NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
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.
The draft demarche demanded to know the purpose of the test and whether it is part of a missile-defense system; whether China plans to deploy missile defenses for its forces and territory; what “foreign forces” is China planning to target with the missile defenses; and whether China tried to limit space debris.
The protest note also said that, if asked by the Chinese about U.S. objections to anti-satellite tests, they should state: “U.S. concerns voiced at the Conference on Disarmament and at the United Nations are still valid and reflect the policy of the United States.”
China apparently gave in to U.S. and international pressure and since January 2007 has not conducted another ASAT test.
Mark Stokes, a Chinese arms specialist with the 2049 Institute, a think tank, said the missile-defense system was significant.
“The space-intercept test conducted last year further demonstrates advances that China has made in its ability to track and engage targets in space, whether satellites or ballistic missiles,” Mr. Stokes said.
John Tkacik, a former State Department China specialist, said he was surprised that the Pentagon did not disclose the link between the missile-defense test and China’s anti-satellite system.
“All we got last year was Assistant Defense Secretary Chip Gregson vaguely saying that the U.S. was seeking an explanation,” Mr. Tkacik said. “We have since been stiff-armed by the Chinese in every proposal we’ve made to sit down and discuss rules of the road on space and strategic weapons. But the Obama people apparently are trying to play-down China’s BMD capabilities.”
Mr. Tkacik said the Obama administration was so overly focused on arms talks with the Russians aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals that it neglected U.S. missile defenses and ignored China’s advances in that weaponry.
“We have to start taking China’s space capabilities very seriously,” he said. “The Chinese have a dozen academies filled with world-class space and missile scientists, they know what they’re doing, and they have unlimited funds to do it with.”
Honors’ next step
Capt. Owen Honors, the officer who lost his carrier command for making raunchy onboard videos, is asking the secretary of the Navy to withhold action on any punishment until a proposed board of inquiry finishes it work.
Last week, Adm. John C. Harvey, who commands fleet forces, recommended that the secretary censure Capt. Honors. Such punishment would end the aviator’s career and possibly lead to a demotion.
But the investigation on which Adm. Harvey acted is not necessarily the last one. When he fired Capt. Honors last January as skipper of the USS Enterprise, he also recommended that the officer be released from the Navy. It is now up to the Navy Personnel Command to decided whether to hold an inquiry at which Capt. Honors would show why he did nothing wrong and can remain on active duty.
Adm. Harvey recommended censures for three other officers but not what is called “detachment for cause,” as he did Capt. Honors.
“Adm. Harvey did not relieve any other officers of command or recommend that any others be relieved of command,” said his spokesman, Cmdr. Chris Sims. “Therefore, he could not make a recommendation that anyone be detached for cause.”
If there is a board, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus should delay a censure decision because the inquiry may find the officer did nothing wrong, Capt. Honor’s attorney, Charles Gittins, told special correspondent Rowan Scarborough.
“Captain Honors provided a personal letter to the secretary of the Navy requesting that the secretary not impose a letter of censure because administrative actions, including a recommendation for a fact-finding adversarial board of inquiry hearing, have not been completed and premature action runs the risks of inconsistent determinations,” Mr. Gittins said.
Several terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, continued to seek nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, according to an annual CIA report to Congress.
The so-called 721 Report, after the fiscal 1997 intelligence authorization law requiring it, stated that “a number” of the 33 foreign terrorist groups on the State Department’s list “previously expressed interest in one or more” of the weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities.
“We continue to be concerned about al Qaeda’s stated intent to conduct unconventional attacks against the United States, the report said. “While counterterrorism actions have disrupted al Qaeda’s near term effort to develop a sophisticated [WMD] attack capability, we judge the group is still intent on its acquisition.”
No carrier to Libya
The chief of naval operations told a Senate hearing Tuesday that the Obama administration has not ordered the U.S. military to move an aircraft carrier close to Libya, usually one of the first U.S. reactions to a regional crisis like the civil war in the oil-rich North African state.
Under questioning from Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Gary Roughead was asked during a committee hearing about U.S. capabilities for using electronic warfare against the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Adm. Roughead said U.S. Navy EA-6Bs, deployed on the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier strike group currently in the Red Sea, would be needed to jam Soviet-era Libyan air defenses.
“Are there plans to move it?” Mr. McCain asked.
“At the present time, the plans are for her to remain in this central command area of operations, sir,” Adm. Roughead said. “There is no order issued to do that, no, sir.”
Adm. Roughead said he is hesitant to predict the outcome of the fighting there.
“I think it’s still a very uncertain period that bears watching,” he said. “And then as some of the thoughts are discussed and debated, I believe, at least from a military perspective, that looking at what some of those details may be ahead of time is very important — the issues such as a no-fly zone, what are the restrictions on use of force, what are the basing and the access that might be required. And I think all of those need to be sorted through.”
Asked later about imposing an air exclusion zone over Libya, Adm. Roughead said doing so risked launching a conflict.
“One of the things that in addressing a no-fly zone is to suppress or destroy any of the air-defense systems that could put friendly forces at risk,” he said. “So that’s the first element, I believe, of entering into a no-fly zone is likely combat operations on Libya. So in talking about a no-fly zone, there are some precursor steps that have to be taken.”
Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, said he is opposed to the U.S. military getting involved in Libya.
“We all know that military commitments, however small or easily begun, and in this region particularly, very difficult to end — history shows that,” the former Reagan administration Navy secretary said.
“This is a region full of surprises, and I for one am of the opinion it’s not a good idea to give weapons and military support to people who you don’t know. And when it comes to the opposition in Libya, we don’t know them.”
• Bill Gertz can be reached at email@example.com.