Council for Strategic Affairs

Council for Strategic Affairs

ASAT Weapons Program with Chinese Characteristics

No longer in the realm of science fiction, space could be the battle field for the future world war III. It is well-known that both the US and Russia have space weapon programs developed over the 1970s and 1980s. These capabilities of cold-war adversaries were directed mutually at each other and India certainly would not have been a target. There was some vertical proliferation but no horizontal proliferation till 2005. More recently, China has been developing a wide array of space-based weapons. Flush with $3.5 to 4 trillion foreign exchange reserves, China has evolved into a 21st century space super-power. Proliferation of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons was on the fringes of academic discussions in 1990s and 2000s till China started to develop its ASAT weapons program.
ASAT weapons, broadly speaking belong to three categories. The direct ascent ASAT is carried by a missile launched from ground, sea or air and reaches its target directly without reaching the orbit.  The co-orbital ASAT is carried to orbit by a space launch vehicle and then reaches its target after one or two orbital evolutions. The third category include directed energy ASATs that can be deployed on ground or in space and involve projection of powerful energy beams that can kill the target. The most proven of the anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are the ground based, long-range missiles that could shoot down satellites from afar.

After China conducted its successful test of an ASAT weapon on Jan 11 2007, even the US perceived it as a new strategic threat. Since then, the Pentagon has been discussing ways to deter and counter China’s ASAT weapons, which can threaten US C5ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Combat systems, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) network. US military and national security officials acknowledged the Chinese ASAT test was part of China’s asymmetric warfare capabilities and represented a new strategic weapon that could cripple the US military in a future conflict by giving Beijing the capability to shoot down most low-earth orbit  (LEO) satellites. The US officials indicated that US missile defenses can be used to counter China’s strategic anti-satellite weapons. Consequently, after a lull of two decades, a secondary race for both vertical and horizontal proliferation of ASAT weapons has ensued since China’s ASAT test in 2007. Currently, three superpowers have demonstrated ASAT weapon capabilities. These countries are testing an array of ASAT weapons to take out the benefits and access to space to the adversary. Brian Weeden of the Secure World foundation has written a detailed review of Chinese, American and Russian ASAT testing in 2014.
China secretly started conducting ASAT tests in 2005 and has conducted a total of 8 ASAT tests so far (see Table-1). In January 2007, China tested an anti-satellite weapon against one of its own ageing weather satellite orbiting at 850km above the earth. The anti-satellite weapon was a non-explosive “kinetic kill vehicle,” which destroyed its target by colliding with it. This was the third Chinese ASAT test. There was a total silence from the Chinese political leadership initially.  China, subsequently, claimed a communication gap between the PLA and the government. That was for public consumption only. It is impossible for the PLA to conduct an ASAT test without the Chinese government being aware of it. China has been preoccupied with space warfare activities since the first gulf war.  The US had an asymmetrical advantage against its opponents in satellite technology in Gulf War I, the Afghan war and Gulf War II. China has developed navigation satellite jammers that are equipped to disrupt GPS.  On several occasions, the Chinese secretly fired powerful laser weapons to disable US spy satellites by “blinding” their sensitive surveillance devices and preventing spy photography when they passed over China. The US did not condemn this Chinese action as it did not want focus on its own space program and was afraid of “losing China” in its various diplomatic initiatives.  China justified its ASAT tests on multiple grounds. In case of conflict with Taiwan, China was concerned about the US superiority with US spy satellites keeping vigilance over the Taiwan Straits. China also expressed its concern about massive Japanese investments in military space technology. China claimed that its test was a defensive and was undertaken to check its technical capabilities. China considered the ASAT as ‘deterrence’ and stated that it will continue to adhere to its ‘no first use’. The Chinese accused that the US was not trustworthy in the area of space activities.  Since China could never match the US in terms of numbers and technology its best option was to develop asymmetrical space warfare advantages.

Since then China has mastered a broad array of counter-space-capabilities including direct ascent anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital anti-satellites systems, computer network operations, ground based satellite jammers and direct energy weapons. These weapons systems include a satellite armed with an explosive weapon, fragmentation device, kinetic energy weapon, laser, radio frequency weapons, jammers or robotic arms etc. China is investing heavily into developing anti-satellite capabilities because Chinese analysts justify and opine that their main adversary, US relies upon satellites for 70-80% of its intelligence collection and 80% of its communication. In 2014, US Government directly accused China of conducting another non-destructive Anti-satellite missile test on July 23rd 2014. On October 30th 2015, China conducted a test of Dong Neng-3 missile at the Korla Missile complex in Western China in the upper atmosphere. DN-3 is a direct ascent missile designed to collide with a satellite and destroy it. The Chinese are currently developing two direct-ascent missiles (SC-19 and Dong Neng series) capable of hitting satellites in both lower and higher orbits in the range of 10,000 to 30,000 km altitude. China has two powerful space launchers called KZ-1 and KZ-11. A DN-3 missile launched from KZ-11 launcher would be capable of hitting targets in higher orbits.

Since 2005, the Chinese space weapons program has shrouded in complete opacity. The only reason it got outed in 2007 was the space debris caused by satellite destruction. China has repeatedly used deception to camouflage its ASAT weapons program. China has also repeatedly denied its intentions of developing ASAT weapons program and  professed its desire to keep space peaceful as the Global Commons while developing space weapons in full blast. China has used the political cover of ballistic missile research to tests its anti-satellite weapons. In private conversations with Chinese researchers and officials with this author in 2013, Major General Yao Yunzhu of the China Academy of Military Sciences, Beijing stated that China will continue to develop its ASAT weapons till a legally binding multi-lateral treaty banning weaponization of the space is signed and ratified. She attributed this change in Chinese strategic postures to the US actions.

              Table 1: Chinese ASAT Tests (Modified/Updated from Weeden 2013)
Test #
ASAT system
Altitude Reached
July 7, 2005
None known
Likely rocket test
Feb 6, 2006
Unknown Satellite
Likely fly-by of Orbital target
Jan 11, 2007
FY-1C Satellite
865 km
Destruction of orbital target, 3000 pieces of space debris
Jan 11, 2010
CSS-X-11 ballistic missile
250 km
Destruction of target, no orbital debris
Jan 20, 2013
Possibly SC-19
Unknown ballistic missile
Destruction of target, no orbital debris
May 13, 2013
Possibly DN-2
None Known
10,000 to 30,000 km
Likely rocket test
July 23, 2014
Unknown target
No destruction, missile interceptor test
October 30, 2015
Direct ascent
Unknown target
??>30,000 km
No destruction, missile interception test
Although officially China’s public policy does lip service to the notion of peaceful Global Commons, the unofficial position has evolved to be more hardline. An editorial in China’s state run English language newspaper Global Times on Jan 6th 2013 asserted that Beijing had the right to carry out ASAT tests as it was the “trump card against the US”.  It further elaborated that China should continue substantive research on striking satellites. In the foreseeable future, gap between China and the US cannot be eliminated by China’s development of space weapons. A more recent PLA’s assessment of Chinese military thinking report states that “war in the space is inevitable”.
China has an ongoing space collaboration with its military client state and “all weather friend” Pakistan. Pakistan launched its first satellite Badr-1 in 1990 from China as it does not have its own space launch vehicle. In 1991, both nations formally signed an agreement to boost cooperation in peaceful application of space technology. China launched in August 2011 Pakistan’s advanced communication satellite Paksat-1R. China signed a bilateral agreement with Pakistan in 2008, provided a loan of $34.7 million and provided the technical knowhow and expertise in satellite building. Pakistani Scientists gained hands-on training and experience while working with Chinese scientists while building this satellite. China’s constellation of 35 satellites that makes up the Beidou/Compass navigation network gives China and its military client state Pakistan their version of GPS with a military accuracy of 10 cm.

China has proliferated nuclear weapons & missile technology directly to Pakistan and also through its client state North Korea. China is co-producing 5th generation fighter aircrafts with Pakistan. China recently agreed to provide 8 submarines to Pakistan to beef up its second strike capability boosting Pakistan’s “Full spectrum Deterrence” doctrine. With Chinese assistance, Pakistan has already developed the 2750 km range Shaheen3 missile to prevent India from using her second-strike nuclear capability from Andaman & Nicobar Island. China has ostensibly pledged not to proliferate the ASAT technology. Since China has shared advanced dual-use technologies with Pakistan in the past, in all probability, China will proliferate the ASAT technologies stealthily to Pakistan while brazenly denying it.

Chinese space capabilities pose serious strategic challenge to India owing to history of Chinese roguish behavior and adverse land-grabbing by China. Indeed, independent observers have noted that the US will not be the probable target of Chinese missile defense system but China’s neighbors including India and Japan. A new study by the Federation of American Scientists asserts that the “the prime impact of Chinese missile defense would be on India’s confidence on its ability to deter China with its nuclear weapons as well as sending a message to Japan. China can now use its advanced ASAT capabilities to hit Low, Medium and High Earth Orbit Indian satellites. China can also utilize jamming technology and laser technology to jam India’s satellites. India’s space infra-structure is around $12 billion and expanding rapidly. The Chinese ASAT weapons pose a direct challenge to India’s C5ISR architecture. India‘s efforts to establish her own GAGAN (GPS) network with MEO and LEO satellites can be compromised by China. China’s DN-3 direct ascent missile system can ram into and destroy GSAT-15, India’s latest communications satellite that was launched on November 11, 2005.

In 2008, we were the first to suggest that India must match China with its own direct ascent ASAT tests. This analyst had exhorted then government and future Governments of India to seek technological parity with China and not box India again into a situation analogous to the NPT conundrum.  We had speculated in 2008 about the possibility of Japan, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea also developing ASAT capabilities. We are fast reaching an alarming situation of gross asymmetry between China’s offensive ASAT capabilities and India’s ability to defend her space assets.

India also needs to learn from her experiences during the negotiation of the NPT and its subsequent extension in perpetuity. If India had tested its nuclear device in 1968 instead of 1974, she would have been grandfathered into the NPT as a nuclear weapon state. India would have successfully negotiated any strategic challenges and would not have been boxed into the current situation she is in. Since China has already developed an ASAT weapons program and it pursues the doctrine of strategic parity with the US, it will continue to advance its cyber and space war capabilities. It is understood that the benefits from an ASAT attack are limited and would not confer decisive military advantage in every plausible conflict, however, each weapons system has its strategic value in case of a protracted war.

China is using the cloak of BMD research to give a political cover for testing its anti-satellite weapons under the guise of missile defense. Chinese ASAT weapons research and development has triggered a secondary ASAT proliferation race. Both the US and Russia have retooled their ASAT programs after the Chinese ASAT test of 2007. US went to the extent of destroying its apparently own out-of-control spy satellite (USA-193) in 2008 using a missile launched from Aegis cruiser. US analysts like Dr. Ashley Tellis agreed privately that this was nothing but a disguised ASAT test.  Iran and Pakistan are projected to be next in line to develop ASAT capabilities.

Indian response, so far, has been tardy, half-hearted, feeble and inadequate. Seeking to guide India’s responses to the Chinese threats, Space Security Coordination Group (SSCG) was set up in 2010 under the chairmanship of the former National Security Advisor SS Menon. SSCG had representation from the DRDO, IAF and NTRO. In 2012, the then DRDO Chief VK Saraswat emphasized a defensive strategy for India in the space domain. Following the trial of Agni V IRBM, Dr. Saraswat declared that the DRDO will field a full-fledged ASAT weapon by the end of 2014 based on Agni and ad-2 ballistic missile interceptor without resorting to actual testing. He projected the view that space security entailed the creation of “gamut of capabilities” without weaponizing. These capabilities included the protection of satellites, communications and navigation systems and denying the enemy access to their own “space systems”. India has mastered technical expertise over all the components of ASAT capabilities without actually testing an ASAT weapon. Unfortunately, having the technological capability without actually having tested has no deterrence value.

India must cure herself of the 6th nation syndrome in every advanced technological field. For a period of 14 years from 1974 to 1998, successive Indian governments kept the facade of not testing nuclear weapons while the international regulatory regimes hardened. Not only the NPT was extended into perpetuity by the P5 but also the CTBT was negotiated by the backdoor and its entry into force was made contingent upon India’s accession and ratification. It is imperative at this stage that India formally declares her-self to be a space weapon power and formally tests her ASAT capabilities prior to successful negotiations of multi-lateral space weapon control regimes. India must declare presence of her independent civilian and military space programs for strategic deterrence value. Owing to the nature of the power games being played, it is unlikely that we will have successful   multilateral treaties signed soon. Meanwhile, the big three actors, USA, Russia & China will continue to enhance their space weapon programs. It is incumbent upon the current Government of India to take this issue seriously, for once, in a proactive manner instead of reacting to international demands. There is still time for India to test, demonstrate the technology, acquire the capability and thereby safeguard our long-term strategic interests. The window of opportunity for India will not last very long in case the US decides to force the issue of an internationally verifiable space weapons regime.

Some analysts like Arvind John have suggested that India should conduct an ASAT test after seeking prior permission from the US. That is an absurd notion because the US is not going to give its blessings to an Indian ASAT test and program as is amply evident from the US response to India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. The US is a status quo superpower that will preserve its technological superiority and would not allow any other nation to share the exclusive expertise. If India needs to develop her strategic space capabilities, India will need to develop the spine and deal with the consequences for ASAT testing later on. India must test a direct ascent ASAT weapon now while simultaneously minimizing the space debris by lowering the orbit of the target satellite.
Russia and China have pushed for years for a PAROS treaty (Treaty on the Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space).  A draft treaty on the prevention of placement of weapons in outer space (PPWT) was also submitted. Russia insists that it constitutes another multilateral measure in the field of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and thus would be a real contribution to strengthening the NPT regime.  These proposals do not include the ground based ASAT weapon systems. The US initially refused the need for arms control agreements in outer space as it considered they are not a verifiable tool for enhancing the long-term space security interests of the US. The draft treaty on preventing arms race in outer space provides for a ban on placing any arms in space, a ban on the use of force or a threat of force against space objects as well as is called upon to remove the present lapses in the international space law as well as to ensure preservation of space property and strengthening of universal security and control over armaments.  The PAROS treaty aims to fill gaps in existing law, create conditions for further exploration and use of space, and strengthen general security and arms control, The US responded to the proposal saying it opposed any treaty that sought “to prohibit or limit access to or use of space.” The US insisted that such a treaty would also be impossible to enforce and verify because “any object orbiting or transiting through space can be a weapon if that object is intentionally placed onto a collision course with another space object.” The EU has suggested a voluntary, non-binding international code of conduct in space.

India needs to look at the military uses of space technologies and be prepared with its own ASAT weapon program. After ASAT testing, India should propose her own draft of a treaty and should become an active party to the outer space disarmament agenda. One of the reasons for a proactive stance is that India can ill-afford an expensive outer space arms race with China. Furthermore, we need to able to influence the treaty negotiations as an insider rather than as an outsider. India must factor in the worst case strategic scenario of an emerging hegemon China metamorphosing as a “rogue” outer-space superpower. The twin possibilities that China either will proliferate to Pakistan or will threaten to shoot down Indian satellites should be factored into the decision making process.

The US has started to talk of multilateral, verifiable treaty that includes both ground based and space based ASAT weapons. Before that is negotiated, India needs to preserve her strategic parity and balance of power by developing her own anti-satellite kinetic-kill capability. Other countries are likely to develop these space weapon capabilities and India should not remain far behind. Time has come for India to assertively proclaim its military space program after formally testing ASAT capability so as to avoid being marginalized again due to newly emerging international control regimes.
Adityanjee, (2008) Pining for PAROS or Parity. C3S paper No.111 dated February 23, 2008
Adityanjee, (2008) Securing space on the table: Responding to a new strategic arms race.
Adityanjee (2013) “No first use doctrine with Chinese Characteristics – 2013/may/02/no-first-use-nuclear-doctrine-with-chinese-characteristics#sthash.jWCUaA3J.dpuf
Weeden, Brian (2013) Ant-satellite tests in space. The case of China
Weeden, Brian (2014) Through a Glass, Darkly. Chinese, American, and Russian Anti-satellite testing in Space.
Image Credits: By U.S. Navy. ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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