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Inside the Ring
ASAT missile defense
China used a top-secret SC-19 anti-satellite (ASAT) missile in a test last year against a target missile as part of a missile-defense system that remains shrouded in secrecy.
The ASAT missile was fired against a new medium-range missile and details were disclosed in a State Department cable made public recently by WikiLeaks that included an outline of a diplomatic protest note to Beijing about both Chinese weapons programs.
The cable provides the first detailed U.S. assessment of what defense officials say is a major strategic advancement in China’s military buildup. It reveals that China’s anti-satellite system was developed for use not only against satellites but is part of a larger strategic missile-defense system.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates offered to hold strategic talks with China on missile defenses, as well as space, nuclear and cyberweapons, during a recent visit to Beijing. The offer was rebuffed by China’s defense minister, who said only that it would be studied.
Defense officials and private specialists said the cable further highlights official Chinese government duplicity in opposing U.S. missile defenses and promoting an international agreement to limit weapons in space at the same time it is secretly working on its own space weapons and missile defense programs.
Details of the Chinese SC-19 test are not expected to be included in the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on the Chinese military that was due March 1 but remains under review by the Obama administration.
Chinese state-run media announced the January 2010 test in a two-sentence statement that made no mention of the use of the SC-19. The SC-19’s first successful test destroyed a Chinese weather satellite in January 2007, resulting in thousands of pieces of debris in orbit that remain a threat to both manned and unmanned space flight.
The current U.S. strategic missile defense has no direct capabilities for shooting down satellites. However, the Navy modified a ship-based SM-3 anti-missile interceptor to shoot down a falling U.S. satellite in 2008.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong repeated the comments of a Foreign Ministry spokesman who said the 2010 test was “defensive in nature and targeted at no country.”
“The U.S. Intelligence Community assesses that on 11 January 2010, China launched an SC-19 missile from the Korla Missile Test Complex and successfully intercepted a near-simultaneously launched CSS-X-11 medium-range ballistic missile launched from the Shuangchengzi Space and Missile Center,” the State Department cable said.
Little is known about the CSS-X-11, which could be an extended-range variant of the CSS-7 short-range missile.
U.S. missile warning satellites detected the launches and the intercept some 155 miles in space but detected no debris, the cable said.
“An SC-19 was used previously as the payload booster for the January 11, 2007, direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) intercept of the Chinese FY-1C weather satellite,” the cable said. “Previous SC-19 DA-ASAT flight-tests were conducted in 2005 and 2006. This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT and ballistic missile defense (BMD) technologies.”
The cable said the U.S. government in its protest would not disclose that it knows China’s ASAT and missile defense programs are linked.
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About the Author
Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.
He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.
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