The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Space weapon illustration
Will the Chinese ASAT test convince the US to seek a global ban on such weapons, or instead ramp up development of similar systems and countermeasures? (credit: DoD)

Making sense of China’s weapons test

On Thursday, January 11, 2007, China launched a medium-range ballistic missile carrying a kinetic kill vehicle at a defunct Feng Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite at an altitude of 865 kilometers in what was apparently a live anti-satellite weapons test—the first of its kind since the 1980s. On the basis of the detection of the launch event, and the resulting space debris, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johnson confirmed the event a week later, on Thursday, January 18 after an article about test appeared on the web site of Aviation Week & Space Technology. Five days later, on January 23, China also confirmed that the test had taken place. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman that “There’s no need to feel threatened about this,” and that China is “not going to get into any arms race in space.”

Of course, by then the test had been roundly condemned, and taken by everyone as evidence that they were right all along, whatever they happened to believe before. Especially coming after last autumn’s report that China had fired a laser at a US satellite, “space hawks” saw in this further evidence of hostile Chinese designs on space, to which the US must respond by developing its own military capabilities. “Space doves” were angered about China’s irresponsible action, but frequently read it as a reaction to an increasingly provocative US policy, strikingly manifested in the revised National Space Policy last year.

Nonetheless, there has been little effort to actually put the anti-satellite weapons test into context, though this test seems to beg for exactly that. After all, China has for the last five years been calling for a new treaty to ban the placement of weapons in space, and specifically the kind of explicit anti-satellite capability it has just tested. Additionally, there are its continued assertions that it does not want an arms race in space, even after the test. There is ample reason to distrust pacifistic claims by any government, but this may be true for the time being: China is not in a position to run, let alone win, such a race.

There is ample reason to distrust pacifistic claims by any government, but this may be true for the time being: China is not in a position to run, let alone win, such a race.

There seem to be two possible explanations for this contradiction. One, favored by arms control skeptics, is that China’s talk of a treaty was just an attempt to hobble the United States either until it catches up economically and technologically, or to ameliorate its disadvantage while it secretly works on the very systems restricted by the treaty. After all, China recognizes that the US will likely retain a military edge for decades, and that in the event of conflict it may be able to narrow the gap by attacking the satellites supporting US forces.

The other explanation is that China is hedging its bets, developing a counterspace capability in the likely event that it fails to get a treaty that it has good reason to want. Even if China may see attacking American satellites as a way of undermining US military power, China, too, is a space power, the world’s third largest, and like all the rest dependent on constellations of weather, navigation, communications, and intelligence satellites. This dependence, military as well as civilian, will only grow with time, and should it attack another country’s systems, it will only raise the risk that its systems will be attacked in kind.

Of course, Chinese policymakers may have decided that without such a treaty their country’s space networks are at risk of attack in a future war anyway, and that they can only hope to protect their own systems by being able to put an attacker’s satellites at risk. They may also see this as their only option given the much-discussed possibility of US space forces moving from being a way of supporting attacks by air, land, and sea, to another medium for delivering attacks.

In any event, the Chinese government must have expected that the test would be detected by the United States and perhaps the space surveillance systems of other governments as well. Like other highly publicized weapons tests, it may well have been conducted for the benefit of an audience: not just to remind others of China’s feeling on the matter, but to demonstrate a military capability in the hopes of making the US take its initiative more seriously.

Does that mean that China’s statement that it has no wish to see an arms race in space is an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of naïve arms control supporters? That can’t be totally ruled out, but it seems unlikely—and unnecessary. The absence of an arms race does not necessarily mean the total absence of investment in a given type of military capability. For instance, China is currently modernizing its air, land, and sea forces, and few contest that China sees a confrontation with the US as at least possible. Many American planners, certainly, view the developments with some alarm. However, no one characterizes the changes as an arms race because China is not conducting its modernization programs in competition with a United States whose forces it aims to overwhelm quantitatively or qualitatively in the foreseeable future.

This logic could also apply to China’s space forces. Recognizing that it cannot out-build likely opponents, it will not try to do so, but resort to other strategies that would not constitute an “arms race” per se. The pre-World War 1 German navy, for instance, was built as a “risk fleet,” deterring the stronger British not through the likelihood of defeat, but its ability to inflict unacceptably high losses, even in victory.

This weapons test does not change the basic facts of the situation, and certainly not the balance of power in East Asia.

Whatever course China pursues, however, its position of disadvantage should not be forgotten—the way Americans were so often prone to forget Soviet weakness during the Cold War. In fact, Soviet leaders in the Cold War were always painfully aware of their country’s weakness relative to the West, from Stalin to Gorbachev. Even Soviet actions which seem foolhardy in retrospect, like the placing of missiles in Cuba in 1962, were motivated by that sense of weakness, rather than a sense of triumphalist arrogance.

China’s position over the next few decades is not much different, but it has been common practice to paint outlandish visions of China’s strength for years now, just as the Cold Warriors who spoke of bomber and missile gaps did fifty years ago. They predict a 200-submarine Chinese navy by the mid-2020s, exaggerate the power of China’s nuclear arsenal, and offer dubious reports about the scope of China’s space weapons program. Remember the stories about China’s parasite satellites? All the evidence on that seems to have been one story in a Hong Kong newspaper several years ago.

This weapons test does not change the basic facts of the situation, and certainly not the balance of power in East Asia. While the US intelligence community was at last report still gathering data on the test, no new technology really seems to have been required. It can therefore be read not as a matter of pushing the envelope, but of China (in most respects) catching up to where the US and the Soviet Union were forty years ago—just as is the case with its manned space program. Nor is a single test the same thing as the organization of a militarily effective combat unit. Indeed, as the restraint of both superpowers during the Cold War demonstrated, it is not even a sign that the creation of such a unit is imminent.

None of this is to say that China is insignificant from a security standpoint, of course. It may already be a bigger economic power than the Soviet Union ever was, and this is manifesting itself in the country’s considerable and developing military power. Its submarine fleet, nuclear arsenal, and space capabilities (among other dimensions of its military forces) are formidable in many respects, and will become more so. History also suggests that this growing power will be a factor in China’s relations with the rest of the world. But exactly how it will figure into those relations remains an open question. And in either event, the alarmist visions to which we are so often treated in questionable estimates and reports are more fantasy than fact.

That said, the question of how the United States could respond remains, and there are three obvious options. One is to do nothing. The demonstration can be taken as just that, a show that gets China’s message across, but does not change the basic facts of the situation. The United States simply continues on its current path, moving from technological research and debates over military theory to the development of battle-ready combat units—as has already happened at the level of electronic warfare, as with the 76th Space Control Squadron.

The second is to step up America’s current pursuit of space dominance. With various degrees of publicity, American policymakers can start new programs or restart old ones, enlarge budgets and perhaps stage tests of its own. (While the US has not used a missile in such a test in over twenty years, it apparently tested a chemical laser against a satellite in 1997. Many more such systems exist today.) In the meantime, rudimentary counterspace units may be cobbled together as quickly as possible, perhaps using older equipment designs. (For example, an F-15 squadron could be assigned to the counterspace mission and armed with the Air-Launched Miniature Vehicle, the anti-satellite missile demonstrated back in 1985.) Of course in the near term this would be more a matter of sending a political signal than anything else. However, these moves may be read as a sign that the US was intimidated by the Chinese test rather than an expression of tough-mindedness, even if it motivates greater restraint on China’s part in the future.

History also suggests that this growing military power will be a factor in China’s relations with the rest of the world. But exactly how it will figure into those relations remains an open question.

The third is to engage China on the issue. Of course, the timing of such a shift in policy is far from ideal now. It would look as if China’s test had successfully intimidated the United States and its allies, as the hawks will no doubt point out, on top of all of the other arguments they have raised against the arms control process. Nonetheless, such considerations do not change the fundamental case for or against engagement, even if they affect the timing of such engagement. (John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists recently observed that the test “will make it very difficult for the US to talk about space cooperation with China anytime soon.”)

Moreover, this recent incident suggests a number of starting points for such an engagement process. One, which would not violate the current National Space Policy, would be an agreement between China and other nations to keep each other informed about such activity. Given the danger of misinterpreting the launch of a ballistic missile from inside China’s territory, an agreement to provide notification of such actions as missile tests is only reasonable.

More ambitiously, the US can call for a moratorium on anti-satellite weapons testing. Verification should not be a problem. The launch of a missile and the discharge of a directed-energy weapon are both easy enough for American satellites to detect, while the results of a test would be readily detectable in the form of missing space objects and the creation of space debris. Additionally, the problem of defining the systems in question is far from insuperable. The agreement can be defined to cover particular targets of weapons tests, rather than the types of weapons tested. This would represent an extremely modest beginning for a new round of engagement on the matter, but a beginning nonetheless.