Friday, January 19, 2007

Wrap-up on the Chinese ASAT test

I've gotten a few e-mails from readers wondering why anAsianist like me has been following the fall out of China's ASAT test so closely. The honest truth is that rocketry and astrophysics are in the blood of the R. Economist family. My father is a satellite engineer and almost all of his 7 siblings are either atrsophysicists, rocket scientists, or managers at NASA.

I know that may sound really interesting to some, but it can loose its edge very quickly at family gatherings when you realize you're the only one in a crowded living room without an engineering degree. That and I received a total of 12 telescopes between my 5th and 20th birthdays (thanks Uncle Jeff...). I am pretty proud of my Cosmos DVD collection though.

That anecdote aside, I have a few parting thoughts about how this test fits into the strategic picture:

Out with the new, in with the old

According to Jamie MacIntyre, China's successful January 11th test wasn't its first using ground-based ballistic missiles. There were apparently three failed tests prior to this one using the unproven Kaitouzhe-1 space launch vehicle as the kill vehicle [ed. note: This is not my claim, it is part of Globalsecurity's analysis of China's ASAT program. I have merely adopted it for the sake of a larger argument. My apologies for any confusion.]. The many of the key components for the Kaitouzhe are based on the new road-mobile DF-31 ICBM, which has had its share of problems, including some failed test launches back in 2002.

The Chinese decision to abandon newer Kaitouzhe design in favor of the twenty year-old DF-21 looks like a significant vote of no confidence in the DF-31 to me. As many have noted, including Matthew Thompkins, the Economist and myself, technological innovation in China is lagging. For the 1.3% of GDP they spend on R&D, very few innovations and inventions in China are truly "groundbreaking."

Chinese engineers have a knack for making steady marginal improvements to pre-existing technology, as well as crafting 'middleware' that marries systems together, original designs are still thin on the ground. The contrast between the (new) DF-31's weak performance and the drastic improvement in the (old) DF-21's circular error probable demonstrated by this month's test appear to validate this notion.

Trump card, not assassin's mace

Michael Dana's "Shock and Awe: America's 21st Century Maginot Line" makes a good point about the weaknesses of U.S. policy, but it reinforces the meme of Chinese interest in asymmetric warfare. In particular, it plays up a common fear around the Pentagon that China is covertly building up a portfolio of asymmetric capabilities that it will suddenly unleash in a bid to retake Taiwan. I am very skeptical of this view because I think Chinese leaders and thinkers correctly realize that war with the United States would be disastrous for both sides, regardless of who actually ends up 'winning' (Zheng Bijian is a little too optimistic, but ultimately right).

It is true that the Chinese military is pursuing capabilities that could be described as 'asymmetric,' but I think their intentions are far from hostile. To steal the phrase from Dr. Jeffrey, Chinese strategic policy has generally been to maintain a minimum means of reprisal against any potential adversary. Considering the way in which U.S. technical prowess on the battlefield has grown significantly since the first Gulf War, this policy is not too surprising.

It is ultimately cheaper for the Chinese to come up with relatively simple, but disruptive technical solutions to counter the sophistication of the U.S. capabilities. If their intent was truly hostile, they wouldn't have wasted the element of surprise by targeting an old weather satellite in a controlled test. It wouldn't have been much harder for the Second Artillery Corp to target one of our keyhole satellites as it flew over Asia.

Since the fallout from this month's test hasn't exploded into a major political crisis (so far), the Chinese may use it as formula for future capability demonstrations. It has definitely raised fewer public suspicions of Chinese intentions than the Titan Rain hack attacks did back in 2003. This is definitely an issue tech-junkies and China-watchers will have to keep on their eyes on in over the next few years.


MTC said...

Robot Economist -

Are there any articles in the popular or online technical literature on the unreliability of the DF-31 and or CASIC's attempts to commercialize the KT-1? I have a problem understanding why Chinese researchers would put an experimental kill vehicle in the nose cone of an untested rocket, unless they had no other choice.

Robot Economist said...


Just to clarify a few things before I actually address your excellent question:

1) The DF-31 has been tested about a dozen times since 1992. The test results were a bit spotty at first, but they have improved with time. There are a number of question marks left hanging about its reliability though - mostly because the Chinese have delayed deployment of the missile a few times in the last 5-6 years.

2) The Kaituozhe-1 has been tested as well - once in 2002 (failed) and once in 2003 (supposedly succeeded). There are some questions about the 2003 test because of the ambiguous statement given by the Chinese government at the time, which was something along the lines of "this test meets the R&D standard."

3) I didn't confuse people by use the terms 'kill vehicle' and 'interceptor' so interchangably. Since this was a kinetic energy interceptor, the Chinese kill vehicle was probably just the final stage of the missile. They might have filled the nose cone with cement or gravel just to give it a little more impact strength.

In response to your comment, I have no idea why the Chinese opted to use DF-31 generation technology over the arguably more reliable DF-21. As far as I can tell, there is very little in the way of technical detail on either missile in the public sector. Finding reliable information on the Chinese military's deliberative process is even more rare.

Maybe they wanted further excuses to test the DF-31 and its component technologies?