Thursday, January 18, 2007

Chinese ASAT test: Minimum means of reprisal

Don't bother talking to a weapons geek or seasoned China watcher for the next 12 hours or so because chances are they are scouring the web for details about China's successful anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test. Despite having a class at GWU tonight, I have been picking around the Internet for every bit of detail I can find.

According to the Washington Post's article on the subject, the National Security Council mentioned the kill vehicle was likely a medium-range ballistic missile:

[Gordon] Johndroe of the NSC said that the Chinese satellite was destroyed using a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile, which slammed into the object 537 miles above earth on Jan. 11.

If the kill vehicle travelled about 537 miles up from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center (overheads of the site are blotted out on Google Maps, lol) and 4 degrees west (about 250 miles at 28.2 degrees North latitude), its flight path to intercept was roughly 600 miles. I may have only taken "Great Ideas in Physics" (read: physics for poli sci majors) back in undergrad, but by my math, the kill vehicle must have had a surface-to-surface range of well over 1000mi. With a little bit of data and Tsiokolsky's rocket equation, it would be easy to estimate its actual kill vehicle.

If the Chinese used one of their ballistic missiles as a kill vehicle as the NSC suggests, they must have used a DF-21/CSS-5 or a DF-3A/CSS-2. If this is true, it raises an interesting question about the future of the Chinese ballistic missile arsenal. The PRC is currently rocking about 40 DF-3s and 50 DF-21s, so they will have to restart missile construction to keep up with the material demands of further testing.

The upshot here is that things are looking less like the Rumsfeldian translation of "shashou jiang" (assassin's mace) and more like its conventional translation (trump card). As Dr. Jeffrey would say, this test is a demonstration of how Chinese defense policy seeks the minimum means of reprisal against the U.S. and not the doomsday fantasies of some in the Pentagon.

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