Friday, January 19, 2007

More on the Chinese ASAT test

Now that us weapons nerds have had some time to sleep on yesterday's revelation, we're starting to things in context. Surprisingly, Defensetech plays up the importance of the ASAT test some while MSNBC's Jim Oberg downplays it. Since I had to write a one-pager about the issue to my boss, I will throw my assessment out to the public:

The test itself was pretty controlled:

1) The satellite's flight path was predictable

2) It passed very close to the launch site

3) The target was emitting a trackable signal

4) Modifications were made to the satellite's flight path to line it up with the kill vehicle launcher

As space interceptions go, the Chinese had a pretty good handicap on this test. It is unlikely that this success will translate into any sort of immediately fieldable capability. If the spotty record of our ground-based missile interceptors demonstrate anything, it is the difficulty of intercepting even predictable space targets. Although last week's success was impressive, we should hold off judgement until the Chinese can produced multiple, sequential successes.

I would also dispute Defensetech's characterization of this test as next-gen. In fact, I would categorize it as distinctly last-gen. The last time the U.S. looked into ground-based interceptors was back during Nike Zeus development in the early 1960s. Ground-based missiles are problematic for ASAT purposes because of their limited firing envelope.

Couple that with the detrimental effects the large amount of debris generated by kinetic energy interceptions have on communications and you can see why we went after options like the fighter-based ASM-135 missile. The ASM-135 would not only have been deployable anywhere a U.S. aircraft carrier was present, it would also ensure that the space debris would be someone else's problem.

Ironically, the success of this tech time warp presents two important facts:

1) There is truth to claims from the intelligence community that the Chinese have significantly improved the circular-error probable of their ballistic missile guidance systems. I have no idea what the Chinese used in this test, but my guess is that they supplemented the missile's normal guidance package with a radiation seeker. Even if this true, the performance of the DF-21 or DF-3 guidance package must have been improved significantly to get the kill vehicle close enough for a homing mechanism to work.

2) This is a continuation of recent trends in the innovative application of older weapons technology for new disruptive purposes. The Chinese will undoubted benefit from both the capability itself and the fact that the United States will divert R&D resources to ASAT countermeasures from other R&D programs. In essence, this situation has the potential of becoming the next big Katyusha rocket or IED challenge.

I don't mean to wander too far away from the ASAT issue, but doesn't this raise even bigger questions about U.S. transformation efforts than it does about Chinese capabilities? Questions such as, is the Air Force's Transformational Satellite Communications System really transformational if it can be crippled by such a last-gen threat?

Update: I fixed my grammar a little. As you may imagine, science and tech officesin the Pentagon, including mine, have been burning the midnight oil over the last 36 hours.


Steeljaw Scribe said...

Interesting write-up. Minor accuracy note: The F-15 carrier of the ASM-135 is shore-based. Navy did look into adding that capability to the F-14 (we were particularly intersted in killing RORSATS over the Indian Ocean) but it was deemed too expensive at a time when the A-12 was sucking up all the available resources.

Robot Economist said...

Good catch. I didn't think of that initially, but after consulting my books, it looks like you are right.

I'm not a master of the ins-and-outs of naval aviation (of which I hear there are plenty). I will be more careful with my words in the future.