Ray Acheson

Since China tested a kinetic energy anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon on 11 January 2007, arms control and space experts, along with the media, have delivered a range of analyses. The New York Times declared the test marks China’s “resolve to play a major role in military space activities,” while the Council on Foreign Relations argued it put “pressure on the US to negotiate agreements not to weaponize space.” Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information called it an “irresponsible and self-defeating act.” The White House topped them all, declaring China’s “development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area.”

Of course, the US has demonstrated through word and deed that it has little spirit of cooperation when it comes to security in outer space. The new US National Space Policy authorized by President Bush in August 2006 explains that the US will “preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intending to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to US national interests.”

Furthermore, the US space policy firmly opposes “the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit US access to or use of space,” and insists that “proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for US national interests.” During the UN General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security held each year in October, the US has faithfully rejected resolutions proposing the negotiation of a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space (PAROS), arguing there is no such arms race, and it would therefore be a waste of time to negotiate a PAROS treaty.

While condemning China’s ASAT test, the Department of Defense requested more than a billion dollars from the US budget for fiscal year 2008 to continue working on its own space weapons. US contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman are currently developing technologies that would allow the US to dominate space militarily, including lasers, sensors, missiles, delivery vehicles, and ground- and sea-based mission centers. The US military frequently denies these multi-million dollar enterprises are for space weapons, but the technology is widely believed by industry experts to at least have space weapon applications. Dual-use technology: the preferred way to have your cake and eat it too in the twenty-first century.

Of course, the US’ hypocritical reaction to China’s ASAT weapon is not surprising. The Bush Administration wanted to be the first kids on the block to have such cool new toys — upgrades from the Cold War hand-me-downs they already have. And it wants to dominate space before any other country develops the technology to interfere with its weapons, in order to shut down hostile programs before they really get off the ground. The US’ principal goal of supremacy in outer space is ensuring the global “full spectrum dominance” of its military. Superiority in conventional warfare relies on military assets in space, especially satellites, which are used for intelligence, remote sensing, navigation, and monitoring, among other things. Since the US currently asserts its political will through force, protection of its own space assets and disturbance of others’ is key to guaranteeing US dominance.

Most experts expected China to follow the US and Russia in working on anti-satellite weapons technology and were aware that China had been improving its situational awareness in space, giving it “the ability to track and identify most satellites.” However, China has been one of the most vocal enthusiasts for negotiating a PAROS treaty at the United Nations. In October 2006, H.E. Ambassador Cheng Jingye of China argued in the First Committee, “outer space is the common wealth of mankind (sic); the exploration and peaceful utilization and exploitation of outer space is the common right of all peoples; and maintaining a peaceful and clean outer space is the common obligation of mankind (sic).”

One of the key conditions for keeping space clean and accessible is keeping it free from debris. As the Space Security Survey 2007 acknowledges, “there is widespread recognition, in light of tracking efforts and recorded on-orbit collisions, that space debris is a growing threat.” China is one of many space-faring states that have developed national debris mitigation standards. The use of ASAT weapons creates a dangerous amount of space debris — making the Chinese test incredibly irresponsible.

According to a NASA model and calculations by Wang Ting and David Wright, the FY-1C satellite in China’s ASAT test, which weighed 954kg, would lead to nearly 1000 debris fragments of size 10cm or larger, nearly 50,000 debris fragments with a size of 1cm or greater, and 2.6 million fragments greater than 1mm. They believe that roughly half of the debris fragments 1cm or larger would stay in orbit for more than a decade.

This irresponsible behavior is damaging to China’s moral authority and international standing, and to the security of its own space assets. The results of its actions are exactly what space security experts have been forewarning in their attempts to dissuade the US from pursuing space weapon programs.

So then why would China test an anti-satellite weapon for the world to see? If it was a strategy to force the US to consider negotiating a PAROS treaty, was it a good strategy? On one hand, the US’ argument that there are no weapons in space cannot stand when another powerful nation uses a weapon in space. The Administration will have to come up with another reason why a PAROS treaty is irrelevant. Or, even better, they might actually think about why such a treaty might be relevant after all. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. US rhetoric on space weapons and PAROS hasn’t changed since China’s test, and the government has maximized what little highground the event gave them. The Bush Administration suspended plans to develop joint space projects with China, rather smugly declaring, “clearly it makes it more difficult to go down the path of cooperation when they’re testing ASAT weapons.”

The Bush Administration is not the only group to refute the relevance of PAROS. Michael Krepon and Michael Katz-Hyman of the Henry L. Stimson Center have contended that an arms race in outer space is unlikely. They correctly argue that the “interconnectedness of the economic and military aspects of space power” means any country’s economic ambitions will be jeopardized if it starts destroying satellites in space. However, they believe this means that rather than bankrupt itself in a military competition, China will “compete asymmetrically and cost-effectively,” and “contest the Pentagon’s objective of space control using weapons of its choosing,” resulting in “old-fashioned proliferation, not new-fangled arms races.”

The problem with this argument is that a traditional, Cold War-esque arms race is not the only way to weaponize space. As Krepon and Katz-Hyman themselves point out, a “modest arsenal” of kinetic energy weapons could pose an extraordinary threat to the international community’s space assets. Perhaps the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space should be changed to the Prevention of the Weaponization of Space, but the underlying concept remains unchanged: the international community is concerned that weapon-industry powerhouses, such as the United States, will develop an arsenal of weapons capable of destroying satellites and other space assets. Whether or not a second, third, or hundredth state competitively develops similar weapons is less the issue than the development of any space weapons by any state. The development of such weapons threatens every state’s ability to function. The reason this issue is generally addressed as an arms race concern is because in the history of modern warfare, no state has even been able to build up its arsenal without a reaction from its neighbors. In outer space, everyone is your neighbor.

If it would affect US policy to change calls for a treaty on PAROS to calls for a “code of conduct for responsible spacefaring nations” as Krepon and Katz-Hyman suggest, the international community would surely accept that. Unfortunately, given the US declaration that it will oppose all attempts to create legal regimes affecting outer space, it’s unlikely that a mere change in messaging will make a difference.

So nice try China, in trying to convince the US they need to join the PAROS bandwagon. It seems all the test really did was leave a giant, 2.651 million fragment mess behind — and a piece of China’s moral authority. As Jeffrey Lewis points out, in the long-term the test might demonstrate why we don’t want anti-satellite weapons, but “in the short-term, the Chinese will simply not be credible partners in efforts to keep space peaceful.” Moreover, the move may actually instigate an arms race after all — while China’s single test against an old weather satellite doesn’t exactly scream space dominance, the US won’t want to to risk being left behind.