The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SM-3 launch
Last month’s intercept of USA 193 by a modified SM-3 missile (above) has racheted up the debate on the need for, and effectiveness of, a treaty banning space weapons. (credit: US Navy)

Will we burn in heaven like we do down here?

<< page 1: banning actions rather than things

Private spaceflight, unpredictable results

A member of the audience asked about how the increase in private spaceflight might affect this environment. Hitchens responded that if more humans are launched into space on private spacecraft, it may increase pressure to develop limits on the weaponization of space. After all, private actors are going to want more protection in the form of international diplomacy.

Jeff Kueter generally agreed, saying that more actors involved in the process will temper any tendencies toward weaponization. But he also suggested that there may be a small possibility that greater ability to access space may mean that people who we don’t want there can reach space, although he stressed that this was not very likely and he did not elaborate.

Peter Hays said that the US Air Force had considered this issue several years ago when developing a long-range plan that was admittedly based upon a much more optimistic outlook for space development than currently exists. He said that the planners determined that “flag would follow trade”—in other words, the more private assets in space and on places like the Moon, the more private actors would demand military protection. He admitted that this has clearly not happened yet, and also added that the Outer Space Treaty makes it hard to determine how one derives wealth from space.

Another member of the audience suggested that the strategic importance of space is overstated and the capabilities provided by space assets can be supplied by cheaper alternatives. But he also added that it was highly likely that war would start in space. The problem with these two statements, one of the panelists pointed out, was that you could not simultaneously argue that space was less important than most people perceive it to be, and also argue that it was so important that it was where the next big war will start.

War over Taiwan

Kueter raised the possibility that a Chinese attack on Taiwan could result in the use of Chinese ASATs against American satellites. He did not disagree with Moore about the fundamental US-China relationship. The two sides indeed are in bed with each other. But he also suggested that because this is true, their mutual interests will temper not only the potential for conflict, but also any potential arms race. He said that because it is unlikely that the US and China will battle each other, we should not focus on relatively narrow interests like space arms control, but work on maintaining and improving the broader relationship between the two countries.

“The Chinese have correctly identified one of the key vulnerabilities of the US military” to be its reliance on space assets, said Hays.

Kueter also said, though, that China clearly recognizes how the space situation has changed and how vital space assets are to American tactical warfighting capability. And with the removal of the Cold War’s strategic firebreak that made it unacceptable to attack space assets, China is more likely to strike at US space capabilities if, for instance, Taiwan declares independence and China seeks to prevent that from happening, perhaps through an invasion.

Moore discounted such a scenario. He stated that he sees the most likely scenario as being a long stalemate between Taiwan and China that will last until the final remnants of the old guards on both sides die out. He considers the Taiwanese threats of independence and the Chinese threats of retaliation as simply posturing that will not lead to hostilities.

Moore also added that he did not consider American military space capabilities as immoral—far from it, he believes that they have a moral component. Although he was opposed to the Iraq war and considers it a serious blunder, he acknowledges that space assets can help America fight its wars in more humane ways. “If you’re going to go to war, if you have to go to war, then you have to do it right,” he said, meaning minimizing civilian casualties, which satellites can help you do.

Peter Hays noted that the Department of Defense recently produced a report on China’s military capabilities that indicated that China is pursuing a broad range of ways to negate American military space assets, and their most likely and inevitable goal is jamming (as opposed to shattering) American satellites. “The Chinese have correctly identified one of the key vulnerabilities of the US military,” he said.

Ivan Eland commented that he had seen many secret government intelligence assessments over the years that had warned that a country was “pursuing” or “expanding” some kind of weapons capability. But such statements were ultimately not very useful, he said, because they were not a real measure of capability, only a weak statement of intent. “Uganda may be ‘pursuing’ an ASAT capability too because they have one guy in an office thinking about it,” he added. Instead, we should look at actual capabilities, not at the “pursuit” of capabilities.

Space as a sanctuary

The panelists then finished with a brief discussion of one of the perennial issues of space militarization—should space be a sphere of operations free of weapons? Should it be a “sanctuary,” or merely another environment for warfare?

Moore said that military officers frequently claim that just as the land and sea have long been a place for warfare, and just as the air became a place for warfare, it is “inevitable” that space will become a place for warfare as well. But Moore disputed this. He said that the difference is that land and sea warfare began thousands of years ago and they were never debated before the wars broke out. “Space is different because we are able to question” if it should be a place for warfare, he said. We have the ability to define a new paradigm and decide to not make space a place for warfare.

Kueter responded by saying that space is only unique in the degree of difficulty to get there. That is slowly changing. But “the age old incentives for why men throw rocks at one another” will rise again, he said.

But Moore had the last word, saying that great power conflicts are over. The big powers are not going to fight each other because their opportunity costs are so high. So there is an opportunity to keep weapons from the heavens.

A solid foundation for disagreement

The Internet is not a very good method for developing an understanding of the space weaponization debate. The net is no good at nuance, and people commenting on the subject—primarily bloggers—are more prone to resort to short, partisan commentary than to the kind of detailed discussion and arguing over minutiae that is common to discussions of international diplomacy. The panel discussion at The Independent Institute, although attended by no more than a couple of dozen people (including some rather unconventional media and university representatives), did reflect the tone of the debate within Washington. Partisan polemics and questioning of motives were nonexistent, and instead there was a civil discussion where the panelists spent a great deal of time agreeing with each other. But in the end, they still maintained their fundamental disagreements about the utility of arms control for space weapons.

The panelists agreed most on the nature of the threat. They all agreed that war between China and the United States remains highly unlikely. They also agreed that the two countries share many mutual interests and that fact will serve to moderate any future rivalry between them.

The simple fact is that arms control treaties are not a commonly accepted way of reducing tensions anymore. There are many reasons for this that transcend issues of left-right ideology.

This view is not new. As one of my former professors, John Mueller, wrote nearly two decades ago in his book Retreat From Doomsday, for centuries great powers acquired territory and resources by attacking their rivals and taking their possessions. But that does not happen any more. Wars of conquest are unheard of, and great powers—generally defined as the countries with the largest economies—prefer to trade with each other rather than fight. There are numerous reasons for this, including the decreasing value of territory and raw materials compared to other wealth-creating resources like knowledge and information, and the high cost of modern conventional war, which can leave even the victors with high occupation and rebuilding costs (this says nothing about the high costs of nuclear war, of course). At the time he wrote the book, Mueller noted that no two great powers had fought each other directly in over forty years, something that was in stark contrast to the previous several centuries. In the nearly two decades since then that trend has continued, and even proxy wars have diminished. Major war, as it has been defined for most of modern human history, is now virtually unthinkable.

That said, the panelists still disagreed on their concern about some kind of conflict breaking out. Both Hays and Kueter stated that China has clearly sought space weapons capabilities to blunt American capabilities. They even view this as a logical move for the Chinese. Given that China has these capabilities, the United States has to be wary, and has to figure out an effective response. There is always the possibility that a dispute over Taiwan could escalate into a military conflict between China and the United States.

Moore views the Chinese and Taiwanese as highly unlikely to ever come to blows. They are engaged in posturing, and the two countries in many ways need each other more than the United States and China do (in fact, Taiwan’s number one trading partner is China). Although Moore certainly has a point, his view does ignore the fact that sometimes posturing can get out of control and lead to bad outcomes.

The panelists also saw the value of diplomacy in helping to reduce the space warfare threat. But whereas Moore wants a treaty, and Hitchens wants some kind of mutual agreement over “rules of the road” for space, Kueter believes that broader efforts, not simply focused on space, are called for. Hays briefly mentioned the need for diplomatic efforts, but was not specific.

Hays and Kueter did not play up the negative effects of space arms control, for instance the possibility of cheating by a closed, non-transparent authoritarian society like China. And they also did not challenge Moore’s criticism of the “space Pearl Harbor” scenario. Their primary point was that the nature of the technology makes it virtually impossible to develop any kind of workable space weapons treaty, so if our goal is to minimize such weapons, we should find another method of achieving that goal.

Although neither Hays nor Kueter emphasized the Chinese space threat, they both referred to a recent Department of Defense report on Chinese military power which indicates that China is pursuing a broad range of space weapons. There are two problems with this report, however. One is that it is not very specific about China’s efforts, beyond mentioning their procurement in the late 1990s of Ukrainian satellite communications jammers and the January 2007 ASAT test. The other problem is that in the past the report made rather bold assertions (such as claims about “parasitic microsatellites”) that proved to be based upon extremely dubious sources. Once this was exposed—by experts who are generally in favor of some kind of space arms control—the DoD retreated from those assertions. Although the report’s authors do appear to have become more careful, the report’s lack of specifics about Chinese space weapons capabilities should make one wary of accepting it unequivocally. As Ivan Eland pointed out, we should evaluate actual capabilities, rather than abstract intentions.

Despite the publicity over his new book, Twilight War, Moore’s argument is in many ways the most outside of the mainstream and ultimately, the most disconnected from the current political environment. Forget about the issue of verification, or the evolving nature of the technology. In fact, forget about the entire subject of space weaponization. The simple fact is that arms control treaties are not a commonly accepted way of reducing tensions anymore. There are many reasons for this that transcend issues of left-right ideology. These include the fact that after the Cold War, the United States learned of at least one incident where the Soviet Union blatantly violated a treaty (the Bioweapons Convention) and never got caught. But they also include the fact that such treaties are difficult to negotiate and ratify, let alone verify. There are easier and more effective methods for achieving similar ends than trying to negotiate a treaty. Despite his comments about not using the Cold War as a model, much of Moore’s language sounds as if it was written in 1983, at the height of the nuclear freeze movement, and not in a world where treaties and the United Nations have far diminished standing.

Hitchens and several others who were not present, such as Michael Krepon, Jeffrey Lewis, and Gregory Kulacki, represent the more mainstream pro-space arms control argument today. They do not propose a “treaty” to ban weapons, but rather mutually agreed upon standards of conduct to not conduct actions such as ASAT testing. There are flaws with this approach too, but it is less radical and more realistic than the pursuit of a treaty.

For instance, Hitchens argues that the United States and China have substantial mutual interests in not producing more space debris. The fact that China has announced plans to increase its satellite launch rate and even to develop commercial satellites for sale does imply that they may come to view space debris as a greater threat in the future. But this mutual interests argument tends to underplay the fact that mutual interests are simply factors in larger equations that are calculated differently for both sides—yes, China may have an interest in not producing more space debris, but is this interest greater than their interest in possibly blunting the United States’ significant reliance upon space for tactical warfare? Could it even drive them to develop more sophisticated weapons that do not produce so much debris?

Hitchens warned that we have reached a point where space technology is within the grasp of many more countries and they will do what they have done in other areas of space, which is to follow the leader’s actions—in other words, to develop ASAT capabilities because the Americans have now demonstrated them.

Although Jeff Lewis and Gregory Kulacki were not present for the discussion, they have also stated that their research into China’s ASAT test indicates that the Chinese may not have developed the weapon primarily to oppose the United States, but because it was a natural technological development in the Chinese view. This is generally known as the “technological determinism” argument that has been used to explain, most notably, the development of the hydrogen bomb—scientists and engineers build things because they can, and politicians approve them even though they do not understand the ramifications. Although there are good indications that the Chinese did not carefully think about their test beforehand, and there is also evidence that China did not develop a military space doctrine to enable them to effectively use this capability, it seems that in this case the most simple explanation is the best one—China developed an ASAT weapon because they wanted an ASAT weapon, and they wanted one because American space power is so predominant.

War in heaven

Two things may happen over the next several years that will determine if this subject is elevated in importance or fades once again. The first is the potential response by other countries to the Chinese and American actions. Hitchens warned that we have reached a point where space technology is within the grasp of many more countries and they will do what they have done in other areas of space, which is to follow the leader’s actions—in other words, to develop ASAT capabilities because the Americans have now demonstrated them. That may be bad for America’s interests, she notes, because we could end up with a situation where other countries start producing large amounts of space debris by testing kinetic kill weapons. Similarly, if China tests its weapon again, the rhetoric and the tensions will increase.

The other factor is the presidential election. If Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama become president, they could conceivably take a different tack on this subject than John McCain and the Bush administration. They could engage the idea of some kind of diplomatic solution to a perceived threat of space weaponization. But at least for now, the topic does not appear to have been elevated to the point where it is openly discussed on the national stage. That should not keep us from watching the skies.