Sat, Jan 27, 2007 - Page 9 News List

China's space blast part of ambitious program

By Richard Halloran

The space shot fired by China earlier this month has rattled windows in defense ministries and foreign offices from Washington to Tokyo to Moscow and beyond.

China secretly launched a missile on Jan. 11 to destroy one of its own aging weather satellites 800km into space. News of the blast was leaked to the authoritative magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology, whose reporters have cultivated sources in the US Defense Department and intelligence agencies for decades.

That immediately set off a furor of governments demanding that China disclose what it was up to. The Chinese government, evidently surprised by the reaction, stumbled and mumbled for several days before confirming the shot but downplaying its importance.

Diplomats and security officials in other capitals seem less than reassured. Taken together, they have pointed to five consequences:

● US military communications and intelligence gathering, which have become highly dependent on satellites, are more vulnerable than previously thought.

● China's space program, which is given high priority, is more advanced than had been believed, because hitting a satellite requires considerable sophistication.

● China's and space achievements add to what the Chinese call their "comprehensive national power," which includes economic, scientific and military strength.

● Several US, Japanese and other leaders asserted that the Chinese anti-satellite mission may set off an arms race in space, a contention Beijing denied.

● China's space program has long been a source of nationalistic pride as, in Chinese eyes, it shows that China is catching up with the industrial nations.

A white paper on space published by Beijing in October said that space was "a strategic way to enhance its economic, scientific, technological and national defense strength, as well as a cohesive force for the unity of the Chinese people."

An episode during the war in Iraq illuminates the dependence of the US armed forces on satellites. James Kitfield, a correspondent who wrote a book about Iraq entitled War and Destiny, reported that tanks of the 7th Cavalry Regiment were bogged down in a blinding sandstorm and fell into an Iraqi tank ambush.

Far above the fray, a Global Hawk drone sent radar probes through the storm and beamed pictures of the Iraqis by satellite to a base in California from which they were relayed to photo interpreters in Nevada. Their intelligence assessments were streamed by satellite back to a command center in Saudi Arabia from which a strike order went to a bomber over Iraq.

Within minutes of detection, precision-guided bombs hurtled through the sandstorm.

"The Iraqi armored formation below," Kitfield wrote, "would never have time to ponder how it had been so mercilessly exposed beneath the cover of a seemingly impenetrable storm at night."

An experienced China watcher says the Chinese are keen observers of US satellite usage. A Chinese article said US armed forces relied on 52 satellites in the Gulf War, on 86 in operations in Kosovo and more than 100 in the Iraq war. Another Chinese report says that, in Iraq, 95 percent of US intelligence relies on satellites, as well as 90 percent of communications and 100 percent of navigation.

China's space program started shortly after the Communists led by Mao Zedong (毛澤東) took control of the country in 1949. Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1962 and the repressive Great Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1969 derailed the program to some extent.

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