Features | Security | East Asia

Grappling With a MAD Space Future

Its new space strategy calls for the US to reach out to allies in Asia. But will differences with China undermine progress?

While the United States once dominated military space activities, in recent years a number of factors have combined to make space less hospitable to its national security interests and Washington more willing to reach out to potential partners—including those in Asia.

One complicating factor for the United States has been growing congestion resulting from foreign satellites, orbital debris, and radiofrequency interference. Another has been the spread of offensive space capabilities and activities, which has placed more space targets under threat. But a third is the reality that US space dominance has simply been eroded—dozens of governments, companies, and other actors now launch and operate satellites, while the United States itself is making fewer satellites.

It’s with these developments in mind that the United States is looking to transform its space policy in partnership with the private sector, foreign governments, and intergovernmental organizations, a strategy highlighted in the National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) released this month.

According to the document, the idea is to ‘minimize the chances for mishaps, misperception, and mistrust in space’ through sharing space situational awareness information, improving information and developing transparency and confidence-building measures. However, there’s also an unmistakably hard edge to the US approach. As Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told the media, ‘We need to ensure that we can continue to utilize space to navigate with accuracy, to communicate with certainty, to strike with precision, and to see the battlefield with clarity.’

The new approach recognizes that no single country—not even the United States—has the resources to track every space object. The goal of the new cooperative approach therefore is to notify satellite operators of potential collisions between orbiting objects much earlier and with far greater accuracy.

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In addition, the Pentagon is also considering extending cooperation to include: exchanging more space-generated data regarding other domains including the world’s oceans (to notify shippers of the locations of pirates), establishing a collaborative missile launch warning network, and conducting collective environmental monitoring of the military effects on climate change.

In keeping with the emphasis on boosting co-operation, the Defence and State Departments are already engaged in technical exchanges with experts from the European Space Agency and the European Union—as well as with the individual member states belonging to these two organizations—to enhance interoperability between their space awareness systems. But both departments also have their eyes on working more closely with US allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific.

Indeed, Asian countries represent important potential partners—and problems—for this new approach. As a group, Asian countries are expected to soon surpass European nations by securing 12.5 percent of the global military satellite sales market. Japan and China have longstanding space programmes, while India, South Korea, and Iran are emerging space powers. Even North Korea justifies its periodic long-range missile tests by professing to test space launch vehicles.

But as important as all these countries are, China inevitably looms largest. In their November 17, 2009 joint statement, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao called for joint measures to enhance space security, while the Obama administration has indicated its readiness to discuss space security issues within the framework of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the US-China Security Dialogue, and through military-to-military exchanges.

Yet these upbeat proposals can’t disguise the very real tensions that loom over the China-US space relationship.

In January 2007, the Chinese military shocked the international community by destroying an inoperable weather satellite 530 miles above the Earth, generating thousands of on-orbit debris and provoking widespread international condemnation. Not only did China shatter a decades-long informal moratorium on such tests, but it became the first country ever to destroy a satellite with a ground-based ballistic missile.

During the Cold War, the United States used an air-launched missile to shoot down a satellite, while the Soviet Union succeeded with a hunter-killer satellite that manoeuvred close to its target and then detonated. But the Chinese move raised the stakes further and added a genuine complication to US considerations. Some analysts speculate that the Chinese would only need to destroy about 50 satellites in low orbit to devastate the US military’s space intelligence capabilities. And if the United States were to deploy ballistic missile interceptors in space, they would also be within range of kill vehicles launched with Chinese ballistic missiles.

A January 2008 cable released recently by WikiLeaks reveals that the State Department gave Beijing a stern warning that, ‘A Chinese attack on a satellite using a weapon launched by a ballistic missile threatens to destroy space systems that the United States and other nations use for commerce and national security. Destroying satellites endangers people.’

In the formal protest, the Bush administration said, ‘Any purposeful interference with US space systems will be interpreted by the United States as an infringement of its rights and considered an escalation in a crisis or conflict.’ The document goes on to warn that, ‘The United States reserves the right, consistent with the UN Charter and international law, to defend and protect its space systems with a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military.’

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A subsequent WikiLeaks cable quotes US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying that a Chinese SC-19 missile destroyed a CSS-X-11 missile approximately 150 miles above the Earth in a test that could serve in both an anti-missile and an anti-satellite operation. ‘This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT and ballistic missile defence technologies,’ it states.

But the cables indicate that it isn’t just the United States that’s concerned. They also make clear that the Chinese accused the United States of developing both offensive and defence space weapons based on lasers, missile defence systems, and other advanced military technologies. A February 21, 2008, cable, for example, reports Chinese anger at the Pentagon for destroying a malfunctioning US satellite a day earlier that was in the process of descending to Earth. Chinese officials have also expressed resentment about their exclusion from the International Space Station, visa restrictions limiting opportunities for Chinese experts to travel to the United States, and restrictive US export controls that limit China’s ability to participate in the international launch services market.

Perhaps not surprisingly, US officials were keen to differentiate the February 20 move, in which the USS Lake Erie launched a Standard Missile 3 interceptor, from the earlier Chinese test. US officials argued that the US satellite ‘kill’ was based on health and environmental grounds, and was intended to keep its extremely toxic hydrazine fuel from reaching the Earth. They also noted that, unlike the Chinese interception the previous year, US preparations were transparent and that the US shooting didn’t generate enduring debris. Regardless, the test conveniently demonstrated to Beijing that the United States still had the capability to destroy space satellites.

When briefing on the new NSSS, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Gregory Schulte said the Chinese test embarrassed Beijing by exposing their development of counter space weapons despite all the public calls from Chinese diplomats to avoid the weaponization of space. The annual US Defense Department reports on Chinese military power, meanwhile, discuss additional Chinese space weapons aside from the direct ascent, anti-satellite missile demonstrated in 2007, including directed-energy weapons such as lasers, jamming devices, and other systems. ‘The investment that China is putting into counter-space capabilities is a matter of concern for us,’ Schulte said. ‘It's part of the reason why the Secretary of Defense wants to talk about space as part of the stability dialogue with the Chinese.’

It’s also a reason why the NSSS calls for more partnering with other countries to bolster collective deterrence and defence. Such partnerships are aimed at transforming an attack on one into an attack on all, with the thinking being that countries would be less willing to attack international capabilities as opposed to national ones. This collaboration could extend to conducting multinational research and development of technologies and techniques to mitigate on-orbit debris and other hazards to the space environment and improve the interoperability of national space systems. In addition, the Pentagon is also considering the possibility of allowing foreign countries to launch its less-sensitive satellites. Japan, India, and perhaps South Korea would be logical candidates for such partnerships given their advanced or emerging space launch capabilities.

Russia falls somewhere between these categories of natural partner and likely adversary. Moscow and Washington partner up on various space issues, but tensions over space security still persist. Russia and the United States collaborate in running the International Space Station, and with the retirement of the Shuttle, NASA will depend on Russia’s Soyuz spaceship for at least several years to carry US astronauts to the Station. Meanwhile, Russia has become one of the leading providers in the international market for commercial launch services.

However, although Russia-US nuclear arms control agreements prohibit one side from interfering with the other’s ability to use spy satellites to monitor and verify compliance with the treaty, Russia undoubtedly retains advanced anti-satellite capabilities inherited from the Soviet era even without openly testing them.

One ongoing gripe on the Russian side has been the US missile defence programme, with the Russian government being especially opposed to any attempt to place missile interceptors in space. Russia is also concerned about the US X-37B unmanned space plane, which looks like a small space shuttle and spent seven months in orbit last year doing secret research. The claim by Russian experts that the plane could conduct anti-satellite operations certainly seems technically plausible, although the vehicle would more likely be used to deploy or repair US satellites in an emergency.

So what can be done to ease tensions?

Russia, China, and many other space powers favour adopting a new treaty prohibiting all weapons from space (the 1967 Outer Space Treaty only bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space and celestial bodies). However, the Obama administration still opposes the draft treaty presented by Russia and China to the UN Conference on Disarmament in February 2008. The main US objections to the proposed treaty are that it lacks a means of verification and doesn’t ban Earth-based, anti-satellite weapons, such as the one China tested in January 2007 (the treaty allows, for example, for the deployment of ground-, sea-, and air-based ASAT systems as an inherent right of self-defence embodied in UN Charter Article 51). According to US officials, the Indian government is also developing a terrestrial anti-satellite system, while other Asian powers are likely to follow suit.

Supporters of the treaty argue that its weaknesses could be overcome by adding a legally binding verification protocol. The Obama administration has for its part declared its willingness, in principle, to consider alternative space arms control treaties provided they meet three criteria: Are they verifiable? Are they equitable? Do they enhance the national security interests of the United States and its allies?

However, the Obama administration claims that so far it hasn’t seen a treaty that meets all three of these criteria.
Unfortunately, one knock-on effect of the disagreement over the treaty has been that it has impeded the Obama administration’s efforts to launch substantive discussions on transparency and confidence-building measures. During the October 2010 session of the UN General Assembly First Committee, for example, the US delegation tried to work with Russia and China to co-sponsor a resolution establishing a group of government experts to evaluate TCBM options. However, they were unable to agree after Beijing and Moscow insisted on including language endorsing their space weapons treaty.

Fortunately, however, a de facto Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) relationship exists in space—any use of space weapons risks damaging the satellites of many countries and disrupting the use of space by all. Outer space has become increasingly vital for global military operations, intelligence collection, and worldwide commerce and communications, meaning that while counter-space operations are certainly becoming easier, any country that fired the first shot in space would end up risking its own interests—and would receive some serious international blowback.