The X-37B program: an American exercise in the Art of War?
by Michael Listner
|The most vexing characteristic of the X-37 for analysts and the public alike is the classified nature of its mission.|
These long-duration flights are not the only things that draw attention to the program. The fact that the program is under the auspices of the Department of Defense and that its on-orbit activities remain classified generates substantial speculation. The US Air Force has maintained that the purpose of the X-37B is to test new sensors and new satellite technologies, and there is no reason to doubt that part of its mission entails that. Despite this, many speculate that the secrecy surrounding the X-37 shrouds a more nefarious purpose such as that of a “space weapon” or an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). However, as noted by some, the size and the lack of maneuverability of the X-37, and the fact that the X-37 can be tracked even by amateurs as makes such a purpose dubious at best.3 Nevertheless, wild speculation about the purpose of the X-37 runs rampant, including space bombing, surveillance, interfering with other satellites, spying on the Chinese Tiangong-1, or deploying spy satellites.4 These theories about the X-37’s purpose are denied by the Air Force yet remain popular despite their impracticability, which ultimately works to the benefit of concealing the true nature of the program.
The activities of the X-37 have not gone unnoticed by other spacefaring nations either, including geopolitical rivals. China in particular has taken notice of the X-37, and Chinese media reports echo the speculation that the X-37 could serve as a space weapon or a space bomber carrying nuclear weapons.5 While media reports such as this are clearly intended as propaganda, Chinese analysts and the PLA leadership likely take a pragmatic view of the X-37 and recognize the technical shortcomings of the vehicle that prevent it from being utilized as a space weapon or a space bomber. Even so, they do seem concerned that it could be the first step towards the development of a space-based weapon that could be deployed against ground targets.6 This line of thought is not surprising because this is a move that is not only considered an eventuality by Chinese military theorists but also has its foundations in the teachings of Sun Tzu.7
The most vexing characteristic of the X-37 for analysts and the public alike is the classified nature of its mission. The unwillingness of the Air Force to release details of the spaceplane’s purpose fuels speculation and generates concern that the opaque nature of its activities might cause a geopolitical adversary like China to overcompensate and lead to an escalation of military activity in outer space. This concern has led at least one group to call for more transparency in the program.8 Despite this concern, the Air Force will likely be unwilling to provide that transparency not only to protect the specific activities that the X-37 may be performing in orbit, but also to protect the perception of what a geopolitical adversary may infer its purpose to be.
It goes without saying that the X-37 garners substantial attention, which the Air Force carefully cultivates to tantalize the imagination but not enough to reveal its function. Pre-launch photos of the X-37 being encapsulated, live launch webcasts, and post-landing photos are carefully released to the public to attract its attention and undoubtedly the attention of other players in the outer space arena. This, coupled with observations of the spaceplane’s orbital behavior by amateurs and foreign governments alike, feed an elusive yet alluring fixation with the spacecraft. In an exercise reminiscent of the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Air Force may have used this interest to shift the world’s attention from an important Chinese human spaceflight launch. On June 16, 2012, Shenzhou-9 launched with China’s first woman in space, which was the same day that the Air Force chose to bring OTV-2 back from space. While it may be coincidence that the two high-profile events happened on the same day, the return of OTV-2 from orbit gained wide media attention and stole some of the thunder from a geopolitical competitor. Whether this was intentional or not, the result is that a Chinese crewed mission to outer space played second fiddle to the return of an uncrewed United States military spacecraft from its clandestine mission in outer space.
|If the X-37 program is intended as a deception campaign to mislead the Chinese leadership into expending resources to react to a perceived threat, then it may have succeeded.|
While it may seem incongruent to have such a high public profile to a classified mission, the dichotomy of the high-profile public face of the X-37, coupled with the cloak of secrecy surrounding the program, contributes to what may be its primary purpose: deception. As pointed out by John Pike, the main purpose of the X-37 may be to keep Chinese military intelligence officials guessing since they will have to respond to everything it might be.9 Building upon this view, the opaqueness of the X-37 program may a serve the purpose of forcing a geopolitical rival like China to expend national security and intelligence resources to discover the spacecraft’s mission and make a strategic decision on whether to duplicate or develop a countermeasure to the perceived capability. This effort of deception is enhanced by not keeping the program in the same cloud of secrecy surrounding the typical launch of an NRO or other national security asset but instead by keeping enough of the program out of the shadows to entice the public and geopolitical rivals to watch its activities even closer.
This form of deception, whether intentional or not, is part of Cold War brinkmanship and is highly effective. A case in point occurred during the Cold War with the Soviet perceptions of the American Space Shuttle program. From the viewpoint of the Soviet military leadership, the shuttle represented a means to strategically bomb the Soviet Union from orbit, and as a potential ASAT because of the shuttle’s robotic arm. These perceptions were an impetus for the Soviet space program to develop its own shuttle and ancillary infrastructure, which required a substantial expenditure of resources for a shuttle that made one uncrewed flight.10 It is open to question whether the Space Shuttle was intended as an instrument for a deception campaign, and the Soviets response may have been merely tit-for-tat, yet the Soviets made a reactionary decision to move their space program along a path that they perceived was being taken by the United States.
If the X-37 program is intended as a deception campaign to mislead the Chinese leadership into expending resources to react to a perceived threat, then it may have succeeded. Chinese media reported in 2011 a test flight of the Shenlong spaceplane that apparently included an airdrop from an H-6 bomber. But the nature of the Shenlong project’s testing, as well as what the robotic vehicle truly represents, remains sketchy. Several China watchers in the US have speculated what the Shenlong might represent, with some experts postulating that the Shenlong is simply a tit-for-tat response to the X-37 program.11 Regardless of whether the Shenlong is a direct response to the X-37, a reaction or response to another perceived threat, or the natural progression of Chinese military doctrine, the existence of the X-37 program surely played a role in the decision making process, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was required to expend resources to that end. Therefore, if the X-37’s role is that of deception, then it may well have succeeded in deceiving the PLA to follow the path they have taken with the Shenlong.
On the other hand, deception campaigns can have unintended consequences and could potentially move a geopolitical rival to escalate a situation or mount its own deception campaign. PLA leadership, ingrained with the lessons of Sun Tzu, have unquestionably considered that the X-37 program may indeed be a deception program and decided to use the Shenlong as a means of deception as well. Yet, as noted earlier, the PLA leadership may see the X-37 as an eventual escalation in military activity by the United States and may decide to preempt the United States with an escalation of its own. An illustration of this occurred with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was initiated on March 23, 1983, by President Ronald Reagan. The Soviet leadership perceived SDI as a space-based weapons system and paranoia among the Soviet leadership caused their existing space weapon program to be accelerated with the eventual, albeit unccessful, launch of the Polyus-Skif “battle station” on the inaugural flight of the Energia rocket.12
|Whatever the true purpose of the X-37, the question always comes back to whether the program is worth the financial cost. If the primary purpose of the X-37 is deception, then the question is expanded to include whether it is worth the risk of prompting an escalation in outer space military activity.|
It is debatable whether SDI was intended as a deception program, but the unintended consequences of Soviet perceptions of SDI contributed to an escalation that was thwarted by the failure of the Polyus-Skif to properly insert itself into orbit. Likewise, the X-37 program and its probable mission of deception gambles with the risk of unintended consequences, including an escalation of aggressive military activity in outer space, which is the purported rationale for calls of transparency.
Whatever the true purpose of the X-37, the question always comes back to whether the program is worth the financial cost. Moreover, if the primary purpose of the X-37 is deception, then the question is expanded to include whether it is worth the risk of prompting an escalation in outer space military activity. The answer to both questions appears to be a qualified yes. X-37 operations appear to be expanding with the addition of a processing facility at Cape Canaveral, and public remarks from officials regarding the program are resoundingly positive. Therefore, it appears that whatever the mission of the X-37 may be, it has produced the intended results, and if deception is the primary or even unintended mission of the X-37 program, then that mission is sure to continue.13 Regardless of the program’s true purpose, if the X-37 program instigates the teachings of Sun Tzu to haunt the waking thoughts and dreams at night of Chinese analysts and the PLA leadership, then by one measure it can be considered an unqualified success.