China's Space Shot

The space shot fired by China earlier this month has rattled windows in defense ministries and foreign offices from Washington to Tokyo to Moscow and beyond.

The Chinese secretly launched a missile on Jan. 11 to destroy one of its own aging weather satellites 500 miles into space. News of the shot was leaked to the authoritative magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology, whose reporters have cultivated sources in the Defense Department and intelligence agencies for decades.

That immediately set off a furor by governments wanting the Chinese to disclose what they were up to. The Chinese government, evidently surprised by the reaction, stumbled and mumbled for several days before confirming the shot but downplayed its importance.

Diplomats and security officials in other capitals seem less than reassured. Taken together, they have pointed to five consequences:

— U.S. military communications and intelligence gathering, which have become highly dependent on satellites, are more vulnerable than previously thought.

— China's space program, which is given high priority, is more advanced than had been believed because hitting a satellite requires considerable sophistication.

— China's and space achievements add to what the Chinese call their "comprehensive national power," which includes economic, scientific, and military strength.

— Several American, Japanese, and other leaders asserted that the Chinese anti-satellite mission may help set off an arms race in space, a contention the Chinese denied.

— China's space program has long been a source of nationalistic pride as, in Chinese eyes, it shows that China is catching up with the industrial nations.

A white paper on space published by Beijing in October said that space was "a strategic way to enhance its economic, scientific, technological, and national defense strength, as well as a cohesive force for the unity of the Chinese people."

An episode during the war in Iraq illuminates the dependence of the US armed forces on satellites. James Kitfield, a correspondent who wrote a book about Iraq entitled "War and Destiny," reported that tanks of the 7th Cavalry Regiment got bogged down in a blinding sandstorm and fell into an Iraqi tank ambush.

Far above the fray, a Global Hawk drone sent radar probes through the storm and beamed pictures of the Iraqis by satellite to a base in California from which they were relayed to photo interpreters in Nevada. Their intelligence assessments were streamed by satellite back to a command center in Saudi Arabia from which a strike order went to a bomber over Iraq.

Within minutes of detection, precision-guided bombs hurtled through the sandstorm. "The Iraqi armored formation below," Kitfield wrote, "would never have time to ponder how it had been so mercilessly exposed beneath the cover of a seemingly impenetrable storm at night."

An experienced China watcher says the Chinese are keen observers of U.S. satellite usage. A Chinese article said U.S. armed forces relied on 52 satellites in the Gulf War, on 86 in operations in Kosovo, and over 100 in the Iraq war. Another Chinese report says that, in Iraq, 95 percent of U.S. intelligence relies on satellites, 90 percent of communications and 100 percent for navigation.

China's space program started shortly after the communists led by Mao Zedong took control of the country in 1949. Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1962 and the repressive Great Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1969 derailed the program to some extent. Somewhere along the line, however, the Chinese began to forge an anti-satellite capability.

The October white paper reported on China's achievements in space over the last five years, including the launch of 22 different types of satellites, 46 launches of "Long March" missiles, three launch sites built, and satellite-based telemetry expanded.

Perhaps most important, China became the third country, after the U.S. and Russia, to send men into space. The spacecraft Shenzhou VI, with two astronauts aboard, completed a five-day flight in October 2005.

For the next five years, the white paper set out an ambitious program that includes building a new generation of rockets, developing a high-resolution system to observe the Earth, launching direct TV broadcasting satellites to reach remote areas of China, and improving its navigation satellites.

The regime in Beijing, which rarely misses a chance to justify itself before the Chinese people, claimed repeatedly in the white paper that China had accomplished this by itself under the guidance of the Communist Party. "For a half century," the paper exclaimed, "China has worked independently ...and...has made eye-catching achievements."