China's apparent success in destroying its own weather satellite by a 'killer' weapon atop its ground-based ballistic missile has raised a major debate among military analysts on what it means, what message Beijing is trying to send and how should the United States respond.
Analysts and experts agree that Beijing is trying to challenge American supremacy in the space but also say that Washington has limited choices to react to the development, which has sent shock waves through China's neighbours, including Japan.
For one thing, this is first time that a ground-based missile has destroyed an orbiting satellite. The US had used air-launched missile to destroy satellites and the Soviet approach was orbiting the killer satellite. But earlier attempts to shoot down satellites from ground-based missiles had failed.
In interviews, experts could not agree or suggest any definitive solution on whether China should go ahead and expand the programme but suggestions included negotiating with Beijing to ban such weapons in the space to orbiting hundreds of smaller satellites so that shooting them becomes impossible.
In its analysis, Newsweek agrees that launching a larger number of satellites is an option but points out being able to launch replacement satellites quickly has been considered. However, producing and stockpiling enough spare payloads and boosters and then getting payload activated has proven to be an operational and engineering nightmare.
The American intelligence agencies believe that China launched the 'killer' rocket from its Xichang spaceport and guided it into a high-speed head-on collision. China has neither confirmed nor denied the test.
But the New York Times recalled that at the annual military fair in Zhuhai in November, the Guangdong-based newspaper Information Times and other State-run media had carried a short interview with an unidentified military official boasting that China had already completely ensured that it had second-strike capability. China could protect is retaliatory forces because it could destroy satellites in space.
Having a weapon that can disable or destroy satellites is considered a component of China's unofficial doctrine of asymmetrical warfare, The Times said, noting that
China's army strategists have written that the military intends to use relatively inexpensive but highly disruptive technologies to impede the better-equipped and better-trained American forces in the event of an armed conflict (over) Taiwan, for example.
The Times quotes Chong-Pin Lin, an expert on China's military in Taiwan as saying that this is the other face of China, the hard power side that they usually keep well hidden. They talk more about peace and diplomacy but the push to develop lethal, high-tech capabilities has not slowed down at all.
'The brazenness of this is a bit frightening,' it quoted Mike Green, former senior Bush administration Asia adviser, as saying. 'It shows that the Peoples Liberation Army has considerable leeway and a great deal of influence if not autonomy to increase their capacity even at considerable diplomatic cost.'