Jeffrey LewisArticles on China ASATs

Dwane Day has had enough of the Pentagon’s Chinese Military Power (CMP) and its slipshod accounting of Chinese military space programs:

The Pentagon report is sloppy, inconsistent, and of limited utility, and as an indicator of what China is planning with its military space program, it should be taken with more than a few grains of salt.

(Although as Noah Shachtman points out, this problem is by no means confined to CMP.)

Day’s insightful, damning and sometimes biting article in The Space Review demonstrates how DoD can try the patience of the serious analyst who dares to sort through the annual word salad on the People’s Republic. In particular, Day tackles something I find particularly vexing — the tendency in Chinese Military Power to make a fantastic claim one year, and then just drop it in subsequent editions with no explanation.

In some cases, DoD stoped making a claim as, I think, a tacit acceptance that the claim was unreliable. For example, CMP stopped mentioning the parasite microsatellite after Gregory Kulacki and David Wright hammered it, But in other cases — like the direct ascent ASAT — the Pentagon dropped the claim even though it had the most solid sort of evidence of a real ASAT capability.

That was particularly irritating during 2006, when the debate about whether the Chinese had lased a US satellite revealed that the intelligence community was focused on a different, unidentified threat that would turn out to be the then-ongoing direct ascent flight tests. I never liked trying to weigh plausible hints from credible colleagues with the official silence in an otherwise alarmist report (and other statements).


On a related note, Gregory and I have an article, “Understanding China’s Antisatellite Test,” in the current issue of The Nonproliferation Review (15:2, July 2008, abstract). It is similar to the talk we gave in November 2007. The key argument is:

Our sources also told us that the decision to flight-test the hit-to-kill interceptor was not determined by any particular external event or series of events, but by the maturity of the technology. The project managers were finally ready to test, and one source suggested that they felt pressure to show that they had produced something that worked. Moreover, Chinese scientists and engineers selected the testing mode — as an ASAT as opposed to a missile intercept — largely because it is much easier to hit a satellite than to intercept a missile.

Multiple sources confirm these managers did not make the decision to test by themselves. The decision was carefully vetted, with the full participation of other stakeholders, including representatives of the Foreign Ministry. An internal report laying out the pros and cons worked its way up the bureaucracy for review and comment before finally being put before the ultimate decision makers. Our sources would not say who had the authority to make that final decision or when it was made but indicated that it was not an exceptional process and that standard vetting procedures were followed. They also told us the decision was made relatively close to January 11, 2007, and that there was no dispute among any of the participants from the State, the Party, or the PLA about the legitimacy of the decision.

In the wake of the test many foreign governments criticized the Chinese government for authorizing the test, for not informing them beforehand, 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. … 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.

For more on our November 2007 talk, see my posts: Why’d They Do It?, November 6, 2007; Follow Up on the ASAT Talk, November 16, 2007; and Yes, Virginia, ASATs Are Threatening, November 19, 2007.


  1. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    As usual, readers can count on Dr Lewis and Dr Kulacki to come up with hard hitting analysis of the policy process in China.

    While the day when policy analysts will be given reasonable access to China is still far away, there are reasons to believe that this basic model: Bad decisions because agencies failed to co-ordinate well applies a lot more often.

    Additional examples of this might be found (subject to research) in the present policy knots and indigestion the Olympics have caused the country, ranging from the Banking system not ready to handle a large influx of foreign exchange transactions, to the mess over Visas, to….

    Another similar case may be the Kitty Hawk incident, which was explained away as “rational behavior” or “Bureaucratic politics” using Graham T. Allison’s model, when it is just as likely to be failure to coordinate or slipshod procedures.

  2. Allen Thomson

    > this problem is by no means confined to CMP

    Indeed not. DoD statements on North Korean, Iranian and even Chinese ballistic missile programs are equally slipshod. And that’s putting it nicely — in reality, they often seem to be incompetent attempts at duplicity.

  3. yousaf (History)

    Re. the Sept. 2006 reports that China had possibly used laser ASATs against US spy satellites: we had looked into these claims in some detail and found that the most rational explanation was probably low-power laser ranging and not laser ASATs.

    The peer-reviewed paper will appear in the Spring 2008 “Science and Global Security”, but the essential details can be found in the working paper that can be linked-to from the URL above (look under “Related Links”).

  4. Allen Thomson

    With regard to laser illumination, note that the Altay Optical-Laser Center satellite imaging facility being built in Siberia will use laser illumination when the satellites of interest aren’t in sunlight.

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