U.S. Knew Of China’s Missile Test, But Kept Silent

April 23rd, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: U.S. Knew Of China’s Missile Test, But Kept Silent

New York Times
April 23, 2007
Pg. 1

By Michael R. Gordon and David S. Cloud
WASHINGTON, April 22 — After a Chinese interceptor smashed into a target satellite in January, Bush administration officials criticized the test as a destabilizing development.
It was the first successful demonstration of an antisatellite missile by any country in more than 20 years. Pentagon officials warned that the test had increased the threat to American satellites. Space experts fretted that it had spawned a cloud of orbiting debris. American diplomats complained to their counterparts in Beijing.
What administration officials did not say is that as the Chinese were preparing to launch their antisatellite weapon, American intelligence agencies had issued reports about the preparations being made at the Songlin test facility. In high-level discussions, senior Bush administration officials debated how to respond and even began to draft a protest, but ultimately decided to say nothing to Beijing until after the test.
Three months after the Chinese launching, a new debate has developed as to whether the administration properly handled the episode or missed an opportunity to discourage the Chinese from crossing a new military threshold.
The events show that the administration felt constrained in its dealings with China because of its view that it had little leverage to stop an important Chinese military program, and because it did not want to let Beijing know how much the United States knew about its space launching activities.
“We did get warning that the test was being prepared,” said a senior administration official, who described the administration’s thinking in deciding not to ask the Chinese to cancel the test.
“I think it is fair to say that nobody knows whether the Chinese would have deferred or canceled the test,” the administration official added. “The principals’ best judgment, including the leadership of the intelligence community, was that they were committed to testing the antisatellite weapon.”
But some experts outside government say that American officials might have been able to discourage the Chinese from launching the missile, had the officials been willing to enter into a broader discussion of ways to regulate the military competition in space. China had long advocated an agreement to ban weapons in space, an approach the Bush administration has rejected in order to maintain maximum flexibility for developing antimissile defenses.
“Had the United States been willing to discuss the military use of space with the Chinese in Geneva, that might have been enough to dissuade them from going through with it,” said Jeffrey G. Lewis, an arms control expert at the New America Foundation.
Dubbed the SC-19 by American intelligence, the Chinese antisatellite weapon consists of a solid-fuel medium-range missile carrying an interceptor that is designed to crash into enemy satellites. The weapon is fired from a mobile launcher.
The United States had already detected two previous tests of the system — on July 7, 2005, and Feb. 6, 2006. Neither struck a target. In the second trial, the missile passed near a satellite, leaving American officials unsure whether the goal had been to hit it, or simply to pass nearby. In neither case did the Bush administration complain to the Chinese, a senior official said.
In December 2006 and early January of this year, American intelligence agencies picked up signs that preparations for a third Chinese antisatellite test appeared to be under way. The mobile missile launcher for the SC-19 was repeatedly detected on the Songlin pad, according to American officials familiar with the classified reports.
In early January, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which collects and analyzes reconnaissance information, also warned that an SC-19 test was possible that month, American officials said.
The presumed target for the test was an old Chinese weather satellite known as the Feng-Yun-1C. The United States Air Force was carefully tracking the satellite on the day of the test, checking its location six times that day instead of the normal two, according to Geoff Forden, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As the test preparations were under way, the Bush administration pondered how to respond.
“There were discussions about different options of how to deal with a potential test that was coming up, whether you démarche them early on, whether you wait to see if they are successful, if they’re not,” said Lt. Gen. Walter L. Sharp, the director of the staff under Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
General Sharp declined to provide details, but other officials said the idea of asking China to forgo the test had been broached by some Pentagon officials. The suggestion, they said, was rejected for several reasons.
Officials concluded that China was unlikely to cancel the test and that there were few good options to punish China if they ignored an American warning to hold off. American intelligence agencies were loath to let the Chinese know they were aware of the state of their preparations.
Meeting Chinese demands for a negotiation on space-based weapons was not considered an option for the administration. The United States last tested an antisatellite weapon — a missile that was fired into space from an F-15 warplane — in 1985, and has no current program to develop a new antisatellite system.
With an eye on missile defense, however, the administration has sought to maintain maximum flexibility for American military operations in space. So the administration’s decision was to monitor China’s preparations and draft a protest that could be delivered after the test.
Early on Jan. 11, the SC-19 was launched and rammed into the target satellite, which was orbiting 475 miles overhead. About 1,600 pieces of debris, the remnants of the destroyed satellite, have since been tracked orbiting the earth, increasing the danger of collisions with other spacecraft.
An international meeting of government experts on space debris had been scheduled to open in Beijing this week, but was postponed by China, which apparently feared criticism of the January launching.
But for the Pentagon, the national security implications are even more worrisome. As a result of the test, some American intelligence analysts concluded that the Chinese might have an operational antisatellite weapon that could threaten low-orbit American imaging satellites as early as next year.
“There was a shock that the Russians had put a satellite in orbit before us,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, said at a recent conference, “and there’s a similar shock that the Chinese successfully shot down that satellite. It makes space astronomically more dangerous than it was before.”
Several Pentagon officials said they believed that the purpose of the test was to give the Chinese military the ability to blind American imaging satellites and hamper American military operations if there were to be a confrontation over Taiwan.
American officials said the United States could respond to the new threat by developing the ability to quickly launch new satellites and improving the network of space sensors to tell if a system has been disabled by a technical failure or by an enemy attack.
Gen. James E. Cartwright, the head of the Strategic Command, said in recent Congressional testimony that another means of defending American satellites is to attack enemy launching pads with Trident submarine-launched missiles armed with non-nuclear warheads.
While the Pentagon wants to field such a weapon, many lawmakers are wary, fearing that a potential adversary might mistake a non-nuclear Trident missile for the nuclear variant, triggering an inadvertent nuclear war.
There is a vigorous debate among experts about whether the test might have been averted.
“This was absolutely preventable,” said Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress, a research group. “The Chinese have been proposing a treaty to ban weapons in space for years. We have refused in order to pursue this fantasy of space-based antimissile weapons.”
Peter W. Rodman, who recently left his post as a senior Defense Department official, challenged that argument. “It is a bit of arms-control mythology that there is always a deal to be made,” Mr. Rodman said. “For years, the Chinese military has been writing about how to cripple a superpower that relies on high-tech capabilities like satellites. They have been patiently developing this capability. I don’t see why they would trade it away.”
Mr. Lewis of the New America Foundation said that the United States might have persuaded the Chinese to defer the test, short of meeting their demand for a ban on space weapons.
“The Bush administration watched them conduct two earlier tests and did not say a word,” he said. “Then they issued a National Space Policy that talked about freedom of action and denying adversaries access to space. The Chinese probably concluded that we were in no position to complain about their test.”
John E. Pike, the director of Global Security.org, a military information Web site, has a less charitable view of the Chinese motivations. “It makes a mockery of China’s space weapons diplomacy,” he said. “Their proposals were always aimed at American space-based systems and always excluded a ground-based, pop-up antisatellite weapon such as theirs. I don’t think we could have talked them out of testing against a target.”
The Bush administration is hoping that the diplomatic protests that it and other nations lodged after the SC-19 test will dissuade the Chinese from conducting additional tests. General Pace, however, had little luck in discussing China’s antisatellite program during a visit to China last month. “There were certain things that they were very open about, but they were not open about that,” he said.

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