By Frank J Gaffney Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | January 29, 2007
Breaking nearly two weeks of silence, Communist China has now confirmed that it did indeed successfully attack and destroy an aging weather satellite more than 500 miles above the earth. As U.S. intelligence revealed last week, the destructive intercept was performed by a kinetic-kill vehicle (KKV) launched onboard a medium-range ballistic missile.
In making this acknowledgement, however, the Foreign Minister preposterously declared that “the test was not targeted against any country and does not pose a threat to any country.” The mendacity of this statement is as transparent as Beijing’s military activities in the area of space control and power projection, which are cloaked in secrecy: Communist China intends to be able to deny the United States the ability to utilize outer space for vital national security, and perhaps even economic purposes.
The sudden, indisputable nature of this insight has precipitated confusion bordering on panic in Washington and other allied capitals. One predictable reaction has been to encourage a renewed push by so-called “arms-control” advocates to prohibit the “militarization of space.” According to the New York Times, such an outcome was intended by Beijing. It cites Xu Guangyu, a former Chinese Army officer and an official at the government-run China Arms Control and Disarmament Association: “What China is saying is, ‘Let’s sit down and talk.’ There is a trend toward weaponization of space that no one, especially China, wants to see.”
Were the United States to fall for this gambit, it would face the worst of both worlds – at least two adversaries (Russia and China) known to have demonstrated ASAT capabilities and a wholly unverifiable prohibition on such weapons, one whose practical effect would be only to foreclose to this country (and others who adhere to their treaty obligations) capabilities essential to space control.
A Dragon in Space
It should come as no surprise that China was able to become the first country in over two decades to conduct a successful ASAT test, thereby joining the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only nations to have done so. The PRC has long-recognized that America’s dependence upon satellites for communication, intelligence collection and ballistic missile defense – three functions of vital importance to America’s defense of democratic Taiwan – made space the “soft underbelly” of the U.S. national security apparatus. The same is even more true of the United States’ economic power, which is inextricably dependent on space-based systems.
As a consequence, Beijing has invested enormous resources in a program designed to dominate the space battlefield. Drawing from a defense budget conservatively estimated to be on the order of $70-105 billion per year and a PLA-run “civil space” program budget estimated at $1.5-2.0 billion per year, considerable effort has been made on space-related programs with inherent military applications. Thanks to this commitment, China’s space control-relevant capabilities have made considerable progress, and grown dramatically in their sophistication.
These include, in addition to the ballistic missile-delivered KKV system tested earlier this month, China’s acquisition of microsatellites (and, according to some, even nanosatellites). The United States has reportedly detected such devices in orbit near its military communications and imaging satellites. There is reason to believe that the PRC has developed “parasitic satellites,” designed surreptitiously to attach themselves to enemy space assets and, on command, to jam or destroy them.
Besides these anti-satellite-capable orbiting systems and the recently tested kinetic-kill device – both of which are designed to neutralize target satellites in low earth orbit – China has experimented with directed energy weapons that may be capable of blinding or destroying satellites at all altitudes. It is worth noting that the PRC’s ASAT test of January 11th followed the illumination of U.S. intelligence-gathering satellites by a Chinese ground-based laser in September 2006.
‘A Space Pearl Harbor’
Worryingly, China is far from the only actor that recognizes America’s intense vulnerability in space. As Major General Michael Maples, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, reported in his annual threat assessment before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on January 11:
Several countries continue to develop capabilities that have the potential to threaten U.S. space assets, and some have already deployed systems with inherent anti-satellite capabilities, such as satellite-tracking laser range-finding devices and nuclear-armed ballistic missiles….Other states and non-state entities are pursuing more limited and asymmetric approaches that do not require excessive financial resources or a high-tech industrial base.
In other words, U.S. adversaries are positioning themselves to wage an asymmetric war against the United States, should the need arise. As startling as this assessment may seem, it is hardly new. In January 2001, the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, chaired by soon-to-be Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, released a scathing report that warned of a looming “Space Pearl Harbor”:
History is replete with instances in which warning signs were ignored and change resisted until an external, “improbable” event forced resistant bureaucracies to take action. The question is whether the U.S. will be wise enough to act responsibly and soon enough to reduce U.S. space vulnerability. Or whether, as in the past, a disabling attack against the country and its people – a “Space Pearl Harbor” – will be the only event able to galvanize the nation and cause the U.S. government to act. We are on notice, but we have not noticed.
‘Freedom of Space’
To its credit, the Bush Administration has recognized these realities in its quite robust National Space Policy (NSP) published in October 2006. It establishes the imperative of U.S. supremacy in space. The document declared, in part:
The United States will preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. interests.
Interestingly, President Clinton’s administration had previously adopted a space policy that was also reasonably forceful about the necessity of the United States being able to exercise space control. For example, the 1996 Space Policy statement announced:
The United States will develop, operate and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries….National security space activities shall contribute to U.S. national security by: providing support for the United States’ inherent right of self-defense and our defense commitments to allies and friends; deterring, warning, and if necessary, defending against enemy attack; assuring that hostile forces cannot prevent our own use of space; countering, if necessary, space systems and services used for hostile purposes; enhancing operations of U.S. and allied forces; ensuring our ability to conduct military and intelligence space-related activities; satisfying military and intelligence requirements during peace and crisis as well as through all levels of conflict; supporting the activities of national policy makers, the intelligence community, the National Command Authorities, combatant commanders and the military services, other federal officials, and continuity of government operations.”
These bipartisan declarations are not evidence of some untoward American impulse towards imperialistic hegemony in space. Rather, they reflect a strategic imperative not unlike that which led Britain’s Royal Navy and, subsequently, the United States Navy, to assume responsibility for, and amass the means to exercise control over the world’s oceans. Historically, these navies have served – wartime aside – as invaluable, global guarantors of “freedom of the seas.”
To be sure, the great powers in question had every reason to want to ensure their ability freely to use the sea lanes of communication for commerce vital to their economic well-being. But in the process, the exercise of sea control in peacetime first by Britain, then by America in a benign way, assured such use to others as well. Nations can have confidence that “freedom of space” will continue to be the norm in peacetime as long as space dominance rests with the United States.
‘All Hat, No Cattle’?
The Clinton-Gore administration’s words – and, therefore, America’s ability to assure U.S. space control and freedom of space – were not matched by the programs necessary to give substance to this stated requirement. It is worrying that the Bush administration also seems to be doing too little to put into place the space control systems that would allow the realization of its declared policy.
Worse yet, the official U.S. response to China’s ASAT test suggests a reluctance even to stand by the President’s stated policy. A National Security Council spokesman announced that the “development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area.”
Then, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley addressed the Chinese intercept in a way that appeared to be trying to excuse it, suggesting that the ASAT test might have been some sort of rogue operation: “The question on something like this is, at what level in the Chinese government are people witting, and have they approved?” It strains credulity that the American government actually believes that – in a totalitarian communist system like that of the People’s Republic – high priority, strategic activities like China’s space control programs have not been thoroughly briefed to and approved by the senior leadership.
Such remarks – combined with the Bush team’s apparently desultory efforts to develop and deploy American space control technologies, to say nothing of the increased cooperation between Washington and Beijing on “civil” space programs that may be facilitating the latter’s ability to challenge the former – leave the Administration’s commitment to U.S. dominance of space in serious doubt.
Enter the Arms-Controllers
The Bush Administration’s incoherence on this matter only serves to encourage its critics at home and abroad to redouble their efforts to impose an approach that would, as a practical matter, permanently foreclose assured U.S. access to and control of space. Specifically, the failure to reassert the imperative behind American control of space invites mischief on the part of advocates of negotiated “solutions,” with the declared aim of prohibiting the “militarization of space.”
Advocates of this hardy arms control perennial have already seized on the Chinese ASAT test to warn anew that the Bush National Space Policy is evidence of the dreaded U.S. “unilateralism” that must be stopped lest it precipitate an arms race in space. For example, when asked last weekend how America should respond to the PRC test, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden (with characteristic circumlocution) declared: “One of the things we have to talk about is whether or not the, sort of, ideological base notion about how we deal with space and weapons in space and the use of weapons from space is something that is a path we should continue to follow.”
Not surprisingly, those most enthusiastic for a ban on space weaponry include many of America’s most prominent adversaries – including two who have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities: Russia and China. In fact, in 2002, Moscow and Beijing were joined by their cronies and clients in Belarus, Zimbabwe and Syria in introducing a draft treaty at the United Nations to outlaw the deployment of space weaponry. It should now be clear that the proponents of this initiative share less a desire to keep space “pristeen” from militarization – which after all happened decades ago – and arms races, than by a determination to eliminate the strategic advantages inherent in America’s dominance to date of space.
We’ve Been Here Before
It is in the nature of arms control regimes signed with unaccountable governments that they are unverifiable, violated and, as a practical matter, generally unenforceable. That would be true in spades of the sort of prohibition of the militarization of space fancied by our enemies and their fellow travelers.
It has long been obvious that a space weapons ban would be particularly problematic for and disadvantageous to states that adhere to the rule-of-law – namely, the United States and its closest allies. Its unverifiability would assure that treaty-violators could have, and perhaps use, space control technologies with impunity. (The fact that Beijing refused even to acknowledge its ASAT test for nearly a fortnight affirms the futility of thinking they could be faithful parties to such a treaty.)
Evidence of the problems inherent in banning anti-satellite weapons were illuminated over two decades ago by a Reagan Administration interagency group co-chaired by yours truly (at the time the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Forces and Arms Control Policy) and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s Assistant Director, Henry Cooper. The resulting Report to the Congress on U.S. Policy on ASAT Arms Control submitted in 1984 – was to that point (and I suspect to date) the most comprehensive official assessment of the idea of trying to ban or otherwise limit ASAT systems.
The report described two show-stopping problems:
Definitional conundrums: The report pointed to insoluble definitional problems in devising any ASAT arms control, noting that:
Many activities related to space give rise to capabilities inherently useful for ASAT purposes…[and] could be used to attempt to conceal development of one or more types of ASAT techniques. Restricting the definition…could make an agreement easier to verify, but ineffective in achieving its purpose of protecting satellites….Furthermore, problems of weapon definition are compounded because some non-weapon space systems, including civil and commercial systems, could have characteristics which would make it difficult to frame a definition to distinguish them.
Verification concerns: Even if a way could be found to define dedicated ASATs, the reality is that, as China is demonstrating, a number of systems would retain inherent dual-use capabilities to perform anti-satellite functions, notwithstanding prohibitions on ASAT weapons. The report observed:
The fact that ASAT capabilities can be a by-product of systems developed for other missions, create[s] problems of identifying what would be prohibited under testing limitations….Such systems include:
*maneuvering spacecraft (equipped to maneuver into the path of, or to detonate next to, another nation’s spacecraft) such as the coorbital interceptor operationally deployed by the USSR.
*Direct ascent interceptors such as exo-atmospheric ABM missiles, ballistic missiles with modified guidance logic, space boosters carrying nuclear payloads, and homing vehicles such as the miniature vehicle system undergoing development by the United States.
*Directed energy weapons such as lasers and particle beams, (either ground-based or space-based, having sufficient power to damage satellites or their sensors).
*Electronic countermeasures of sufficient power output to damage or interrupt satellite functions.
*Weapons which could be carried by manned space planes or orbital complexes
These problems are as intractable today as they were twenty-three years ago. Should Washington now succumb to the temptation – or the pressure – to contend with the emerging Chinese ASAT threats by pursuing a ban on such capabilities, it will have no more basis for confidence that its satellites are actually protected than would have been true in the 1980s.
Even more importantly, the United States must be able in time of war to exercise space control and in peacetime to assure freedom of space. A ban on the capabilities necessary to perform these functions will make it essentially impossible for this country to perform these vital functions. But, for the reasons mentioned above, it will do nothing to prevent hostile powers from being able to deny us access to, or use of, space.
The Bottom Line
China’s ASAT test is a straw in the solar wind. In its own right it is a worrisome reminder that America cannot safely indulge in wishful thinking that its equities in space will remain inviolable indefinitely, any more than it can safely rely upon unenforceable international agreements for their protection.
The test is also a reminder of the breadth and ambition of the Chinese military build-up. On land, on and under the seas, in the air and in space, Communist China is forging ahead with one of the most dramatic, rapid – and ominous – expansions of the ability to project power that the world has ever seen. It is, moreover, unmistakable that much of the weaponry being purchased from others and developed indigenously by the PRC is designed to attack American personnel, ships, planes and other assets.
For all these reasons, the United States must continue to reject calls for a ban on the weaponization of space and acquire the means to implement its sensible, bipartisan declaratory policy on space dominance. The United States must also recognize that the threat increasingly emanating from China is indeed a threat – and make a redoubled effort to develop and deploy the transformed U.S. military that will be required to contend with such a formidable challenge in the future.
Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is President of the Center for Security Policy in Washington. David McCormack, the Center’s Senior Research Associate, contributed to this article.