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Chinese Missile Strikes Satellite

Beijing's recent test raises alarms about the militarization of space.

Protests Are Issued

The U.S. and Soviet Union abandoned the practice in the 1980s.

January 19, 2007|Peter Spiegel and James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Chinese military shot down one of its own aging satellites with a ground-based ballistic missile last week, demonstrating a new technological capability at a time of growing Bush administration concern over Beijing's military modernization and its intentions in space.

The shoot-down, which U.S. officials said occurred on the evening of Jan. 11, prompted a formal protest from Washington that was joined by allies including Canada and Australia, U.S. officials said Thursday. Japan has demanded an explanation, and Britain and South Korea are also expected to file formal objections.

"The United States believes 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," said Gordon D. Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council. "We and other countries have expressed our concern to the Chinese."

A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry said today that he could not comment on the anti-satellite test.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union each conducted similar tests of anti-satellite weapons in the 1980s, but abandoned the practice when the strikes led to widespread debris fields in space that threatened other satellites. The last U.S. test was in 1985.

According to U.S. officials, Beijing used a medium-range missile to shoot at its weather satellite, which was 537 miles above Earth when it was hit. The altitude is considered to be a low Earth orbit, but represents the band where most satellites and manned space missions travel.

The successful exercise was expected to send tremors through the U.S. satellite industry, which is part of a $90-billion global business involving hundreds of orbiting craft that are essential to routine daily communications and commerce. Many ATM and pay-at-the-pump transactions rely on satellites, as do television and digital radio signal distribution.

The shoot-down has rattled U.S. defense officials, who are concerned both about the commercial crafts and government spy and military satellites that operate at that height.

Larger telecommunications satellites and certain military satellites that provide early warning of missile launches travel in much higher orbits -- up to 23,000 miles above Earth.

The Chinese strike on the satellite launched in 1999 was first reported by the aerospace trade magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Concerns about rising threats to U.S. satellites led the Bush administration to issue a new national space policy in August, which held that the U.S. viewed freedom of action in space as important as air or sea power.

The administration was widely criticized for its aggressive attitude toward defense activities in space. But a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday that satellites and access to space were considered vital to U.S. national and economic security and that any event "that can hinder passage through space" was of concern.

News of the Chinese achievement came as John D. Negroponte, the head of U.S. intelligence agencies, testified before the House Intelligence Committee on a range of international threats, including what he said were the potential dangers of China's military buildup.

"The Chinese are developing more capable long-range conventional strike systems, and short and medium-range ballistic missiles with terminally guided maneuverable warheads able to attack U.S. carriers and air bases," Negroponte said in his testimony.

China has stepped up both its civilian and military space program in recent years. In October 2003, it became only the third nation, after Russia and the U.S., to launch its own manned space mission.

U.S. intelligence and military officials have become increasingly vocal over Chinese ambitions in space and over Beijing's military modernization program, begun in 1999. Senior Pentagon officials have urged the Chinese to explain the motives behind their buildup, saying the lack of clarity has fueled concerns that their new weapons might be used against the U.S.

Officials also have voiced concerns that, because the U.S. is so dependent on satellites, militarily and commercially, an inability to protect its space assets would represent a vulnerability that adversaries could exploit.

"We must be very concerned about the emerging threats to our space assets and about the possibility that others will take advantage of our dependence on and vulnerability in space to seek asymmetrical advantages over us," Robert G. Joseph, the State Department's top arms control official, said in a speech last week.

China's leaders are intent on modernizing their military capabilities, and the development of more sophisticated weaponry, including anti-satellite missile capabilities, is part of that effort, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing.

But he said China was still at least a decade behind several other countries.

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