Jeffrey LewisYes, Virginia, ASATs Are Threatening

Apparently Space News — I haven’t seen a copy yet — has a write up of Gregory and my talk, with a very misleading headline:

Upcoming story in Space News: Nov. 19, 2007 issue



In the latest volley in the ongoing debate over the meaning of
China’s anti-satellite test early this year, scholars from a pair of
Washington think tanks said there is no conclusive evidence that the demonstration represents a growing threat to the United States.

Speaking at a Nov. 13 event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here, Greg Kulacki and Jeffrey Lewis challenged assertions that the Jan. 11 test is part of a Chinese effort to counter U.S. military satellite capabilities. Kulacki, a senior analyst and China project manager in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Lewis, director of the New America Foundation’s Nuclear Strategy Initiative, based their findings on discussions with Chinese technical experts.

Kulacki and Lewis dispute claims made in two recent reports that the test, in which China destroyed one of its own satellites with a ground-based missile, is part of a larger goal to defeat superior U.S. defenses that are too reliant on space-based systems.

“Punching the U.S. Military’s ‘Soft Ribs’: China’s Anti-satellite Weapon Test in Strategic Perspective,” is an analysis of Chinese counterspace programs since the early 1990s written by Ashley J. Tellis and published in June 2007 by the Carnegie Endowment.

“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Space Warfare,” written by Larry Wortzel based on analysis of Chinese military literature, was published by the American Enterprise Institute in October 2007.

Gee, if I said that you could accuse me of lewder acts than just hugging pandas.

That is absolutely, positively not what we said. What we argued was that Chinese participants all describe the decision-making process as driven by technology, not operational requirements (or a negotiation strategy). The important thing — the headline, as it were — was that the Chinese leadership was surprised at the strength of the international reaction and might be willing to back off the program as part of a broader dialogue on civil space cooperation.

We did not say that ASAT technology was not a threat. I think ASATs are quite threatening, which is precisely why I support rules to constrain their development.

If I had to guess — and I haven’t looked at the video yet — I think the author was responding to Gregory explaining the official Chinese statement that the test was “not targeted at any nation.” Gregory might have paraphrased, saying “threaten” instead of “targeted”. “Any nation,” however, is the important phrase that suggests the failure of the Chinese leadership to understand how the test would be perceived.


On a related note, Gregory recommended the Wortzel paper, he didn’t disagree with it. I am sure, because he’s been a royal pain in my ass, telling me to read it. I haven’t, so I can’t either recommend or disagree.


  1. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Congratulations to the wonks that finally rose to the level of being misquoted!

    The problem of putting the ASAT genie back in the bottle comes back to old themes. The Chinese are not responsible for a majority of space junk in orbit. While it can be said they have a vested interest in preserving the use of space by everyone, and thus, to limit deliberately creating additional space junk, the question is, what do they get back in return for limiting their activities?

    Will there be an agreement that space based sensors would be inviolate (like diplomatic missions)? Will the US abide by such an agreement in the event of war?

    Would it involve banning space based weapons platforms? This could be as simple as a mirror array that reflects a ground based laser beam onto its final target. How would the ban be enforced?

    Agreements to limit the militarization of space (however unlikely it is to succeed in the long run), are not a bad thing, but getting everyone on board when the US is unwilling is rather difficult.

    The problems are very similar to trying to limit greenhouse gases emissions when historically, the US, Europe and Japan is responsible for most of the past emissions, but China and India are the fastest growing emitters.

    Can anyone come up with some ideas ?

  2. Mark Gubrud

    “What we argued was that Chinese participants all describe the decision-making process as driven by technology, not operational requirements (or a negotiation strategy).”

    You described your contacts as mostly technical people, and admitted you had no access to the senior military and policymaking staff. It might have been a bit harsh of me to compare this to looking for your keys under the lamppost, but how do you explain drawing such conclusions from such a survey? What would you expect American engineers and program managers and scientists to talk about?

    In any case, what exactly does “driven by technology” mean here? The US performed this trick back in 1985, if you don’t count the GMD, so this isn’t going to win any engineering prizes. Sure, maybe the precise timing was determined by the progam schedule, just as the bombing of Hiroshima came when the bomb was ready. But as the latter does not imply the absence of policy or strategic thinking (and an actual war), so the former does not imply that the Chinese leadership did not think about the issues involved when they authorized the program and then the test, or that they might not have put it on hold if, say, the US had shown more interest in their proposals for negotiation – or if the military possibilities of the weapon were less interesting.

    “The important thing — the headline, as it were — was that the Chinese leadership was surprised at the strength of the international reaction and might be willing to back off the program as part of a broader dialogue on civil space cooperation.”

    How do you know the “leadership” was surprised? The only evidence I heard on this count was that there appeared to be no planned follow-on and the second tier of officials seemed not to know how to respond. But as I pointed out previously, the test, and the decision to carry it out, spoke for itself. The ball was and still is in our court to act as if we take China seriously as a possible peer competitor on Earth and in space.

    Even if senior decisionmakers may have misjudged the seriousness of the debris problem and how the US and the world would react, it is not clear they would have been dissuaded by arguments correctly predicting the strength of protests and the way that American hawks would crow about assassin’s mace and Pearl Harbor. I think if I were among the Chinese inner circle, I might be sufficiently fed up with American arrogance, belligerence and aggression to say, “Yeah, go ahead and do it, since we’ve been trying the other way for years and there’s still no sign of any give on the other side. Let’s show these Yankees we can play their game, too.”

    Again, the Tellis argument is that the Chinese are committed to this weapon as a cornerstone of their war plan for confronting America over Taiwan (or whatever), and therefore they don’t mean it when they say they want arms control, and they’ll never agree to meaningful limits that would interfere with their having this capability. I think the correct response to that is very simple: Maybe so, but then why don’t we just call their bluff? How is that an argument against even trying? Who’s really committed to what here?

  3. FSB

    Anti-China fearmongering without basis in reality is not limited to this ASAT test against China’s own satellite. (The US did a similar test in 1985.)

    The upcoming U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission 2007 annual report perpetuates the fearmongering.

    the opening remarks to the report states:

    “…the Chinese missile test that destroyed a satellite this year and laser attacks by China on U.S. satellites in 2006. Both of these technological efforts seem directed squarely at U.S. military capabilities, which rely on satellites and computers far more than do those of other nations.”

    There is no open evidence that the laser illumination of US spy satellites reported in Sept 2006 was a Chinese ASAT.

    In fact, Donald Kerr, Director of the Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office, while acknowledging that something had occurred said that “it did not materially damage the U.S. satellite’s ability to collect information.” In addition, Gen. James Cartwright, who was in charge of U.S. military operations in space at the time, said that the United States had not seen clear indications that China had intentionally disrupted American satellite capabilities.


    Andrea Shalal-Esa, “China jamming test sparks U.S. satellite concerns,” Reuters, 5 October 2006. and:

    Elaine M. Grossman, “Top Commander: Chinese Interference with U.S. Satellites Uncertain,” Inside the Pentagon, Vol. 22 No. 41, 12 October 2006.

    The good folks at UCS have written this up already:

  4. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    I was not paraphrasing, but quoting directly from a March 16, 2007 press conference where Premier Wen Jiabao said, “The space test we recently conducted was not directed at any country, did not threaten any country and did not violate relevant international agreements.”

    The quote was displayed, next to Wen’s picture, on one of the slides. The reporter, Mr. Brinton, was sitting close to the front of the room on the far right, and may not have seen the slide or the quotation marks, thus mistaking Premier Wen’s comments for my own.

    The full report on the press conference is available on line at

  5. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Larry Wortzel had some very good points:

    – “….Chinese authors fail to acknowledge American intent in developing space doctrine… which was to break away from the strategic nuclear calculus of mutually assured destruction….”

    -“It is also critical that American military theorists interact with Chinese scholars and diplomats whenever possible to limit their ability to define the justifications for conflict and evolving international law on their own terms.”

    -”….Their [Chinese] view is that “destroying and jamming space-borne missile early warning systems not only can paralyze such anti-missile systems, but also help [the PRC] win the war in space….. The problem in this reasoning is that there is no consideration of a likely American reaction to the disruption of its missile early warning systems.”

    There are a lot of military programs that are being done in China with little consideration as to how it might be threatening and destabilizing to China’s neighbors.

    Given the diffuse and decentralized nature of Chinese military R&D, it is a fair bet that often, Beijing is not fully cognizant of the capabilities being developed by each of its military regions and how the international community will react to it until it is too late.

    How about providing this website with an automated translation engine to encourage readers in China, if not dialog ?

  6. Sam Roggeveen (History)
  7. Mark Gubrud

    Gregory, it’s great that the Chinese are saying it wasn’t directed at us and thus inviting us to engage them diplomatically on the issues that the test very obviously raises.

    Let’s suppose some Chinese leaders are thinking, “We have gained a military advantage against the Americans with this new weapon.” Do you think they should be saying, “Haha, stupid Americans, what are you going to do now?” There are quite a few things we might do in reply which the Chinese and any sane person ought to hope we don’t do.

    Or, let’s say some Chinese are thinking, “This will show them that we can make such weapons, too, and maybe now they’ll be willing to discuss arms control and rules that will limit what they put in space and prevent us from going down that road.” Do you think they should be saying to Americans, “See, we showed you! Now come to the table and talk with us.” Or should they just let their test speak for itself, and leave us to sort it all out?

    Negotiation is a tricky business of course, and since our latest statement via Mr. Pataki is something to the effect that the very notion of space arms control is pure jabberwocky, I don’t think there is anything China needs to say to us that they have not said already.

  8. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Our comments on the Chinese leadership come from our Chinese colleagues, who were not just technical people. They included informed individuals in the GAD, the Central Committee of the CCP and the Foreign Ministry.

  9. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Larry Wortzel makes a great point about how Chinese writings about destroying / jamming US space sensors can blind the US without considering the consequences if the US treated such an attack on its early warning system as an attack on the US and cause America to proceed straight to unrestricted war with China.

    It is this development of military capabilities without thinking through the consequences that perhaps, is the biggest problem with Chinese military modernization.

    There is a long history of the PLA selling the Chinese political leadership a bill of goods which turned out to be anything but in China’s interests.


    The war with Vietnam: PLA got a bloody nose from a forth rate power and showcased to the world how it is a paper tiger and a shadow of the force that took on the US in Korea.

    The ‘missile tests’ against Taiwan: Rather than intimidate Taiwan, it ended up hardening their resolve and got the US and Japan alarmed enough to do something about Chinese rhetoric. The reality was that the tests were an empty gesture because the PRC had no credible capability to back up their threats with a conventional attack on Taiwan.

    Missile build up against Taiwan: PRC now claims about 800 missiles, each maybe with the ability to carry a warhead of say, 500 to 800kg, which works out to an ability to deliver somewhere around 500,000kg of ordinance on Taiwan, or roughly 200 F-16 loads (with 6 X 1,000lb bombs per plane).

    The catch is, no one seem to be asking just precisely what can 800 aim points even if it uses precision guidance (at 1 missile per aim point, zero reserve, rather than a more conservative 2 missile per aim point) do for the PRC if it cannot follow up the missile barrage with an amphibious invasion with a reasonable chance of success. What if Taiwan refuse to surrender? A buildup of missiles delivers a propaganda victory for Taiwan but delivers little benefit of substance to the PRC.

    In this context, the ASAT test is another of these blunders. They had already done 2 previous ‘fly by’ tests that more than proved the concept and showed they have the capability. What need is there to make a big deal of it?

    Even if they wanted the thrill of seeing a ‘direct hit’, there are ways around limiting international concern.

    All it would have taken is a thruster that activated at the last moment before collision to divert the warhead from a ‘direct hit’ on the satellite and not make a huge debris field and the ASAT test an international issue.

    The sensor data from the warhead would have delivered just as good validation data to them without the actual hit.

    There is a certain immaturity to Chinese military behavior in that they do not seem to recognize the probable consequences of their actions.

    That, and uncertainty about their intentions, is the real problem with China. Not the ASAT capability in and of itself. The test is itself an issue because of the debris generated.

    China need to grow up and start behaving as a mature, responsible member of the international community.

  10. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Wortzel is not saying anything new. William Perry issued a statement while serving as Secretary of Defense declaring that an attack on a U.S. satellite would be considered an attack on the vital interests of the United States. Some Chinese military authors site that statement in their publications.

  11. Byron Skinner (History)

    Good Morning Folks,

    Like all of you I have been following this story and my reaction is why? Other then as a Technology Demostration there seems to be little, see we can do this, the military necessity for taking out satellites physicaly when jamming their signal is so easy is just not there.

    With over 1500 satellites in orbit taking out even a fraction of them would be a tast beyond Chinese launch capabilities.

    Byron Skinner

  12. FSB

    Lao Tao Ren has a point about Chinese immaturity in gauging the responses to their action, and uncertainty regarding their intentions.

    A way to bring about less uncertainty is to sign treaties with one’s competitors and adversaries — which the US, and not China, is unwilling to even talk about.

  13. FSB

    The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission 2007 annual report is out.

    Note the continued false reference to the laser incident as an ASAT.

    Excerpt from the security section of the report:

    China’s Military Modernization
    • Several Chinese advances have surprised U.S. defense and intelligence
    officials, and raised questions about the quality of our assessments
    of China’s military capabilities.
    • Chinese military strategists have embraced disruptive warfare
    techniques, including the use of cyber attacks, and incorporated
    them in China’s military doctrine. Such attacks, if carried out
    strategically on a large scale, could have catastrophic effects on
    the target country’s critical infrastructure.
    • China has developed an advanced anti-satellite program consisting
    of an array of weapons that could destroy, damage, or
    temporarily incapacitate an adversary’s satellites. The use of
    high energy lasers to temporarily blind U.S. satellites in late
    2006 and the use of a direct-ascent anti-satellite kinetic weapon
    to destroy an aging Chinese satellite in early 2007 demonstrate
    that China now has this capacity.
    • The Chinese defense industry, while still lagging far behind that
    of the United States, has begun achieving noteworthy progress
    over the past ten years. New generations of warships, fighter aircraft,
    spacecraft, submarines, missiles, and other sophisticated
    weapon platforms are coming off production lines at an impressive
    pace and with impressive quality.
    • The pace at which each of China’s defense industrial sectors is
    modernizing varies in direct proportion to its degree of integration
    in the globalized production and R&D chains, because such
    integration provides access to the most up-to-date technologies
    and manufacturing expertise.
    • China is supplementing the technologies that its defense industry
    obtains through commercial transfers and direct production
    partnerships with an aggressive and large-scale industrial espionage
    campaign. Chinese espionage activities in the United States
    are so extensive that they comprise the single greatest risk to the
    security of American technologies.
    China’s Proliferation
    • Since the 1990s, China’s nonproliferation record has improved,
    especially after it established and expanded the reach of its domestic
    export control system. However, serious concerns remain
    about the continued transfer of weapons and technology to nations
    of concern and nonstate actors by Chinese state-controlled
    and private companies.
    • Because of the opacity of China’s government, when incidents of
    proliferation occur, it generally is difficult or impossible to know
    whether (1) the government objects to the incidents but is either
    unaware of them or powerless to stop them; (2) the transactions
    result from government acquiescence fostered by entrenched corruption;
    or (3) the government approves of the transactions in direct
    contravention of its official policy and commitments. Regardless,
    there is evidence that many illicit transactions are not accidental,
    and that all three of these explanations may have some
    validity in various cases.
    • It is vital for U.S. national security that China ensure it is not
    the source of proliferation that is contrary to its commitments,
    and it is equally vital for other nations committed to nonproliferation
    to monitor China’s adherence to its commitments
    and insist that China honor them.
    • If China wants to be perceived as a responsible stakeholder, it
    must stop providing trade and diplomatic cover to countries such
    as North Korea and Iran that are under international pressure
    to end their WMD programs.
    • Continued United States cooperation with China, and U.S. technical
    assistance to China, on export controls, border security,
    customs procedures, and port and shipping security can contribute
    significantly to China’s capacity to play a positive role in
    reducing proliferation and consequently to increasing the world’s
    security from terrorism and the destructive acts of irresponsible
    • In order for China to eliminate its proliferating activity, it must
    couple sufficient technical capacity with strong and unmistakable
    political commitment, and ensure that its government, its military,
    and its state-controlled companies and other organizations
    adhere to both the letter and the spirit of China’s multilateral
    and bilateral nonproliferation commitments.
    China’s Science and Technology Activities and Accomplishments
    • China’s Fifteen-Year Plan for science and technology incorporates
    elements of previous similar plans, but also takes into account
    important social factors such as needed institutional and cultural
    reforms. It also places new emphasis on the importance of indigenous
    innovation rather than reliance on imported high-tech products.
    • China no longer seeks only to attain parity with Western science
    and technology, but instead is working to surpass the technological
    prowess of the West.
    • On the whole, Chinese science and technology capabilities still
    are not world-class. In some key specialties such as
    nanotechnology, however, Chinese scientists and engineers are
    among the world’s most advanced.
    • Chinese policies promote ‘‘leapfrogging,’’ whereby the development
    of Chinese technologies improves on established foreign
    technologies and bypasses intermediate domestic R&D steps.
    This speeds product development and saves China the time and
    cost of accomplishing the intermediate steps. Industrial espionage
    contributes to this process.
    • A major objective of Chinese science and technology policy is to
    acquire technology that will strengthen the PLA while it also realizes
    commercial benefits.

  14. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Gregory, the precedents go way back further —- the US and the Soviets both agreed that space based early warning systems are a vital component to arms control and necessary to limit the opportunity for surprise attacks, and hence, both sides left each others’ space based sensors alone even as both sides demonstrated the technical capability to field ASAT weapons.

    While no doubt SOME Chinese authors recognize this, it is clear that when crunch time came for the test, their voices were not heard or taken into account at a sufficiently high level. They could have conducted test no. 3 purely as a fly by with not a fuss.

    So I come back to the question: What has China gained from this test beside more suspicions, more concern about their growing power and technical skills, and more contingency planning against them? It has reduced China’s security and harmed China’s long term interest in having equal access to space for both civilian and military purposes.

    My point is, China is a very diverse place, with many competing institutions, military regions, interest groups, all doing their own thing. In the midst of all these quasi-autonomous players is the central government trying to make sense of the whole thing, it can nudge, occasionally stop something, but it is often just as much an observer until it is too late.

    It is almost a miracle that they don’t trip over each other, let alone the international community, more than they already do.

    I fully concur with the view that a timely intervention by the international community (if it had advance warning that test 3 were going to be a hit-to-kill test) would have stopped the thing dead in their tracks. But that would involve advance notice / intelligence warning that test #3 is going to be different from previous tests. It might be asking a bit much for China to consult with other powers before such a test (to gauge their reaction), and it might also be asking a bit much for intelligence services to pick up details like the intent to hit-to-kill beforehand —- and even if such details were picked up, raising it with the Chinese before hand would reveal their capabilities and methods, a difficult decision for the intel agencies to make. The net-net result is clear: China did not make a good decision on its own —- with consequences that are against Chinese national interests.

  15. David Clark (History)

    Remember, article authors hardly ever get to choose their headlines. Headlines are chosen by editors, who create them in order to attract readers, who in turn hardly ever read anything past the headline itself, and maybe the first paragraph.

    Don’t take it too hard; it’s all part of the game.