Good news: Chinese satellite killer might have been rogue operation

I saw this story at the Times this morning and didn’t give it a second thought. An authoritarian regime with less than complete oversight of its most sensitive weapons? It smelled like undistilled spin cooked up by the U.S. to defuse the tension by absolving the Chinese government of responsibility.

Defense Tech and Global Security think it might be true, though, which presumably means we now find ourselves facing a nuclear power whose ballistic missile experts are firing rockets into space unbeknownst to the nation’s leaders.

What could go wrong?

Eh, I’m still skeptical. Knowing what the consequences are in China for disobedience, would the leaders of the missile program really be willing to take the initiative? Particularly when there appears to be less to the test than first met the eye? Via DT, former NASA scientist James Oberg thinks the Chinese aren’t quite yet a threat to America’s birds in the upper atmosphere. I leave you with a quote:

The Chinese targeted a low-orbiting, obsolete, weather satellite, where the kinetic kill energy was very great. However, the really strategic satellites fly much higher — the [GPS] navigation network is 20 000 km up… [T]he orbital velocities [there] are so much lower that the impact energy would be only about a tenth as high as in last week’s test.

Distance introduces a second burden: terminal navigation. When a target satellite is close to the Earth, ground radars can track it and relay final course corrections, both to the rocket during its ascent and to the kill vehicle, once it has been deployed on its hoped-for collision course. Radar operates at an inverse fourth power law, which means that for the Chinese system to aim many times farther than low Earth orbit—as it would have to do to track objects geosynchronously—the demands on a ground-based radar would be simply impossible…

Nor are space targets helpless victims to such kinetic kill attacks, especially at higher altitudes… [A] target satellite can take steps to interfere with the attacker obtaining a workable targeting solution, and the farther from Earth the attack occurs, the more the odds favor the target.

Objects can hide in space, to a greater or lesser degree, by lowering their radar reflectivity or optical brightness along the attacker’s expected line of approach. This makes terminal navigation and guidance more difficult. That effect can be augmented with decoys, which can either be deployed when an attack is detected or can be sent, as a matter of routine, to fly in formation with the high-value target.

Plenty more at the link.