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China Downs A Satellite, Creating Danger In Space, Outrage On Earth

By | January 22, 2007

      China last week shot down one of its own satellites, creating a vast lethal cloud of debris parts that might endanger other satellites, while eliciting condemnation from the United States and other nations worried that this could constitute a step toward weaponization of space.

      Leaders of western powers including the United States were aghast after China used a medium-range missile to destroy an aging Chinese satellite, a hit-to-kill that produced thousands of debris parts endangering other satellites.

      The hit was confirmed by the White House, where Press Secretary Tony Snow said the United States is worried by the shoot-down and protested it to the Chinese government.

      “We are concerned about it, and we’ve made it known,” Snow said.

      This is but the latest provocative move by China, a rapidly rising military power that seems bent upon challenging U.S. armed forces in the western Pacific region. Consider:

      * China recently “painted” a U.S. military satellite with a ground-based laser.

      * A Chinese submarine in October abruptly surfaced near a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, within torpedo and missile range of the American flattop.

      * China has embarked upon a massive military buildup, either producing in its own factories or buying from Russia and others an array of impressive hardware, including advanced fighter aircraft, 800 radar-guided missiles pointed toward Taiwan, destroyers, and four new classes of submarines.

      * In space, China has joined the manned-flight club, and aims to put astronauts on the moon someday.

      * In April 2001, a Chinese fighter jet approached and then slammed into a U.S. Navy aerial surveillance aircraft, an EP-3 Aries II, that was flying peacefully in international airspace. When the badly damaged Navy plane radioed a distress signal and landed on the Chinese island of Hainan, China captured the 24 Navy men and women in the crew and held them hostage for days until the United States issued a statement that it was “very sorry … very sorry” for the incident.

      But the U.S. government thus far has downplayed Chinese provocations, along with the refusal of China to use its leverage on North Korea to get that rogue nation to abandon its nuclear weapons production and long-range missile development programs. China supplies food and oil to North Korea.

      One complication here is that an immense number of large U.S. corporations depend on China to produce the wares that they sell, ranging from toys to televisions, textiles to tape recorders, automotive and aircraft parts, and much more.

      U.S. Department of Commerce figures show the U.S. deficit in goods and services trade with China is running at more than $200 billion each year, money that in part helps to finance the Chinese military buildup.

      That satellite hit last week at an altitude of about 500 miles is just one more issue between the United States and other industrialized nations, and China.

      The import of the satellite kill is that it shows China can take down U.S. military satellites that provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information to the American military forces. Many military sats operate at that altitude or lower.

      A new U.S. National Space Policy opposes any weaponization of space, while at the same time stating that the United States has a right to defend any of its space assets if they were to be attacked.

      Lawmakers were among U.S. officials condemning the Chinese missile shot.

      Following a highly classified briefing by administration officials today, U.S. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), senior Republican on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, saw danger in the satellite destruction.

      “China’s successful test raises serious concerns about the vulnerability of our space-based assets,” Everett said. “We depend on satellites for a host of military and commercial uses, from navigation to ATM transactions. America needs to take a hard look at our space vulnerabilities and capabilities to protect our assets, starting with space situational awareness. We cannot afford to stand idly by and not address these threats immediately.”

      Everett previously has expressed worries about the vulnerabilities of U.S. space assets.

      In a speech before the Strategic Space and Defense Conference in October, Everett declared that “space is no longer a sanctuary” and argued for greater space situational awareness and a new space protection strategy.

      He also outlined a number of threats to America’s space-based assets, including jamming, laser “dazzling,” direct ascent anti-satellites, cyber attacks, and space debris.

      During his tenure, he proposed bills that were enacted to improve the nation’s space situational awareness.

      In the Fiscal Year 2006 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed the secretary of defense to develop a formal strategy, systems architecture and capabilities roadmap for space situational awareness, and ordered him to update that strategy every two years. The annual defense bill also required an independent review and assessment of Pentagon requirements for its space control mission.

      Congress established an Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Program Office in the National Defense Authorization Act for the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The ORS office is responsible for the development of low-cost, rapid reaction payloads, busses, space-lift and launch control capabilities to fulfill joint military operational requirements for on-demand space support and reconstitution of space assets.

      Aside from governments such as Australia and the United States condemning the Chinese satellite kill, groups also assailed the action, including the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA), an organization supported in part by missile defense contractors.

      According to MDAA, recalcitrant acts by China such as the satellite kill only encourage proliferation of dangerous technologies among rogue nations.

      “China has proven, especially to Iran and North Korea that ballistic missile capability represents power, self defense and an ability to deter,” MDAA said in a statement. “This model of international behavior will only encourage proliferators to develop their ballistic missile capability.”

      Even before the satellite destruction, there was concern that an arms race is erupting in Asia, notably with North Korea detonating a nuclear weapon underground and test-firing missiles, but also with India and Pakistan becoming nuclear powers.

      “MDAA is very concerned, as the world should be, by the symbolic and demonstrative gesture of the Chinese government and their military in launching a ballistic missile that destroyed a satellite 500 miles in space orbit on January 11,” the MDAA statement continued.

      “This internationally visible display sent a strong message of Chinese power and intentions to the United States and the other countries throughout the world that have current space assets and satellites in space,” the statement asserted.

      China did far more than merely annihilate one of its own satellites. Rather, China proved it has the capability to destroy a huge number of satellites, including U.S. military intelligence assets, at will. This is a hugely significant and troublesome development for Pentagon policymakers, though one they feared was coming for some time.

      By creating a huge debris field in space, China also showed it can endanger enormously expensive satellites depended on by leading nations.

      “The vulnerability of space assets to Chinese ballistic missile attacks, or threats of that capability, now exists and has been demonstrated,” MDAA said of the dawning of a new world of Chinese influence and power.

      “It is imperative that our new Congress and the president of the United States put forward strong measures in diplomatic means,” and condemn the satellite kill in talks with the international community, the MDAA argued.

      “We as a world have to address a ballistic missile race,” the MDAA observed, and it is a chilling new world where the usual steps of diplomacy and persuasion are ineffective. “Diplomacy, arms control, United Nations sanctions, international condemnation and pre-emptive military action [have] yet to stop the proliferation of ballistic missiles,” the statement noted.

      “The facts remain, ballistic missile proliferation continues to grow, making our world more unstable and dangerous.”

      In such a situation, where rogue nations insist on developing long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction, it is well that the United States has developed a multi- layered missile defense system, the MDAA concluded.

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