Sunday, January 17, 2010

China’s Missile Defense Interceptor Program: An Independent Chinese Analysis

China’s successful exo-atmospheric interception of a ballistic missile on January 11, 2010 marked a major milestone in a long term program with roots in the 1980s. Taking place three years to the day after the successful intercept of an aging satellite in low earth orbit, details of the recent test are scarce and likely will be for some time.

However, a well regarded independent Chinese military-technical analyst, known as KKTT, published a detailed analysis on a national bulletin board site (BBS) site the day following the announcement of the test. In an article entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of China’s Ground-Based Mid-Course Missile Defense Interceptor Technology Test” (我国陆基中段反导拦截技术试验初步分析), the author appears to be not only informing his domestic audience what the test represents and what it doesn’t, but also communicating an implicit message to foreign audiences: the test is modest, legitimate, and not necessarily containing a political message. Following is a summary of the article, which appears to be the most detailed assessment of China’s missile defense program to date.

The Rationale for Missile Defense

The author begins with an assessment of four drivers or characteristics of a missile defense program scaled to protect against ballistic missiles with a range of 3500 kilometers or less:

Neutral Effect on Strategic Stability. A missile defense system is not intended to affect strategic stability with the United States and Russia. An ability to undercut the ballistic missile capabilities of the major nuclear powers is unrealistic. According to the author, an assured second strike capability will remain the bedrock of China’s nuclear deterrent.

Defense against Small Nuclear States With Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles. A missile defense capability would be reasonable as a hedge against smaller nuclear powers, such as India. Citing the Agni III program, the author asserts that India has linked ballistic missile development programs with China.

Support for Local Conventional Warfare. If Taiwan develops ballistic missiles, and with “independence elements” threatening to strike the Three Gorges Dam, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, then missile defenses are needed.

Point Defense Against Conventional Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles. The author cites discussions in the U.S. to field a conventionally armed submarine launched ballistic missile intended to go after hard buried targets, such as command centers.

While advocating defenses against ballistic missiles with a range of 3500 kilometers or less, KKTT acknowledges the possibility of fielding a system capable of intercepting ICBMs operating at higher velocities over the longer term.

Roots in the 640 Program and U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative

After a general discussion regarding basic missile defense technologies, the author caveats that his analysis is pieced together from publicly available sources within China and its accuracy not guaranteed.

With China’s efforts to develop a missile defense interceptor and ASAT in the 1960s establishing a foundation, preliminary research on a kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) began in the wake of the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) announcement in March 1983. As China’s answer to the SDI, the 863 Program “advanced defense” focus area included direct ascent ASAT and missile defense interceptor programs (specifically 863-409). [NOTE: The earlier effort was known as the 640 Program, which was cancelled in the 1970s. Other focus areas within the 863-4XX series include high power laser and high powered microwave].

The program remained in the preliminary research phase of the research and development (R&D) cycle until the mid-1990s. The specific basic technologies included a digital closed loop fiber optic gyroscope, binary optical/mid-wave infrared seeker, restartable attitude/orbital control system, and “thrust precision control.” The Second Academy overcame a technical bottleneck in 1999 when it did its first “suspension” (悬浮) test of the KKV, the second country in the world to do so.

When the 863 Program was restructured in 2002, the KT-409 interceptor project transitioned from the preliminary research to the R&D phase in 2002. R&D was divided into two focus areas: 863-801 and 863-805, with the latter including an ASAT test as an intermediate milestone in the KKV program.

The author asserts that the KKV weighes 35 kilograms, as compared to 60kg for the U.S. Ground Based Interceptor and 18kg for Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). The PLA General Armaments Department (GAD) is said to have awarded a prize to designers of the 35kg KKV in 2000 for overcoming technical obstacles. {NOTE: While not explicit, a possible connection may exist between the 35kg KKV and China’s microsatellite and nanosatellite buses.}


The author indicates that testing on sub-systems began as early as 2003. The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) 066 Base and Sixth Academy were responsible for developing the solid rocket motors for a three-stage solid launch vehicle to be used in ASAT and missile defense interceptor tests. The 066 Base is said to have overseen the first test of a modified solid rocket motor in 2003. {NOTE: Under normal circumstances, the CASIC Sixth Academy is responsible for solid motors with a diameter less than 2 meters. Other sources indicate that the solid motor used in the missile defense interceptor is a variant of DF-21’s FG-05 (FG-5D). The FG-05D supposedly uses a lighter weight composite material in the motor casing, thus increasing its strength to weight ratio.}

Integrated ASAT flight tests were conducted from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center on July 7, 2005 and February 6, 2006. With these first two tests proving unsuccessful, a third test from Xichang space launch center on January 11, 2007 intercepted its intended target. Members of the Central Military Commission (CMC) visited Xichang and awarded the designers with one of China’s highest technical honors. After the ASAT test, the Second Academy conducted a strategy review session, redesignated the KT-409 interceptor as the HQ-19, and began plans for testing against a ballistic missile target.

The author asserts that preparations for the missile defense test appeared to be underway since early December 2009, with no connection with Taiwan arms sales-related contract announcements. The author assesses the target missile – DF-3 or DF-21 – was launched from Taiyuan Space Launch Center. The interceptor was launched from the Korla area in Xinjiang, with impact in the vicinity of the Gansu-Xinjiang border. The flight profile of the target was basic and more increasingly stressful testing is to be expected. The test allegedly was supported by a new phased array radar in the Korla area (+41° 38' 28.17", +86° 14' 11.98"), which was under construction in 2004. The Korla radar is said to support the PLA General Armaments Department (GAD) 20 Base. {NOTE: See Google Earth image of the new Korla radar above.}

The Missile Defense/ASAT Senior Design Team

The author assesses that Chen Dingchang (陈定昌) serves as chief designer of the ASAT/missile defense system. Born in Shanghai in 1937, Chen Dingchang is a graduate of the Tsinghua University and was trained briefly in the former Soviet Union. Leading the Second Academy’s design department when the 863 Program began, Chen was promoted to the Second Academy directorship in 1990. He subsequently directed the China Aerospace Mechanical and Electronics Corporation (CAMEC) (now CASIC). In addition to serving as a member of CASIC’s S&T Committee, Chen directs the General Armaments Department (GAD) Precision Guidance Expert Group (总装备部精确制导专业组). {Click here for more background on Chen Dingchang.}

Zhang Yiqun (张奕群) is said to be the deputy chief designer for the KKV sub-system. Zhang is from the Second Academy’s Second Design Department. A senior designer from the CASIC Fourth Academy’s Fourth Design Department, Zheng Chenghuo (郑盛火), is said to be leading the development of the solid launch vehicle sub-system.

KKTT concludes with an assertion that the interceptor is only one part of a broader system, including space surveillance and tracking and national and operational-level command and control systems. The PLA Air Force has been pressing on the need to integrate air and space defense, but no decision has been made regarding subordination of a missile defense system.

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