Why use a Rock when you can use a Nuke?

There is a fair amount in the news about the Chinese knocking a satellite out of orbit. I have to say that I am surprised that I have not seen any conservative bloggers getting all hysterical about this yet.

Maybe I just read all the wrong blogs, I don’t know.

In truth this ought to be a non-story. The Chinese have had nukes and ballistic missiles for a long time now. And unless I am even more ignorant then I think I am, that is all you need to clear out almost all the satellites from the skies.

After all, very few satellites can put up with a nuke going off in their neighborhood. So all the Chinese have to do to take down satellites is to send a few nukes up. After they went off, there would not be much left of the US space infrastructure.

Frankly, it seems awfully inefficient to knock out one satellite kinetically. As I understand it, a big part of a satellite’s cost is just getting it up there in the first place. And you have to pay launch costs no matter if you are putting a satellite up or a rock to knock out that satellite.

According to this article it cost 20 million just to get something into orbit in 2004. Now I am sure that the Chinese military does not have to pay that much. Still, it can’t be cheap even for them. Otherwise they would have a lot more ICBM’s in their arsenal. So I tend to think that this little stunt should be put in the same category as when the Chinese put a man into orbit. It’s more about looking cool and proving you can do it then anything of a practical nature.

One thing people should be keeping in mind though, is how pathetic the US military is with out its electronic warfare toys. As this Time article notes….

The U.S. dependence on its technological edge is considerable: Green explains that in recent joint exercises held with the Indian Air Force, less technologically advanced Russian Sukhoi jets defeated American F-15s when the latter were deprived of support from satellite and AWACs systems.

So if the Chinese are technically advanced enough to destroy a satellite kinetically, what else can they do to deprive the US of their electronic warfaretoys?

The Chief pontificated about this issue awhile ago in his first essay. Though he was not focused on the Chinese….

4 Responses to “Why use a Rock when you can use a Nuke?”

  1. ech says:

    “According to this article it cost 20 million just to get something into orbit in 2004. Now I am sure that the Chinese military does not have to pay that much. Still, it can’t be cheap even for them.”

    Well, for one thing, you don’t need to get to orbit to kill an orbiting satellite, you can go on a ballistic path that intersects the orbit. The US anti-satellite weapon did this and was pretty small and could have been pretty cheap if mass produced. Remember that ICBMs don’t put warheads into orbit.

  2. Ape Man says:


    I am not sure what your point is. ICBM’s don’t put warheads into orbit, but they do put satellites into orbit. Most (all?) of the rockets that are used to put Satellites into orbit were originally designed to be an ICBM. From what I have read, the Chinese used an ICBM to knock out a satellite.

    I completely agree with your point that there are plenty of cheap ways of knocking a Satellite out of orbit. But from all the news reports I have read, the Chinese did not use one.

    Ape Man

  3. ech says:

    You mentioned launch costs to orbit as a constraining economic factor for ASATs and ICBMs. Neither has to go into orbit. ICBMs are, in fact, harder to build (as a total system) than an orbital launcher, as the guidance system for the warhead is much more complicated. This is probably the reason the Chinese are not deploying more. (There is also the command and control problem a large missile force has.)

    The Time article has a couple of errors of fact and of omission. The USSR’s ASAT did not use a nuclear weapon, it was similar to the Chinese system, a co-orbiting system that used explosives/ramming. It was operational and several tests conducted. The US system was air-launched from F-15s, a cheaper and more sophisticated system.

    Also, the US vs. India dogfights were not against old Russian jets, but the latest, and were against F-15s and F-16s. The US was also not allowed to use the AAMRAM radar missile, our best weapon, and had to fall back on short range dogfighting. Lack of AWACS and satellites had little to do with it. (See Strategy Page, http://www.strategypage.com/dls/articles/20051231235130.asp)

    Finally, many but not all orbital launchers are derived from ICBMs. The US has used a mix of vehicles. The older Redstone, Atlas and Titan had direct ICBM heritage. The Saturn V used for Apollo was a new design, as was the Space Shuttle. The latest US launchers, the Delta and Atlas, are essentially new designs with little in common with their ICBM predecessors. The Taurus, Pegasus, Athena, Ariane, and some other launchers (Japan’s, e.g.) have no ICBM heritage. I think all the Russian launchers have ICBM heritage.

  4. Mark says:

    A nuke (or conventional explosive) wouldn’t explode spectacularly in a vaccum the way it does on earth; there is no atmosphere to form a fireball or shock wave.

    The main effect of a nuke would be the EMP which would certainly knock out a satellite, but also all of the electronic equipment on the earth below for 100’s of miles.

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