China already possessed certain capabilities for midcourse anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense, which is similar to anti-satellite in technology, as early as 2007, when a ground-based ABM successfully destroyed a decommissioned satellite in space.
PLA's strategic missile force, also know as the Second Artilery Force, launches a Dongfeng (DF) series missile in an exercises. [Photo/Xinhua]
Ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) is the system for intercepting incoming warheads in space – during the invading missile’s midcourse of flight. China, the United States and Japan are the only countries in the world to have had tests of this technology.
On January 27, after the country’s latest successful test of GMD within its borders, China reiterated the test was entirely defensive and meant not to target any other country.
GMD system consists of ground-based interceptor missiles, radars, and battle management command, control and communications (BMC3). The system will detect enemy ballistic missile in the boost phase and trace the missile warheads as they enter the space. Interceptor missiles will launch momentarily from the home silo following the command to destroy the enemy warheads prior to their re-entry phase.
ABM intercept technology has ground-based, sea-based and space-based programs in terms of the interceptor site. It also features defense targeting during the boost phase, or the reentry phase, of a missile’s trajectory.
Boost phase defense targets enemy missiles before they enter the space and before warheads are released; the altitude at the end of this phase is typically 150 to 400 km depending on the trajectory chosen. Re-entry phase defense targets the vehicle after it reenters the space and the warheads are about to impact targets. Midcourse defense, then, takes place between these two phases, intending to intercept the enemy vehicle during its flight in orbit space.
China’s latest successful GMD test not only showed it can and will defend its territory, but also serves as a balance to other missile defense technology systems worldwide.
Before China tested its GMD system, the United States was the only country who had developed such technology in a high-profile manner. The capability of GMD was also part of the U.S. Star Wars (Strategic Defense Initiative) program.
The technology had bottlenecked the U.S.’ first launch of the ground-based interceptor until Oct. 2, 1999, which was also known as the first flight interception test of National Missile Defense (NMD), and the first example of a true ground-based midcourse defense.
In that test, the U.S. military in Vandenberg Air Force Base, California launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as a target rocket. Then, some 7,000 km away at the U.S.' Kwajalein Missile Range in the Marshall Islands, an orbit interceptor missile was fired. The interceptor destroyed the imaginary enemy ICBM in space above the Pacific Ocean.
The U.S. military later conducted more than ten GMD tests, many of which ended in failure. Interceptor losing targets, and interceptor warheads failing to detach from booster have been the main problems.
ABM requires long term investment in research and development; besides, high costs and complex manufacturing process all make a massive deployment difficult, even for the financially abundant United States, which only maintains dozens of GMD interceptors in Vandenberg and Fort Greely, Alaska, to guard off ICBM threat from so-called “rogue states.”
On January 27, the U.S. also tested its GMD interceptor missile in Vandenberg. The interceptor completed scheduled maneuvers before flying into outer space. This non-intercept test was the first one after the NMD’s latest failure in December 2010.
China had a late start in constructing its missile defense system. In February 1964, Mao Zedong instructed Qian Xuesen, space and aeronautics expert, to develop the country’s missile defense network. “If five years aren’t enough, we take ten; if ten years aren’t enough, we take fifteen. We will have our own sooner or later,” Mao said at the time.
In October 1967, China mulled developing ABM interceptors with nuclear warheads, and hence tried to develop systems such as Counter Strike 1 and its updated versions, only to find all efforts rendered futile.
The later “863 Project” was also more a technological accumulation and feasibility research than an actual ABM defense development. But in doing so, China shored up component technologies including all-weather monitoring, detecting, early-warning and control, intelligence analysis, interceptor manufacturing, and C3I (Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence).
China’s ABM defense is primarily used to safeguard the country from enemy countries’ massive nuclear strikes. GMD, submarine-launched long-range missiles and ICBMs are the country’s major ABM defense frontline which also serves as a strategic nuclear deterrence.
China’s development in midcourse defense aims to improve the country’s nuclear force’s survivability after sustaining the enemy’s first round of nuclear strike, and therefore increasing counter-strike capabilities, and capability of deterrence.
Moreover, midcourse defense technology is similar to that in anti-satellite, meaning that such a defensive measure could also be used in preemptive strikes whenever necessary.
This article was first published in Chinese and translated by Chen Boyuan.
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.