Space: China Takes a Long March

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March 22, 2007: The Chinese test of an anti-satellite satellite weapon last January may have appeared as a startling demonstration of how China could wipe out American spy satellites. In reality, it just shows that China is several decades behind the United States when it comes to war in space. Using satellites to destroy other satellites is very old school. In the 1980s, the United States developed missiles, launched by high flying fighters, to knock down spy satellites. In the late 1990s, the U.S. developed stealthy satellites. And currently, America has pushed micro-satellites (each weighing a few hundred pounds) that can be used either for anti-satellite work, or to replace satellites destroyed by the Chinese. A dozen or more micro-satellites can be put in orbit with one launcher, or a smaller number by using an ICBM. There are over a hundred American military satellites up there, and Chinas current technology requires one satellite launcher or ICBM for each attack on an American satellite. Do the math.

China customarily develops technology by proceeding through all the phases previous developers have taken. Rather than leapfrogging to launching anti-satellite missiles from high altitudes, or developing micro-satellites, China has taken the slower, and more instructive, route. So the Chinese test did not demonstrate a dangerous capability, just that the Chinese had started a long climb up the experience curve.

 


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