The Chinese test of an
anti-satellite satellite weapon last January may have appeared as a startling
demonstration of how China could wipe out American spy satellites. In reality,
it just shows that China is several decades behind the United States when it
comes to war in space. Using satellites to destroy other satellites is very old
school. In the 1980s, the United States developed missiles, launched by high
flying fighters, to knock down spy satellites. In the late 1990s, the U.S.
developed stealthy satellites. And currently, America has pushed
micro-satellites (each weighing a few hundred pounds) that can be used either
for anti-satellite work, or to replace satellites destroyed by the Chinese. A
dozen or more micro-satellites can be put in orbit with one launcher, or a
smaller number by using an ICBM. There are over a hundred American military
satellites up there, and Chinas current technology requires one satellite
launcher or ICBM for each attack on an American satellite. Do the math.
China customarily develops technology by proceeding
through all the phases previous developers have taken. Rather than leapfrogging
to launching anti-satellite missiles from high altitudes, or developing
micro-satellites, China has taken the slower, and more instructive, route. So
the Chinese test did not demonstrate a dangerous capability, just that the
Chinese had started a long climb up the experience curve.