WASHINGTON – The United States criticized China on Thursday for conducting an anti-satellite weapons test in which an old Chinese weather satellite was destroyed by a missile.
The Bush administration has kept a lid on the test for a week as it weighs its significance. Analysts said China's weather satellites would travel at about the same altitude as U.S. spy satellites, so the test represented an indirect threat to U.S. defense systems.
"The United States believes China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "We and other countries have expressed our concern to the Chinese."
Japan, for example, demanded a full explanation from Beijing, Japan's top government spokesman said Friday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki also suggested that China's lack of transparency over its military development could trigger suspicions about its motives in the region.
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"From the viewpoint of the peaceful use of space and security, the Japanese government is naturally concerned about this act of destroying an artificial satellite with a ballistic missile," Shiozaki told reporters in Tokyo.
Kyodo News agency quoted Foreign Minister Taro Aso as saying Tokyo had received a message from Beijing saying the two countries "are in accord on the peaceful uses of space."
The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, told Congress last week in his annual threat address that China and Russia are the "primary states of concern" regarding military space programs.
"Several countries continue to develop capabilities that have the potential to threaten U.S. space assets, and some have already deployed systems with inherent anti-satellite capabilities, such as satellite-tracking laser range-finding devices and nuclear-armed ballistic missiles," he said in his written testimony on Jan. 11, the same day China's test was conducted.
The test, first reported by Aviation Week, destroyed the satellite by hitting it with a kinetic kill vehicle launched on board a ballistic missile.
In October, President Bush signed an order asserting the United States' right to deny adversaries access to space for hostile purposes. As part of the first revision of U.S. space policy in nearly 10 years, the policy also said the United States would oppose the development of treaties or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.
"Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power," the policy said. "In order to increase knowledge, discovery, economic prosperity and to enhance the national security, the United States must have robust, effective and efficient space capabilities."
Precisely what drove China to act now remains a mystery. But the United States has to figure out how to respond, said John Pike, a satellite expert at globalsecurity.org.
Since the mid-1980s, the United States has had the ability to take down satellites, but the Chinese don't have satellites worth attacking, Pike said. The United States may have to develop alternatives to its current spy satellites — perhaps stealthy satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles, which are harder to detect than the current well-established U.S. satellite network.
Reconnaissance satellites in low-Earth orbit — "eyes in the sky" — are essential to how the United States fights wars.
"Our space assets are the first asset on the scene," Pike said. "They are absolutely central to why we are a superpower — a signature component to America's style of warfare."
The Defense Department declined to comment on the test.
Adm. William Fallon, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, has spearheaded a major push to revive exchanges with the Chinese military. Ties soured after a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane in 2001.
Fallon has pushed ahead with the program, despite criticism inside the Pentagon. He believes that Chinese and U.S. officers need to understand each another better to avoid disastrous miscalculations.
Bush nominated Fallon this month to take over command of troops in the Middle East.
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