US says China conducted secret anti-satellite weapons test

China is developing its ability to destroy satellites in orbit, which undermines stability in space, say State Department officials.

The Chinese military recently conducted an anti-satellite missile test under the guise of testing its ballistic missile defense system, according to State Department officials, who urged China to end its anti-satellite efforts.

State Department officials are confident the “non-destructive” test took place July 23, as reported by Space News.

“We call on China to refrain from destabilizing actions — such as the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems — that threaten the long term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend,” a State spokesman told Space News. “The United States continuously looks to ensure its space systems are safe and resilient against emerging space threats.”

Meanwhile, Xinhua, China’s state-operated news agency, reported that the Chinese military had conducted a land-based missile interception test that had “attained preset objectives.” No other information about the operation was provided to the news agency.

The distinction between the two kinds of tests is becoming increasingly blurry as China attempts to conceal its anti-satellite efforts, according to The Diplomat. China is thought to have used the same SC-19 missile for both anti-ballistic missile and anti-satellite tests, and the objective of each program is similar – both are attempting to hit and kill high-speed, high-altitude targets.

China also traditionally handles public relations differently depending on the types of tests. Ballistic missile tests tend to be more public, while anti-satellite tests are either not announced or described as scientific tests. The most recent test and announcement suggests that the two missions are being viewed more similarly.

China demonstrated its anti-satellite capabilities in 2007 with the planned destruction of one of its old weather satellites using a medium range ballistic missile. The test resulted in what is now viewed as the most prolific and severe fragmentation in the history of space operations, and was harshly criticized by many nations.

Concerns over threats to U.S. military space assets have continued to grow as have efforts to mitigate possible damage to space networks.

The recent test would have coincided with the Air Force’s planned launch, originally set for July 23, of two space surveillance satellites and one experimental satellite. The two surveillance satellites are part of the Air Force’s Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, which is designed to increase space situational awareness by tracking and characterizing orbiting objects.

After several days of delays, the Air Force satellites were finally launched on July 28.

Described as providing a “space neighborhood watch capability,” the GSSAP program is intended to improve collision avoidance, as well as detect threats, according to Air Force officials.