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The Chinese satellite destruction: What's next?

ASK THIS | February 09, 2007

The militarization of space has already happened but weaponization of space hasn't. Pentagon planners have long talked of dominating space; did the Chinese play into their hands?

Q. Why has the United States been blocking arms control in space?  Doesn’t the U.S., with its heavy dependence on space satellites, have the most to lose?

Q. There’s a long history of American and Russian shoot-downs of satellites. Why the outcry over the Chinese destroying their own weather satellite?

Q. And why did the Chinese conduct this test?

By Philip E. Coyle

The Chinese anti-satellite test on Jan. 11, 2007, has stirred up the American media and the U.S. Congress.  In this test, China launched an anti-satellite missile and hit a seven-year old Chinese weather satellite, the Feng Yun 1C, in polar orbit, at an altitude of 530 miles. According to Aviation Week, which first reported the test, the attack occurred as the weather satellite passed over the Xichang Space Center, a major Chinese space launch center.

Hundreds of news articles have decried the Chinese test, and California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is running for President, has called for the United States to build a system to pulverize enemy missiles launched toward U.S. space assets – not only military satellites, but U.S. commercial satellites as well.

Arizona Sen. John Kyl urges the U.S. Missile Defense Agency to begin building a space-based test bed which would include both kinetic and directed-energy components, saying, "The best way to protect our satellites...is to ensure that the [enemy] missiles never leave the atmosphere.”

Not mentioned as often is that the United States and Russia have conducted dozens of anti-satellite tests, going back to the early 1960s. In 1985, the United States Air Force destroyed a U.S. Solwind satellite with a two-stage air-to-space missile fired from an F-15A Eagle jet fighter as it zoomed to 80,000 feet, a test which demonstrated that anti-satellite weapons could be launched from aircraft. As recently as 1997, the Pentagon conducted an ASAT test using a ground-based laser which showed that even a relatively low power laser can temporarily blind a satellite.

Considering this long history, why has there been such an outcry over this recent Chinese test?

Space Junk

For one thing, space is more crowded than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Not only are there over 800 actively functioning satellites on orbit of which the U.S. accounts for slightly over half, but today there are about 18,000 pieces of space garbage bigger than an orange whizzing around out in space, about 10,000 of those in Low Earth Orbit (or up to roughly 1,200 miles in altitude). The recent Chinese test smashed their weather satellite into a multitude of new space junk. Many operational satellites will now pass through this new debris field, including some of China’s own satellites. The new debris could damage operational satellites, puncture solar arrays, and even threaten the International Space Station.

Worse still, as the amount of space junk grows, some scientists predict a cascading effect where new debris could collide with older space junk. This chances setting off a kind of chain reaction that threatens to wreck nearby satellites.

But China knew all this and conducted its test anyway. According to an unnamed U.S. official as reported by CNN, the Chinese had tried on three prior occasions and failed each time before finally achieving their successful intercept on Jan. 11.

Why did China conduct this test and does it mean a new arms race in space?

U.S. Space Domination Policies

In effect, responding to years of sword rattling by the United States, with this test China said to the United States, “Wait a minute.  Not so fast.”

For the past six years, the Pentagon and the U.S. military have been touting a muscular policy of space dominance and space superiority to control space.  The U.S. Space Command Joint Vision 2020 of 2000 puts it succinctly, “Robust capabilities to ensure space superiority must be developed just as they have been for land, sea, and air.”

To illustrate this policy, the Joint Vision 2020 document uses an artist’s rendition of a massive space-based, high-power laser zapping Iran.

The Pentagon visualizes space as a platform for prompt global strike capabilities that could threaten the entire world.  As explained in the Air Force Space Command Strategic Master Plan for FY-06 and beyond, “A viable, prompt global strike capability, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, will allow the US to rapidly and accurately strike distant high-payoff, difficult-to-defeat targets. This capability provides the US with the flexibility to employ innovative strategies to counter adversary anti-access and area denial strategies. Such a capability will provide warfighting commanders the ability to rapidly deny, delay, deceive, disrupt, destroy, exploit, and neutralize targets in hours/minutes, even when US and allied forces have a limited forward presence.”

The Threat

The path to devoting significant U.S. military resources to space control was established in early 2001 by the first Rumsfeld Commission Report with its apocalyptic warnings of a "Space Pearl Harbor."

Kahlil Gibran said that the fear of need is greater than the need itself, and today, Pentagon planners take this type of hand-wringing threat for granted, as though it already exists, and that war in space is just as "inevitable" as war on land, sea, and in the skies.

The Pentagon isn’t content without a good threat, and the Chinese ASAT test played right into their hands, especially the U.S. Air Force which can now use this test to claim that the U.S. faces an urgent threat in space, a threat that current defense budgets do not adequately address. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, it was China’s gift to the Pentagon. Ironically, the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2008 defense budget, just released but determined before the Chinese test, actually reins in Air Force spending in space, an area of the DOD budget which has been plagued with cost overruns and delays.

We don't own space

We don't own space. It's not ours. But when the U.S. military talks about space dominance, space superiority, and space control, as they do regularly, they are behaving as if they think the Pentagon does own space, and doesn’t need to consult with anyone else about how space should be used.

Fed up with U.S. braggadocio, China felt they needed to flex their muscles too.

An Arms Race in Space?

However, an arms race in space does not need to follow from this Chinese test.

China, one of three countries to have successfully launched astronauts into orbit, has consistently called for arms control in space. Since its ASAT test, China has restated officially that it wants the United States, Russia and other nations to develop a new global treaty to govern the use of outer space. “Space is the common property for humanity,' a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said at a recent press briefing in Beijing. “China is opposed to an arms race in space and we want to work toward having a treaty to govern the peaceful use of space.'

In late January, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for a "weapons free outer space".  A Putin spokesman explained, "The fundamental position of the Russian Federation is that outer space should be absolutely weapons free,"

On the other hand, U.S. officials seem to talk only of conflict and in the updated National Space Policy, released in October 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush asserted the right to use force against countries that disrupt American satellites.

The United States Britain and the Soviet Union completed the 1967 United Nations Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space – the Outer Space Treaty, one which has been signed and ratified by 98 countries, including China. That treaty prohibits any nation from putting nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction into space or stationing them on any celestial body.

Two years ago, the Canadian government announced that Canada would NOT participate in the kind of space warfare program that Sen. Kyl and Rep. Hunter now advocate. While expressing its continuing commitment to NORAD, the Canadian government said it would not join the Pentagon's missile defense program, the precursor to war in space.

Why? Why did one of our closest partners, and neighbors, take this strong step?

In part it was because Canadian citizens are justifiably skeptical of U.S. missile defense plans. Canadian citizens question that the United States can develop missile defenses that will be effective against enemy missiles under realistic operational conditions. And Canadians also question the costs, both the money and the consequences.

But that was only part of their concern. Canada also did not want to be part of creating a new arms race in space. They understand that U.S. missile defense is the first wave in which the United States could introduce attack weapons into space, that is, weapons with strike capability, and Canada did not want to contribute to that.

The Pentagon wants a layered missile defense system, with interceptors launched from land, sea, air, and space – one that would be capable of shooting down enemy missiles in all phases of their flight. The idea is that if one layer misses, the next layer won't, and so forth. Pentagon briefings picture giant glass domes covering the United States, and we are to imagine that enemy missiles will bounce off these glass domes like hail off a windshield. And one of those glass domes is to be in space.

But this debate is not just about missile defenses in space, it is also about deploying new strike weapons in space to attack the space assets of other countries. The terms the Pentagon and the Air Force use for this are space control and counter space - that is, like "Star Wars", the movie.

Some observers may wish that space was pure and pristine with no military systems poised there for war – like Antarctica. But the militarization of space is already a fact of life. Our military relies on space satellites for military communications, for reconnaissance and sensing, for weather, and for targeting.

However, the weaponization of space hasn't happened. There are no strike weapons deployed in space. So deciding not to deploy strike weapons in space – or a “space-based test bed” - is a practical place to draw the line, exactly what Canada did.

In the United Nations, Canada, Russia and China have been urging this for years. But the United States has blocked these efforts.

Reportedly, the U.S. Defense Department has even considered whether or not the United States should continue to participate in the Outer Space Treaty.

Reporters could ask, “Why has the United States been blocking arms control in space?  Doesn’t the U.S. with its heavy dependence on space satellites, have the most to lose?” “And why would President Bush, or those running for the presidency in 2008, consider abandoning an existing space treaty?” The United States has much more to lose from war in space than any other country. We depend on space for both military and civil, commercial applications. For commerce, for communications, for weather, for banking, for global positioning and mapping, for scores of uses, commercial satellites in space now affect our daily lives.

The 2008 Summer Olympics to be held in Beijing, and broadcast on television by satellite, will give Americans a new appreciation for the vast sweep of China.  We can decide to continue sword rattling, poking that immense bear of a nation with a stick, or we can get down to cases with them, and work for arms control in space.

Not since the development of the atomic bomb has the United States had an equivalent opportunity and incentive to show leadership for restraint in the development of a new class of weapons, namely weapons in space.

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