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US, China and the game of killing satellites

February 16, 2011

sify, 15 Feb 2011: In December 2004, an interesting White Paper on Defense was published by the Chinese government. When I read it for the first time, I could not grasp a concept mentioned several times by its acronym RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs).

The White Paper explains thus the RMA: “The forms of war are undergoing changes from mechanization to informationalization… Confrontation between systems has become the principal feature of confrontation on the battlefield. Asymmetrical, non-contiguous and non-linear operations have become important patterns of operations.”

This theory made full sense only after I read one of the scariest books ever-published. 

The book, Unrestricted Warfare, was written by Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, both senior colonels belonging to the People’s Liberation Army.

Qiao and Wang started their fascinating study with the US`s success against Saddam Hussein’s army during the Gulf War of 1990-1991.

The book is basically a war manual detailing how a nation like China can face the technologically advanced US army, overcome this advantage and defeat the enemy.

The book came to the notice of the CIA after the September 11 attacks, because China’s military planners had suggested ways in which terrorists (bin Laden is specifically mentioned) could wage a new, unrestricted war against America.

In their foreword, the editors of the Unrestricted Warfare point out the authors’ “advocacy of a multitude of means, both military and particularly non-military, to strike at the United States during times of conflict.”

Blending the ancient martial arts theory with the knowledge of the high-tech era, the authors explain how the strong can be defeated by the weak through merciless unconventional methods: “The first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.”

The book mentioned “Ten Thousand Methods Combined as One: Combinations That Transcend Boundaries”. The art is to combine different elements of these various forms of warfare.

One of these forms made headlines in January 2007 when Beijing launched a ground-based weapon to destroy one of its own satellites.

Recent Wikileaks revelations throw more light on the incident. The Chinese military establishment wanted to demonstrate its capability to destroy US satellites in case of a conflict.

As The Telegraph, which revealed the secret documents, explains: “The threat was obvious. Without navigation or spy satellites, much of America`s military would be vulnerable.”

According to Wikileaks, US ambassador Clark T Randt delivered a demarche on January 15, 2007, to Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister He Yefei.

On January 21, 2007, Yefei gave the Chinese government’s formal response. He told US assistant secretary Christopher R Hill that “the test posed no threat to any other nation, targeted no third country, and that for the time being, China has no plans for further tests.”  (Note ‘for the time being’)

Hill replied a few days later: “The explanation did not square with China’s stated position of not wishing to embark on any kind of arms race in outer space.”

He wrote to He Yefei: “The US remained concerned that China had not explained adequately the purpose of the test.”

A year later, Randt commented: “In nearly 12 months since the Chinese test, Beijing has provided no further explanation in diplomatic or military-to-military channels regarding the questions first raised on January 15, 2007.”

While several nations, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, France and Germany, had also approached the Chinese government seeking an explanation, no ‘sensible answer’ was received “to questions concerning the apparent contradiction between the test and the PRC’s stated policy against militarizing space.”

The US Embassy in Beijing delivered a second demarche to the Chinese Foreign Ministry on January 7, 2008.

The Americans pointed out that the anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon had been intentionally used to destroy a satellite. The immediate consequence was that China has produced more breakup debris in low earth orbit than any other spacefaring nation (45 per cent of the breakup debris is generated in space by China).

The then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, used strong words to stress the contradiction between China’s statements and actions.

She said Chinese action raised serious “questions about the credibility of China’s declaratory policies and commitments in other areas of national security affairs.”

Washington reminded Beijing that the signatories of the Outer Space Treaty (China is a signatory) had undertaken to have appropriate international consultations before starting an activity which could potentially have harmful interference in the peaceful exploration of outer space.

Condoleezza Rice added, “Any purposeful interference with US space systems will be interpreted by the United States as an infringement of its rights and considered an escalation in a crisis or conflict. The United States reserves the right, consistent with the UN Charter and international law, to defend and protect its space.”

It was clear that Washington was not happy with Beijing’s concurrence in space. The decided to strike as it was convinced that diplomacy had failed.

Kevin Chilton, the head of US Strategic Command, and Marine General James Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed Secretary of Defence Robert Gates that the conditions were ‘ripe’ to conduct a secret test of America’s anti-satellite weapon, the first in space for 23 years.

A sophisticated SM-3 took about three minutes to climb 150 miles above the Earth. It destroyed an American spy satellite, known as USA 193.

The Bush administration immediately declared that the strike was a safety measure. The official version explained that the US spy satellite was falling towards the Earth and its toxic fuel tank posed a risk to human health. The safest option was to destroy the satellite which would then burn out while reentering the atmosphere.

According to a Wikileaks’ memo sent from the Beijing Embassy on February 22, 2008, the Chinese Ministry reacted sharply: “When the decision was made to intercept the satellite, [the Chinese Ministry] repeatedly emphasized that the United States should provide information on the planned satellite interception prior to releasing the information to CNN.”

While the direct discussions with Beijing mostly focused on the technical aspects of the situation, the Chinese spokesperson asserted: “The PRC was concerned about possible harm caused by the US action to outer space security.”

That was tit for tat!

At the same time, some Chinese academic think-tanks noted that “the PRC public and official response to the event was driven by their anger over the berating the PRC received after their January 2007 test.”

Interestingly, the Wikileaks cable confirms that the US government always considered the strike as a military test.

On February 19, during a press briefing, Chinese spokesperson Liu Jianchao affirmed: “China was highly concerned over the action and would watch the situation closely.”

He hoped that the United States would fulfill its obligations under international laws.

Two days later, Liu mentioned again that “China was closely following the possible harm caused by the US action to outer space security and relevant countries.”

The story is, however, not finished.

On January 11, 2010 Xinhua reported a midcourse missile interception within China’s territory.

According to a US cable: “[The US intelligence agencies] detected two geographically separated missile launch events with an exo-atmospheric collision also being observed by space-based sensors.”

Apparently, an SC-19 missile successfully destroyed a CSS-X-11 missile about 150 miles above the earth.

A worried Washington immediately questioned Beijing: “What was the purpose of this intercept flight-test? Was the intercept flight-test conducted as part of a ballistic missile defense (BMD) development program? …Which foreign ballistic missile threats are China’s BMD development and testing program intended to defend against?”

A memo originating from the US embassy in Beijing said: “This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT [anti-satellite] and ballistic missile defense technologies.”

The Obama Administration had no other choice but to retain the Bush-era concerns over Chinese space weapon plans.

The Telegraph commented: “There is growing concern over the potential for nuclear states or terrorists to attack western countries using space.”

The Chinese senior colonels had warned: “Whether it be the intrusions of hackers, a major explosion at the World Trade Center, or a bombing attack by bin Laden, all of these greatly exceed the frequency bandwidths understood by the American military… This is because they have never taken into consideration and have even refused to consider means that are contrary to tradition and to select measures of operation other than military means.”

The new Great Space Game is indeed worrying; in a near future, the RMA is bound to bring great changes in the world balance of power not only between the G2, but also between the other ‘developed’ nations and China.

In the meantime, Indian officials have also acquired a great expertise on frequency bandwidth, but in a different manner. This is the Small Game!

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