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HASC Subcommittee Chairman Demands Answers on Alleged Chinese ASAT Test

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jun-2013
Updated: 05-Jun-2013 01:03 PM

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday demanding information on a Chinese rocket launch last month that some press reports alleged was a test of an antisatellite (ASAT) system.

Forbes chairs the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.   In the June 3 letter, Forbes says that the Department of Defense (DOD) confirmed the May 13, 2013 launch of a Chinese missile "nearly to geosynchronous orbit" and quotes Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as characterizing it as the world's highest suborbital launch since 1976 and the highest altitude reached by a Chinese suborbital rocket. 

McDowell is author of the highly respected Jonathan's Space Report (JSR).  His May 21, 2013 JSR quotes a Department of Defense (DOD) source as using the "nearly to geosynchronous orbit" phrase and does not present his own estimate of the rocket's highest point (apogee).   In fact, he cautions that if DOD "only tracked it early in flight with resulting large apogee uncertainties, they may be prone to getting the answer they expected."   He does note that it would be the highest suborbital launch since Gravity Probe A in 1976 and possibly since Blue Scout Jr O-2 in 1961, but does not compare it to other Chinese suborbital launches.  He concludes that "It is indeed possible that this launch was to qualify a new launch vehicle variant intended to carry a high altitude ASAT payload -- but there's no evidence that such a payload was carried on this particular flight."  Absent more information from DOD or China "It is hard to draw firm conclusions," he says. 

Getting more information is exactly what Forbes wants to do.  His letter asks Hagel to brief him with the answers to six questions:

  • Was the launch part of China's antisatellite program?
  • If so, did the launch test a new or existing antisatellite capability?
  • If this is a new antisatellite capability, what type of attack mechanism  is it designed to employ ....?
  • If this is a new antisatellite capability, in what orbital regime is it designed to target satellites?
  • If the launch was part of China's antisatellite program, why did China attempt to disguise it as a scientific experiment?  Has the Department of Defense raised this issue with the Chinese government?
  • What are China's current and projected abilities to target U.S. satellites ....  How does the Department of Defense plan to mitigate China's counterspace capabilities?

The letter did not set a deadline for the requested briefing.

Clarification:  An earlier version of this article cited McDowell as saying that if the Chinese rocket "did reach that altitude, it would be the highest suborbital launch since Gravity Probe A in 1976."   McDowell's exact words in his May 21 JSR are: "This is the highest altitude suborbital flight since Gravity Probe A in 1976, and possibly since Blue Scout Jr O-2 in 1961."   We have modifed the text in this article  accordingly because, in a June 5 email to this editor, McDowell clarifies that if the rocket reached 10,000 kilometers, the highest altitude mentioned by the Chinese (where they said they conducted a barium release for scientific purposes), it might be the highest since Gravity Probe A in 1976.  However, if it reached "nearly to geosynchronous Earth orbit" as DOD claims, it might be the highest since 1961 although the phrase "nearly GEO" is difficult to interpret.  Geosynchronous orbit itself is at 35,780 kilometers, but "nearly" is a subjective term.


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