The Chinese conduct their tests from their test site in Korla, Xinjiang. Since the hit-to-kill vehicles can be used for BMD and ASAT, the site probably services both functions.
By Manoj Joshi
China began its efforts in the area of ballistic missile defence (BMD) and anti-satellite (ASAT) systems by taking a two track approach, one where it opposes them on the grounds that they will undermine nuclear stability. At the same time, China also developed a range of options that related to both capabilities.
It must be noted, though, that ASAT and BMD capabilities are not identical. It is relatively easier to predict the trajectory of a satellite than a ballistic missile. Likewise, satellites offer a greater radar cross-section than a missile target.
The Chinese began research in missile interception in 1964, but the programme was given a crucial boost with its inclusion in the prestigious Project 863 in the late 1980s. The 2001 US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty only served to encourage Beijing on the path of developing its own BMD/ASAT systems.
The Chinese BMD effort is a natural outcome of its pursuit of air defence systems against aircraft and cruise missiles. Over the years, China’s radar and long-range SAM systems have given it a limited capability against the shorter-ranged ballistic missiles, just as they had done in the case of the United States. In recent decades, they have developed substantially.
China has benefited from the Soviet and Russian technology and in recent years, the two countries have come closer to each other in anti-missile cooperation. In December 2017, for example, they had a joint computer simulated ABM exercises.
BMD systems involve the ability to detect the incoming missile, track it and intercept it using your own weapon, be it missile or laser system. They can be intercepted as they take off in the boost phase, or when their rockets burn out and the re-entry vehicle is moving on a ballistic trajectory in space, and finally when they re-enter the atmosphere and head to their target in the terminal phase. Over the years, the Chinese have developed capabilities in all these areas. These, in turn, has given the Chinese the abilities in the ASAT domain.
According to observers, as of today, the tests conducted by China and the equipment like radars and missiles that they have developed indicates that “these are not isolated technology demonstrations” but systems which are meant to be deployed operational systems.
Chinese missile systems
To start with, Chinese capabilities took a quantum leap in 1993 with the import of the S-300 system from Russia. The 48N6E2 missile of this system is optimised to destroy short-range ballistic missiles. In recent years, China acquired the S-400 with its ability to deal with missiles with ranges up to 3,500 km. In actual fact, their ability to deal with ballistic missiles are limited to short-range missiles.
China’s own HQ-9 long-range SAM, a derivative of the S-300, can handle ballistic missiles of 500 km range. This has been used to develop the HQ-19 (and its ASAT derivative the SC-19) missile, to kill interceptor. China has tested this missile several times and can deal with missiles of the range of 1,000-3000 km.
The HQ-19/ SC-19 is all right for medium-range missiles and LEO satellites, but for interception at higher altitudes, the Chinese are developing the Dong Neng missiles aimed at mid-course interception. Multiple tests of the DN system have taken place since 2010.
Chinese work on of Large Phased Array Radars (LPAR) began in the 1970s. In recent years’ evidence has emerged of very substantial Chinese advances in the LPAR field which are crucial for any kind of BMD and ASAT capability.
The US says that China’s JL-1A and JY-27A radars are aimed at tackling the ballistic missile threats, with the former being able to precision track multiple ballistic missiles. It is an anti-missile radar with 2D digital active phased array system, while the latter is a land-based long-range air surveillance and guidance meter-wave 3D radar.
In October 2017, a report in a Chinese website revealed a large P-band radar with a detection range of 5,000 km. The aim of the radar, which is based on the periphery of the country, reportedly Shandong peninsula, is to intercept and track strategic missiles launched from the direction of Japan, South Korea and Guam. The report also spoke of the setting up of an X band radar in Helongjiang. The main task of this radar is to guide intercepts of targets detected by the P-band long-range radar.
While the JL-1A is likely to be the X-band radar, experts say that it is not clear what is the designation of the P-band radar that has been set up in Shandong province of China.
The Chinese conduct their tests from their test site in Korla, Xinjiang. Since the hit-to-kill vehicles can be used for BMD and ASAT, the site probably services both functions. Missiles are launched from the nearby Shuangchengzi Space and Missile Centre (SSMC).
In January 2007, China launched a hit-to-kill vehicle from Xichang satellite launch centre in Sichuan, at a defunct Chinese weather satellite in orbit 800 km above the earth. The impact generated over 3,000 pieces of trackable objects and ten times that number of pieces that can’t be tracked. These are a serious threat to other satellites and the International Space Station and created an international furore.
Subsequent tests have been non-destructive and have used other modes such as tests by timing capabilities. That is, putting a missile at a location at the precise time signaling an intercept.
- January 2007 ➝China launched a hit-to-kill vehicle from Xichang satellite launch centre in Sichuan.
- 11 January 2010 ➝China conducted a mid-course ballistic missile defence test by launching the SC-19 from near Korla.27
- January 2013 ➝China conducted its second mid-course BMD test. Like the January 2010 test, the event was announced by the Chinese who also noted that the “test is defensive in nature and targets no other country.”
- 13 May 2013 ➝DN-2 conducted a “high altitude science” mission. But the US said was designed to deal with satellites in medium to high earth orbits where GPS and communications satellites are placed.
- 23 July 2014 ➝The test was its third in four years. The US State Department termed it as a “non-destructive test” of an anti-satellite weapon. The Chinese spokesman, however, insisted that it was that of a land-based missile interceptor.
- 15 October 2015 ➝China tested a DN-3 vehicle for an ASAT test from Korla.
- 27 July 2017 ➝ the DN-3 was tested for the second time from the SSMC.
- 7 February 2018 ➝China announced the success of a third mid-course land based missile interception test, also conducted from Korla.
According to Ankit Panda, citing US official sources, the missile tested is the DN-3 which hit a DF-21 MRBM.
In addition to these tests using hit-to-kill systems which are now at the stage of deployment, the Chinese have also tested other ASAT techniques which, given their dual-use nature are difficult to categorise as such. In 2006, the Chinese also reportedly “painted” a US satellite using a ground based laser.
- 2010 ➝One Shijian satellite bumped into another, causing a change in the orbit of the other. This could have been part of an experiment involving docking, or the test of another technique of ASAT operations.
- 2013 ➝A Chinese satellite with a robotic arm grappled with a target satellite and again this could be an experiment relating to the Chinese space station, but observers noted that this also gave Beijing an ASAT capability.
- June 2016 ➝The Aolong-1 satellite was launched, equipped with a robotic arm to remove space debris.
Since the 2007 test, China has avoided an overt ASAT test, but the US assessment is that several of its BMD tests have, indeed, been for the former purpose.
According to one analyst, these were more by way of “developing and understanding” missile technology rather than a user-test of a deployable system. The Chinese have been willing to acknowledge their successful BMD tests, but avoid any reference to ASAT ones.
When it comes to Chinese systems and tests, there is always room for ambiguity. The first major uncertainty in relation to a test is as to whether it is a BMD test or an ASAT one. Then, there are issues relating to dual use space activity such as satellite inspection, refueling or the use of robotic arms for satellite capture or repair.
Joseph Trevithick says that the SC 19 is more akin to the US THAAD, useful to take out missiles in their terminal phase. He notes that these tests could be related to Agni missiles that India has deployed, the Agni II MRBM and the Agni III IRBM and is still testing the Agni IV and V. It is significant that China’s 5 February 2018 BMD test took place several weeks after India’s first pre-induction trial of its Agni V which is claimed to be an ICBM.
Of even greater significance, perhaps, was the revelation, just three days after the Indian test, that the Chinese had established a large anti-missile radar on the Qinghai plateau north-east of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The news was put out through the CCTV programme. It said that the anti-missile radar was an X band facility with the ability to track multiple targets. The Hong Kong news source that picked it up reported that it could pick up any target in South Asia at a range of 4,000 kms and pass it on to the SC-19 system for destruction.