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Chinese Ballistic Missile Early Warning

The super-secretive Communications Engineering Test Satellite -1 (TXJSSY-1) was launched by China from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on 12 September 2015. Launch of the spacecraft took place at 15:42 UTC using a Long March-3B (Chang Zheng-3B) rocket. There was very little information regarding the satellite, with an announcement only provided to the Chinese media – controlled by the Chinese government.

Rumors initially suggested that this launch involved the first Great Wall (Changcheng) satellite – a new series of Chinese satellites dedicated to early warning similar to the American Space Based Infra-Red Sensor satellites. Xinhua reported that the satellite will be "used to perform tests on the Ka frequency band in broadband communications". It is difficult to separate rumors with some foundations from wild allegations and conspiracy theories.

Japan’s Kyodo News reported that China was building a missile defense system to detect a ballistic missile attack. The Kyodo News report was based on Chinese military documents that referred the development of an experimental early warning satellite program. Additionally the report pointed out that China had started the development of an X-band radar system as part of a ground-based interceptor system.

Missile tracking operations contribute to the ability to provide warning of ballistic missile launches. The American missile warning mission uses a mix of space-based and terrestrial sensors. Missile warning includes the notification to national leaders of a missile attack against North America, as well as attacks against multinational partners. It also includes notification to multinational partners and forward deployed personnel of missile attack. There is no room for error in missile warning for homeland defense; therefore, all information provided must be timely, accurate, and unambiguous.

A well-organized missile warning system structure allows commanders to maximize detection and warning of inbound ballistic missiles, thereby ensuring effective passive defense, active defense, and attack operations. Missile warning systems process raw sensor data into missile warning reports and disseminate the information to users globally. Missile warning consists of multiple ground and space-based systems located worldwide.

With the beginning of the Cold War, American defense experts and political leaders began planning and implementing a defensive air shield, which they believed was necessary to defend against a possible attack by long-range, manned Soviet bombers. The US Air Force soon developed and operated an extensive early warning radar sites and systems which acted as “trip wire” against air attack. During the 1960s and 1970s, the USSR focused on creating intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles and developed an anti-satellite capability. The northern radar-warning networks could not only [be] outflanked but literally jumped over.

In response, the USAF built a space-surveillance and missile-warning system to provide worldwide space detection and tracking and to classify activity and objects in space. Defense Support Program satellites use an infrared sensor to detect heat from missile or booster plumes against the relatively cool background of the Earth's surface. These satellites have provided uninterrupted warning since the early 1970s when they were first launched into a 22,000-mile geosynchronous orbit. These satellites were designed to detect strategic ballistic missiles in the early stage of launch of their flights.

American space-based sensors, such as Defense Support Program and space-based infrared system, usually provide the first level of immediate missile detection. Some satellite sensors also accomplish nuclear detonation detection. Ground-based radars provide follow-on information on launches and confirmation of strategic attack. The majority of their day-to- day mission is space surveillance; however, the radars are always scanning the horizon for incoming missiles.

The Soviet Union followed a generally similar trajectory, though lagging the United States in the devvelopment of space based systems. The United Kingdom might be thought to have relied on the United States. The US exchanges missile detection and warning information with its multinational partners. The objective of SEW is the continuous exchange of missile early warning information derived from US missile early warning sensors.

Other nuclear weapon states, from France to North Korea, appear to have decided that they had no doctrinal imperative for such eleborate situation awareness. Small nuclear aresenals imply a relatively simple retaliatory doctrine, and presumably no great imagination would be required to understand that a nuclear attack had taken place and that a retlilatory strike was called for.

Dean Cheng noted in 2009 that "Space systems, by virtue of their location, provide unrivaled early detection and tracking of ballistic missiles throughout their flight. At a minimum, then, they can provide prompt warning of enemy ballistic missile attacks. With sufficient refinement, they can also assist missile defense forces by predicting both missile flight paths and impact points. At this time, however, according to available open source data, there is no evidence of a Chinese missile early warning satellite..."

Mark A. Stokes and Dean Cheng wrote in April 2012 that "No firm evidence exists that China has deployed a space-based ballistic missile early warning capability. However, a technical foundation exists: for example, with infrared sensors associated with the FY weather satellite program. The SJ-7 satellite, designed and developed by SAST’s 509 Research Institute and launched on a SAST-manufactured LM-2D from Jiuquan on July 6, 2005, has been cited as an experimental platform to test pushbroom and mercury-cadmium-telluride (HgCdTe) infrared sensor arrays. Also equipped with a star sensor for precise attitude control, the SJ-7 took only 33 months to design and develop from its initiation in August 2002. The CAS Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics is said to have developed the infrared sensors."

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