Thu, Jan 25, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Weapon test shakes up space thinking

SATELLITE-KILLER China's successful missile test has experts worried about what it means for the future of space and its impact on relations between space-faring nations


China has sent men into orbit and launched dozens of satellites, but its test of a satellite-killing weapon is shaking up perceptions about where the Chinese space program is headed.

The test, confirmed by Beijing on Tuesday after nearly a two-week silence, has drawn criticism from the US and Japan, and touched off fears of an arms race in space.

The Chinese test "was an overtly military, very provocative event that cannot be spun any other way," said Rob Hewson, the London-based editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons. "So a bald assessment of that is that it's a big fat challenge."

The test is a shot across the bow of US efforts to remain predominant in space and on the ground, where its military is heavily dependent on networks of satellites, particularly the low-altitude imaging intelligence models that help it find and hit targets.

Japan, also seen as a regional rival, is similarly vulnerable, while any potential conflicts in space would put much of the industrialized world's economies at risk, given that satellites are used to relay telephone calls and data and to map weather systems.

The Jan. 11 test, first reported last week by the magazine Aviation Week, destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite by hitting it with a warhead launched on board a ballistic missile. That made China only the third country after Russia and the US to shoot down anything in space.

Before that, China's military and its space program were largely seen as capable, but lagging in innovation. Still, its unclear what message China intended to send, underscoring the opacity of China's space and military programs and deepening suspicion over its avowed commitment to the purely peaceful use of space.

Beijing has repeatedly pledged peaceful development of its army -- the world's largest -- but has caused unease among its neighbors by announcing double-digit military spending increases nearly every year since the early 1990s.

The anti-satellite test threatens to "undermine relationships and fuel military tensions between space-faring nations," David Wright, of the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement on the group's Web site.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said it acknowledged carrying out the test to the US, Japan and other countries, but insisted it opposed any arms race in space. Both Washington and Tokyo have criticized the test as undermining efforts to keep weapons out of space.

The US Defense Department and the National Security Council declined to comment on Tuesday.

Some US officials doubted that Beijing would do anything to attack the satellites of the US or Japan -- key trading partners.

China has released no details publicly, although Aviation Week said the missile lifted off from or near the Xichang base in southwest China, the country's main commercial satellite launch center. The military's missile corps, the 2nd Artillery, likely took part as well.

Knocking out US military satellites would be a priority in any regional war against the US or Japan, either over Taiwan or other territorial claims, or to keep its sea lanes open for deliveries of oil and gas.

One immediate casualty of the test could be budding ties between the Chinese and the US and European space programs, experts said. NASA chief administrator Michael Griffin visited China last year to discuss cooperation projects, and China has partnered with the European Space Agency on the Galileo navigation satellite network to compete with the US Global Positioning System.

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