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War In Heaven: Chinese and American History and Perspectives Concerning Anti-Satellite Weaponry

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

The following article was part of our Youth Exposition on US-China Space Policy. More information on the event can be found here.


"Launch of Tianhe Core Module" by China News Service is licensed under CC BY 3.0

In the 65 years following the USSR’s launch of Sputnik, satellites have emerged as a technological necessity. They have enabled instantaneous communication, pervasively collected signals intelligence and imagery, provided worldwide radionavigation, and have become increasingly integral to the global economy. Since the 1980s, GPS satellites alone have contributed over $1.4 trillion dollars worth of economic value to the world. In the military realm, a dramatically increased reliance on satellites has prompted the Pentagon to plan the spending of an additional $13 billion dollars into satellite technology. The immense utility of satellites in both times of peace and war has made their development and acquisition a priority of China and the United States. Anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon development has historically been explored by both powers, ultimately seeking the ability to destroy an enemy’s military and economic capacity if needed. An understanding of the United States’ and Chinas’ histories and conflicting views regarding these weapons is essential to prevent the worldwide devastation these weapons could unleash upon an increasingly satellite dependent world.

Even in the early days of the satellite, their game-changing potential inspired the United States to develop ASAT weaponry. Spooked by Sputnik, the United States conducted the world’s first ever ASAT weapons test in 1959, when it fired an air launched ballistic missile from a B-47 bomber at an Explorer VI satellite as part of the Bold Orion weapons program. The U.S. continued to develop ASAT weaponry until late into the Cold War, culminating in 1985, where an F-15 launched ASM-135 missile successfully destroyed an old satellite. This was America’s last ASAT missile test if you do not include the controversial 2008 destruction of a defective reconnaissance satellite by a ship launched missile, which consequently ramped up tensions surrounding space warfare with both Russia and China.

China, much like the United States during the Cold War, perceives its rival as having an unacceptable satellite advantage that must be neutralized in the event of war. Particularly, the Chinese fear that the U.S. could eliminate their nuclear deterrent by utilizing space-based missile defenses that were promoted by the former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The end result is a classic security dilemma, where efforts made by the U.S. to bolster its security through assets in space are perceived by China as a means of strengthening U.S. offensive capabilities via the erosion of China’s nuclear deterrent. To China, the solution to spaceborne insecurity is ASAT weaponry.

China conducted its first ASAT missile test in 2007, where it launched a modified DF-21 missile called the SC-19 by the United States at a non-operational weather satellite. In 2008 China also tested the BX-1, microsatellite with potential ASAT capabilities. China then began a pattern of ostensible “land-based missile interception” tests from 2010 to 2015 that have been accused of being ASAT tests in actuality. According to the United States, China has explored utilizing lasers, radio frequency jammers, cyber-attacks, and even robotic arms to disable U.S. satellites. Barring any agreement between the two nations, China’s ASAT development and testing is likely to continue.

Ultimately, the incentives for the United States to develop ASAT weaponry have rapidly diminished over time, resulting in a commitment to a moratorium on ASAT missile weaponry in 2022. The U.S. has emerged from the end of the Cold War as the dominant actor in space, controlling over 60% of the 4,852 satellites currently in orbit while China only controls 10%. On the other hand, this asymmetry in satellite capabilities has only increased China’s desire to neutralize the sizeable military advantages satellites bring to the U.S. in wartime, with the most concerning advantage being the threat of their nuclear weapons being destroyed from space. These differing viewpoints regarding ASAT weaponry will continue to worsen an already fraying U.S.-Chinese bilateral relationship. Satellites have become a key part of everyday life to the world. By understanding the reasons why the United States and China sought the knowledge to shoot them down, we can work toward achieving a more peaceful and prosperous world where they won’t have to be.


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