BOSTON — The Chinese military’s test of an anti-satellite (A-Sat) weapon in January may have been canceled had the U.S. government protested in advance, according to a defense expert.
Laura Grego, a staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Mass.
-based advocacy group, told the House Oversight and Government Reform national security and government affairs subcommittee
May 24 that her groups’ research indicates
there are deep divisions within the Chinese government on the testing and use of anti-satellite weapons.
While China’s Foreign Ministry has reservations about anti-satellite weapons, it may have been kept in the dark about the plans for the Jan. 11 shoot-down of an aging weather satellite, and a U.S. protest on the matter might have added weight to their concerns, Grego said.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. James Armor, director of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, testified during the hearing that the military had seen intelligence reports regarding the plans for the test before it was conducted, but deferred to the White House. Armor made that statement in response to a question from Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), the subcommittee’s chairman, who asked why the Pentagon did not protest the A-Sat test.
Donald Mahley, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for threat reduction, export controls and negotiations, said he did not know whether China’s Foreign Ministry was kept out of the loop about the plans for the test, but said it was possible based on past observations about the Chinese government.
Tierney expressed frustration that the U.S. government “apparently decided not to do anything beforehand to try to prevent the Chinese test” during his opening remarks at the hearing.
“We knew when they were going to conduct the test and were certain which satellite they were going to hit,” Tierney said. “We stepped up monitoring of the satellite and Chinese launch pads. We knew that the test would cause thousands of shards of space debris to float around for decades in low Earth orbit, potentially harming everything and anything in their path. But following the destruction of the satellite, the silence was deafening.”
stated during the hearing that the U.S. government did not appear to protest two previous tests, including a close flyby of a satellite, with the ground-based missile used to destroy the weather satellites during the January test.
“China had to know that the U.S. knew those tests happened with its early warning sensors, and may have interpreted lack of response as indifference on part of U.S. government,” Grego said.
Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst at CNA Corp. in Washington, said he has had recent discussions with Chinese government officials where they noted the United States had not protested prior to the January test.
However, Cheng said it is not clear whether a U.S. protest would have had been able to head off the test.
Cheng said the Foreign Ministry may not have the same voice in internal government debates as the military because unlike the military, it is not a part of the Communist Party of China. If the Foreign Ministry was kept out of the loop prior to the anti-satellite test, it may not have been able to affect the debate even with a strong protest from the United States, he said.
Cheng also said that the test may not have been directed exclusively at the United States. If the test was intended to intimidate Taiwan by demonstrating China’s ability to knock out the satellites of Taiwan’s ally the United States, a U.S. protest may not have had much effect, he said.
said during the hearing that the United States had asked the Chinese government for an explanation of why it conducted the test, but received only a statement saying that the test was not directed at any specific country.