June 11, 2013: While China touts its growing success in launching satellites (20 this year and 200 by the end of the decade, which would be a fifth of the total and nearly half as many as the United States has) American intelligence services believe this hides a more sinister goal in space. Chinese military journals are full of exhortations to “render the enemy deaf and blind” by attacking their space satellites. Yet there is little discussion about how China would do this. That is because China does not want the rest of the world to pay too much attention to Chinese work on jamming satellite signals, damaging satellites with lasers, and generally leaving them intact but inoperable rather than destroying them.
China did conduct a very visible “KillSat” test in 2007, that blew one of their old weather satellites apart. This was not good for anyone with satellites in orbit because that particular test created over 3,000 large (very destructive) fragments in orbit. These fragments are under no one’s control and will demolish any satellites they encounter. China has not repeated this test and now it is believed that the 2007 test was more of a deception than demonstration. China wants the world to ignore their more intense efforts to disable or isolate satellites in orbit rather than blowing them up.
Destroying satellites would be bad for Chinese goals of eventually dominating orbital space because it would fill orbital space with so many fragments that it would become more difficult and extensive to operate satellites. By the end of the decade China expects to be launching 30 satellites a year and accounting for over a quarter of the worldwide launch capability. All this momentum has been the result of a quarter century of effort and an enormous spurt of activity in the last few years. In the two decades after 1990, China has carried out 30 commercial satellite launches, putting 36 satellites in orbit. Now China puts that many satellites up in 18 months. China's main satellite launcher, the "Long March" rocket, is based on Russian designs, meaning it is simple, cheap, and reliable. China can put satellites into orbit for about half the cost of Western launchers (even after paying more for insurance because of a higher failure rate).
Currently, some 900 active satellites are in orbit, and nearly half of them are American. About 75 percent of all satellites are non-military (most of them commercial, the rest government non-military birds). The Russian Sputnik was the first satellite ever put in orbit, in 1957. The U.S. followed in 1958. Since then, ten other nations have done the same. France launched its first satellite in 1965, Japan and China in 1970, Britain in 1971, and India in 1980. Israel launched its first satellite in 1988. Ukraine did so in 1995. Iran claims to have put a satellite in orbit recently, but there is no conclusive proof. North Korea put a dead (non-responsive) satellite up in December 2012, and South Korea followed with a successful launch of a very active satellite a month later.
Over the last few years American intelligence agencies have discovered that the Chinese space program involves more than the peaceful use of space. The Chinese are apparently working hard on jamming satellite signals and using lasers to damage satellites. This is in addition to Chinese work on tracking satellites, a prerequisite for damaging or destroying them. These disruptive operations were discovered in part because of the 2007 Chinese test of a Killsat (killer satellite). The U.S. appeared to respond to that test as the Chinese hoped because a year later the U.S. shot down of a failed photo satellite. The U.S. was alarmed at the Chinese satellite destruction test and wanted to let the Chinese know that there were American weapons available to do the job more quickly and cheaper. What the U.S. didn't say, or didn't have to say, was that America was now keeping a very close eye on Chinese space warfare capabilities.
This all began back on January 11th, 2007, when China launched an anti-satellite system (a KillSat or Killer Satellite) that destroyed an old Chinese weather satellite, about 850 kilometers up. That's at the upper range of where most reconnaissance satellites hang out. The KillSat hit the weather bird and the result was several million fragments. What China did in 2007 was, in terms of technology, something the U.S. and Russia had demonstrated over three decades earlier. No big deal, unless you actually use it. While China had now demonstrated its ability to destroy satellites (at the cost of a launcher and a maneuverable KillSat), it has also caused a major stink among the dozens of nations that own, or use (usually via leasing arrangements), the several hundred satellites in orbit. That's because this Chinese test increased the amount of dangerous space debris by about eight percent. That's a lot. By common agreement, nations that put up satellites include the capability for the bird, once it has reached the end of its useful life, to slowly move closer to earth until it burns up as it enters the thicker atmosphere. This approach leaves no debris that can collide with other satellites behind. Even a small piece of satellite debris can, when hitting another satellite at high speed, destroy or fatally damage it.
A quarter century ago Russia and the United States agreed to halt such KillSat tests in order to reduce the amount of "space pollution" that threatened all current and future space satellites. Moreover, there was the practical problem of cost. Having launchers standing by to put a sufficient number of KillSats up would be enormously expensive. And it would simply encourage others to do the same thing, which would cancel the original anti-satellite effort. China has ignored, so far, any criticism of its KillSat test and dismissed the risk of starting an orbital arms race. But China has angered the other users of orbital space and earned the contempt of those nations as well. Now we know that it also compelled the United States to test one of its own anti-satellite weapons, and a new one at that.
China was believed to have gone ahead and made preparations to assemble a force of 20-30 Killsat missiles, a force sufficient to cripple the American military satellite network. China denies all of this and felt that its deception had deflected attention from their work on jamming and blinding satellites electronically or with lasers. It was impossible to hide the 2007 Killsat test, and that was the main point of carrying it out. The protests from other satellite owning nations were ignored but appreciated because it made everyone believe that China was serious about KillSats. What China was actually doing was hiding their jamming and blinding activities and not encouraging satellite owners from protecting their birds from this sort of attack.