Taipei - Confusion over the nature of China's Jan. 11 missile test is slowly clearing up, although experts still dispute whether it was designed to test missile interception technology, as reported by Xinhua, China's state news agency, or to expand anti-satellite capabilities.Sources believe the test involved an upgraded HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM) equipped with a new exoatmospheric kill vehicle for use as a ballistic missile defense or anti-satellite (ASAT) system. China's land-based and ship-based HQ-9 is a variant of the Russian S-300V SAM.
Pentagon sources have said "that it was an exoatmospheric test, which may fit with an unofficial Chinese interview where an unnamed colonel suggested that the test occurred above 20,000 meters," said Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.However, the HQ-9 variant launched Jan. 11 is believed to have been "co-developed or stolen from the Russian S-400 Triumf," said Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute.The timing of the test also came as a surprise, Dean said, since it was three years to the day that China conducted its first ASAT missile test in 2007."The Chinese are too crazy about the significance of dates and anniversaries for that to be a coincidence," Easton said.
The fact that the launch occurred on the anniversary of China's first ASAT missile test suggests it was hardly just a ballistic missile defense (BMD) effort alone, but part of a larger effort to expand ASAT capabilities.The 2007 ASAT test involved a modified KT-1/2 or DF-21 missile derivative dubbed the SC-19. The SC-19 is difficult to use and requires 12 hours of preparation, so it would not be "useful as a ballistic missile interceptor," Easton said. "That's why the HQ-9 system is interesting as an intercept option, but still not much is known about it."The implications of this test are potentially huge," he said. It "definitely represents a big leap in military technology for China." Only the United States and Japan, with U.S. assistance, have "ever tested this kind of thing, and it's considered cutting edge even by us.
"Being able to do a kinetic kill that high up outside the atmosphere shows that they've also made some great leaps in sensing, cueing and guidance technology, not to mention the extreme challenge of programming software and the advanced algorithms behind it. Incredible," he said.However, there are still fears the missile test was an attempt to expand China's ASAT capabilities. A mobile ASAT missile deployed on a truck or ship could be potentially devastating for the U.S. military.While the Chinese media have been portraying the Jan. 11 launch as a focus on missile defense, it could have been a next-generation test for an upgraded ASAT missile.
"After all, a missile is harder to hit than a satellite, and if they did have the sensor network to track and go after ballistic missiles, they could certainly hit satellites," Easton said."This is interesting because our birds [satellites] would presumably change orbits to avoid attack in times of tension, and in the future, we will be launching smaller satellites and manned or unmanned space planes, as well as global strike unmanned combat aerial vehicles to deal with China," he said. "From the Chinese perspective, this 'interceptor' technology could be a means for dealing with all of these threats as well as an ASAT weapon in its own right."
According to Mark Stokes, author of the book, "China's Strategic Modernization," "Beijing's goal ostensibly is both to develop missile defense countermeasures to ensure the viability of its nuclear deterrent and to develop an indigenous missile defense capability."A missile defense capability, especially one that is able to intercept missiles in the midcourse phase of flight, has applications for intercepting satellites overflying China as well," he said.Stokes also pointed to concerns over China's development of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) based on the DF-21 missile. A combined ASAT, ASBM and BMD capability would place China in a respectable position to counter U.S. military operations during a war.However, despite U.S. fears, it appears the only true ballistic missile threat to China is from India. The United States, Japan and Taiwan do not rely on ballistic missiles for their main defensive operations, save U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles that entail a different kind of threat, Cheng said."But it would apply to the Indian short-range, medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile forces, as well as the Russians, who still retain a variety of missiles as well," he said.Also of concern is the fact that a vertical-launched HQ-9 SAM variant is fielded on two Chinese Type 052C destroyers. An upgraded model that has ASAT or BMD capabilities similar to the U.S. Navy's Standard Missile-3 would be problematic for both India and the United States.