China's anti-satellite weapon hits mark

Military event in space alarms Washington and other capitals

January 19, 2007|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- China successfully carried out its first test of an anti-satellite weapon last week, signaling its resolve to play a major role in military space activities and bringing expressions of concern from Washington and other capitals, the Bush administration said yesterday.

Only two nations - Russia and the United States - have previously destroyed spacecraft in anti-satellite tests, most recently the United States in the mid-1980s.

Arms control experts called the test, in which a Chinese missile destroyed an aging Chinese weather satellite, a troubling development that could foreshadow either an anti-satellite arms race or, alternatively, a diplomatic push by China to force the Bush administration into negotiations on a weapons ban.

"This is the first real escalation in the weaponization of space that we've seen in 20 years," said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket launchings and space activity. "It ends a long period of restraint."

White House officials said the United States and other nations, which they did not name, had "expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese." Despite its protest, the Bush administration has long resisted a global treaty banning such tests because it says it needs freedom of action in space.

At a time when China is modernizing its nuclear weapons, expanding the reach of its navy and sending astronauts into orbit for the first time, the test appears to mark a new sphere of technical and military competition. American officials complained today that China made no public or private announcements about its test, despite repeated requests by American officials for more openness about its actions.

The weather satellite hit by the missile circled the globe at an altitude of roughly 500 miles. In theory, the test means that China can hit American spy satellites, which orbit closer to Earth than 500 miles. Experts said remnants of the destroyed satellite could threaten to damage or destroy other satellites for years or even decades to come.

In late August, President Bush authorized a new national space policy that ignored calls for a global prohibition on such tests and asserted the need for American "freedom of action in space."

"It could be a shot across the bow," said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a private group in Washington that tracks military programs. "For several years, the Russians and Chinese have been trying to push a treaty to ban space weapons. The concept of exhibiting a hard-power capability to bring somebody to the negotiating table is a classic Cold War technique."

Gary Samore, the director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a proliferation expert, said in an interview: "I think it makes perfect sense for the Chinese to do this both for deterrence and to hedge their bets. It puts pressure on the U.S. to negotiate agreements not to weaponize space."

Hitchens and other critics have accused the Bush administration of conducting secret research on advanced anti-satellite weapons using lasers, which are considered a far speedier and more powerful way of destroying satellites than the cruder weapons of two decades ago. The White House statement, issued by the National Security Council, said China's "development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area."

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