2001 showed a disconnet between the military and the political leadership.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    I should have kept looking. Here’s the snippet I remembered, FWIW:


    Alarm over China’s arms pursuit – in spaceA report presses for US-China talks over space weaponry.By Peter N. SpottsThe Christian Science Monitor from the November 20, 2006 edition[EXCERPT]

    A mysterious incident of concern

    In addition, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have taken note of a recent incident “that has them very concerned,” says Gregory Kulacki, a China specialist for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. Members wouldn’t disclose details, he continues, so “we’re not sure what it is, but they said it didn’t involve lasers.”

  5. A reader in DC

    The difference between this and the EP-3 incident is that this was a planned and deliberate test with known and expected fallout. The EP-3 happened because of human error resulting in a chain of unexpected developments (the plane landing on Hainan), and the PLA and the PRC leadership had no contingency for dealing with such an event. The delay in the PRC response was a result in the leadership meeting to figure out how to deal with the sudden appearance of an American spy plane on its soil and how to go about saving face and defuse the situation, but not to appear to have let the Americans off scot-free.

  6. Gregory Kulacki (History)


    All of this speculation about China’s internal politics, and the relationship between Hu Jintao and the 2nd Artillery, is just that. Even China’s own experts on international security can’t answer the question Hadley asks. Anybody who pretends to have an answer, and who isn’t a member of the inner circles of the CCP, isn’t being honest about the limits of their own knowledge.

    But Jeffrey’s question about Hadley is a good one. If he knew this was coming, why didn’t he make it public earlier? Better still, why is Hadley putting this question before the public now?

  7. China Hand (History)

    My speculation is that the Chinese ran two non-contact tests to try to get the Bush administration’s attention for negotiations on limiting military-related space activities and when that didn’t work, they plunked FY-1C to send the message “Try to ignore that!” If this was the case, I think the Chinese miscalculated the depths of paralysis in the Bush foreign policy team for anything that doesn’t involve saving its bacon in the Middle East. If deliberately obtuse expressions of bewilderment by Hadley is all we’re going to get out of this, I think the hawks will fill the vacuum and China will have to deal with continued US hostility and ramped up BMD and space-related activities. But that was going on anyway, so maybe the Chinese didn’t see any serious downside to the test even if the Bush administration spurned their call for talks.

  8. Andy (History)

    I was going to post this before, but then forgot. I can’t verify the source here, but you get some corroboration from a self-described former Intel analyst (who at least knows the lingo):

    “My own contacts within the space community indicate that this was the latest in a series of Chinese ASAT tests, using the weather satellite as a target. In each successive test, the Chinese managed to get the kill vehicle closer to the weather bird, before finally executing a kill sequence on 11 January. ”

    His blog and the full post can be read at:

  9. TS

    An aside re the 2001 EP3 incident: Shane Osborn, the EP3 pilot, has since entered politics and was elected treasurer of Nebraska. I suspect he’ll run for Congress in a few years.

  10. Theresa Hitchens (History)

    Is it possible that Hadley was trying to allow Hu to save face by blaming his military briefers for not sufficiently informing the leadership of the likely fallout? Then again,the Bush administration has shown no sign up to now that it is that diplomatically deft….

  11. A reader in Ottawa

    I think this test highlights the relevance of Chinese open-source journals to the tracking of Chinese weapons developments. Government activities may be fairly opaque, but there is a surprising amount of research made public every year. For example, the ‘Journal of Astronautics’, ‘Aeospace Control’, and ‘Modern Defense Technology’ all have published original research in the past two years on kinetic kill vehicles (such as “Modelling and Simulation of Guidance and Control of Kinetic Kill Vehicle in Terminal Process of Interception” by Gao Da-Yuan et al. in Journal of Astronautics [Yuhang Xuebao] Vol.26 No.4 (2005), pp420-424). There is an urgent need for more assessment of Chinese university research, and I dare say this test shows the separation between academia and state to be minimal. I know the 2006 Space Security Index mentioned this research briefly (p.141, but I don’t know of much else. Does anyone know of a good assessment? I think I heard Greg Kulacki was working on something at UCS – is there any product yet?

  12. Another reader in DC

    Perhaps word of “previous tests” did not leak into the open press due, at least in large part, to whom and where the vast majority of the work on this system, and nearly all other threats to satellites, is been done—the National Air & Space Intelligence Center in Ohio. The people at NASIC are, and have been for over a decade, the largest IC element working threats to US satellites. NASIC has been giving a number of briefings during the last 3 weeks in DC (including a number of trips to the Hill starting days before the 11th). Word is they initially briefed anticipated events and subsequently provided incredibly rapid analytical results (starting on the morning of the 12th).

    This site ( “reviewed” a NASIC publication about 18 months ago. Maybe that “review” should be revised given recent events.