January 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- China's successful use of a missile-launched space vehicle to destroy an orbiting satellite has at a stroke threatened to change the world's military balance.
Only the United States and the Soviet Union, when they were Cold War rivals, experimented with such a space weapon -- and they abandoned that research more than 20 years ago, leaving the world free of space-based weapons.
Military analysts around the world have spent the last few days pondering the consequences of China's spectacular space mission, which destroyed an old Chinese-owned weather satellite in orbit some 860 kilometers above the Earth.
Beijing has not confirmed the test, but U.S. intelligence officials say it took place on January 11. They also say that the United States was monitoring the event, as it had prior knowledge that some sort of test was due to happen that day.
The U.S.-based magazine "Aviation Week and Space Technology" first broke the story. It quoted U.S. sources as saying the intercept between the "kill vehicle" and the satellite was made almost head-on at extremely high velocity.
It said the kill vehicle was taken aloft aboard a ballistic missile launched from the Xichang facility in Sichuan Province.
The test has caused international shock waves, because it appears to demonstrate that China has mastered the considerable expertise in space tracking and guidance needed to bring two small objects into collision in the vastness of space.
In a first reaction, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey expressed dismay on January 19 at the prospect of an arms race in space.
"We certainly are concerned by any effort, by any nation, that would be geared towards developing weapons or other military activities in space," Casey said. "That's absolutely contrary to what our policies articulated by the White House state. So we've raised our concerns with the Chinese government. We've done so both here in Washington and in Beijing."
Beijing, for its part, has neither confirmed nor denied that the satellite was deliberately intercepted. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao is quoted by Reuters as saying that "as a matter of principal, China advocates the peaceful use of space and opposes the weaponization of space, and also opposes any form of arms race."
What's Behind Test?
Why did the mission take place, then? British space analyst David Baker, the editor of "Jane's Space Directory," said he believes that Japan is the country that the Chinese wanted to impress with this test, rather than the United States or the West.
"In the last few years, Japan has moved strongly to put in orbit satellites to investigate areas the Japanese feel are suspicious research sites for China's arms programs," Baker said. "Japan has been very keen over the last several years to get as much information as possible on China's military intentions, and that's why they began to design and launch their own military reconnaissance satellites."
Baker said the Chinese want to demonstrate to Tokyo that they can put any such system out of operation, if necessary.
However, the potential threat posed by the Chinese success extends far beyond Japan. The ability to destroy satellites is the power to take away the eyes and ears of the modern world. Satellites have become a building block of modern life, whether civilian or military.
"The extent to which countries -- not only the United States, but countries throughout the world -- are dependant on space-based technologies, weather satellites, communications satellites, and other devices [makes them essential] to be able to conduct modern life," State Department spokesman Casey said.
The senior editor of "Aviation Week," Craig Covault, wrote that China can now also use "space control" as a policy weapon to help project its growing power regionally and globally.
Analyst Baker noted, however, that Beijing has not infringed any international laws with its satellite-destroying mission.
That's because the International Space Treaty, of which China is a signatory, forbids weapons to be placed in orbit. But as the killer spacecraft was launched directly from Earth to attack its target, it is exempt from treaty restrictions.
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