WASHINGTON (CNN) — China last week successfully used a missile to destroy an orbiting satellite, U.S. government officials told CNN on Thursday, in a test that could undermine relations with the West and pose a threat to satellites important to the U.S. military.
According to a spokesman for the National Security Council, the ground-based, medium-range ballistic missile knocked an old Chinese weather satellite from its orbit about 537 miles above Earth. The missile carried a “kill vehicle” and destroyed the satellite by ramming it.
This is important news, though I seriously doubt it will garner the headlines it should.
Here’s why it’s important.
Low Earth-orbit satellites have become indispensable for U.S. military communications, GPS navigation for smart bombs and troops, and for real-time surveillance. The Chinese test highlights the satellites’ vulnerability.
“If we, for instance, got into a conflict over Taiwan, one of the first things they’d probably do would be to shoot down all of our lower Earth-orbit spy satellites, putting out our eyes,” said John Pike of globalsecurity.org, a Web site that compiles information on worldwide security issues.
“The thing that is surprising and disturbing is that [the Chinese] have chosen this moment to demonstrate a military capability that can only be aimed at the United States,” he said.
China has, for a few years, been quietly building a vibrant space program. They have already stated the goal of putting at least a semi-permanent base on the moon. They aren’t playing around with this and they have an economy that, if it can’t now, will very soon be able to handle the expense of an extensive space program.
America, on the other hand, does not have a vibrant space program. We have absolutely no way right now to get any human being to the moon. We have no man-rated space craft besides the antiquated and incredibly expensive Space Shuttle. We have not had a human being any higher than low-Earth orbit in decades.
And we have nothing that can stop the Chinese satellite-killing missiles. So, if the Chinese decide to knock out our spy satellites, we couldn’t stop them. They could destroy our entire Global Positioning Satellite system as well. And, if they ever wanted to do so, they could obliterate the International Space Station.
That ought to give us pause. We are vulnerable, in another important way, to a nation that is increasingly turning its gaze outwards. What it sees is a world poorly-equipped to stop it should it ever decide to flex its military muscle. This test was a very clear message that China is going to become a strong power in space and there’s little we can do to stop them right now. That should be an unacceptable position for us to be in.