June 1, 2008  

Flashpoint: The not-so-final frontier

The race for space is back on

China destroyed one of its own aging, low-Earth-orbit (LEO) weather satellites last winter while it was circling at 500 miles above the planet, using a ground-based, direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon.

This winter, the U.S., using its sea-based Aegis missile defense system, shot down a disabled American intelligence satellite at 100 or so miles altitude as it tumbled uncontrollably toward the planet.

A little friendly military-to-military chest-beating, perhaps? Maybe, but one thing is clear: America’s long-standing dominance of the final frontier is no longer a given.

Beijing’s January 2007 ASAT launch — the first test since America and the Soviet Union conducted them in the 1980s — was a surprise to many, especially considering China’s promise to use space for peaceful purposes only.

The international community also was taken aback by the launch from the Xichang Space Center because it took place without the prior notification normally given to other space-faring countries, whose assets total about 3,000 scientific, commercial and military satellites. Although China hoped to conduct the test in secret, many believe U.S. intelligence was aware of the launch in advance, but to collect data and protect intelligence sources and methods, did not disclose its knowledge.

A White House National Security Council spokesman said in the days after the test: “The U.S. believes China’s development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space arena.”

Adding to the consternation was China’s initial silence about the launch, followed by two weeks of denials. Even after admitting the shot, Beijing claimed it was a peaceful scientific experiment. Yet China’s reticence is not surprising, considering Beijing’s general lack of transparency about its space programs, which are run by the highly secretive military.

The satellite’s destruction created a major debris field in space, too. Of the estimated 100,000 pieces created by the Chinese ASAT test — which account for nearly 40 percent of all space junk in LEO — 2,600 pieces are trackable from Earth. Many of these larger pieces are capable of damaging other space vehicles that come into their paths. The U.S. already has maneuvered a number of its spacecraft as a precaution against Chinese space debris.

But more importantly, the successful ASAT test means China can not only track, but also can destroy LEO satellites, including weather, communications, surveillance and global-positioning birds. Indeed, Chinese military writings, according to the Pentagon, emphasize the need for the ability to counter a foe’s military-related satellites, especially in the initial phases of a campaign, to “blind and deafen the enemy.”

China’s strategic intentions have the potential to take on real-world significance, especially in consideration of a possible Taiwan contingency, the most likely scenario for a Sino-American military dust-up.

The Defense Department also believes the People’s Liberation Army is developing nonkinetic means of attacking satellites, such as jamming and blinding, and using lasers, microwave, particle beam and electromagnetic pulse weapons. Some experts say they believe the future lies in the use of nonkinetic kill capabilities, rather than using kinetic means such as the direct-ascent ASAT. While adversaries are denied access to their space assets, it would limit the potential damage to friendly satellites from space debris. (Beijing allegedly “lased,” or pulsed with a high-intensity laser, one of our imagery satellites in 2006.)


Cyber-warfare, another key Chinese effort, also could be used as an anti-satellite capability. Space assets rely on a range of computers, including terrestrially based information technology systems at operational or relay ground stations, making them potentially vulnerable to cyber attacks. In congressional testimony this year, the director of national intelligence (DNI) stated, “Counter-command, control and sensor systems, to include communications satellite jammers and ASAT weapons, are among Beijing’s highest military priorities.”

In 2007, Beijing put to sea a Space Event Support Ship (SESS) for space-tracking — a fundamental prerequisite for improving space situational awareness, including monitoring spacecraft and counterspace operations. As the Pentagon stated in its annual report to Congress on Chinese military power, “China is developing a multi-dimensional program to limit or prevent the use of space by its potential adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.” As such, China could, in theory, eventually threaten the entirety of the United States’ military and civilian space architecture, using its evolving asymmetric kinetic and nonkinetic counterspace capabilities.

China also launched its first lunar orbiter in 2007, demonstrating an ability to conduct sophisticated space operations. Beijing plans to put a rover on the moon by 2012 and land a taikonaut there by 2020, which will undoubtedly serve as a source of scientific achievement — and national pride.

In addition to launching Chinese taikonauts into space, China intends to put 100 civilian and military-use satellites into orbit over the next decade, if not sooner, including 18 this year, according to the Pentagon.

Beijing also is deploying advanced imagery, reconnaissance, navigation and communications satellites. According to the Defnse Department, China will deploy radar, ocean surveillance and high-resolution photoreconnaissance satellites in the next decade.

China’s space prowess is boosted by Russian assistance, especially for the manned space program. Although Moscow insists it will not transfer sensitive space technology to Beijing, its record of advanced conventional weapons sales to China is not comforting.

In February, an Aegis-class Cruiser, the Lake Erie, intercepted a crippled, U.S. military spy satellite with an SM-3 missile, designed for sea-based missile defense work. The 5,000-pound satellite, owned and operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, failed to respond to commands shortly after it was sent into orbit in December 2006.

Beijing immediately responded to the operation, saying the destruction of the satellite was in response to China’s ASAT test a little more than a year earlier, and served as proof of the hypocrisy of American criticism of their launch. Representatives from China and Russia again cited the necessity for an outer-space arms-control treaty to prevent what they claim is the unnecessary “weaponization” of space. Others chimed in, accusing the U.S. of starting a space arms race, attempting to portray China’s ASAT test as the moral equivalent of America’s intercept of the defunct satellite despite the vast discrepancies between these events.

The satellite’s destruction also was criticized by those who saw this operation as being an entirely staged event with the intention of testing missile defense, or ASAT, technologies under the guise of a humanitarian exercise. Washington denied these accusations, insisting the satellite was uncontrollable, unrecoverable and was going to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, posing a potential threat to human life, property and the environment with its tank of unused, highly toxic hydrazine fuel.

Proponents of the U.S. action argued that no matter how small the chance that the satellite’s hazardous materials would reach the Earth’s surface, Washington was fully justified, indeed obligated, to pursue its chosen course of action. Others noted that China’s ASAT test was a military exercise of choice that in no way compares to the transparent actions taken by the U.S. in the face of pending danger to life and property on the ground.

Indeed, it could be suggested that if anyone opened the door to an arms race in space, it was Beijing’s ASAT test in 2007, more than 20 years after the last U.S. test. But this argument by some has not dissuaded China from pushing for a new space treaty.


China, along with Russia, introduced a draft resolution titled “Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space” in February at the 65-member United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Space-related concerns still are addressed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which has 125 signatories. It includes a ban on the deployment of weapons of mass destruction, but not conventional weapons, in outer space. The treaty, modeled on another non-armament accord, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, does not forbid the military use of space, but it does proscribe establishing bases, installations, fortifications, testing of weapons or holding military maneuvers on the moon.The Chinese-Russian draft treaty would disallow the testing and deployment of weapons in space for use against another nation’s satellites or orbital craft. Interestingly, the draft does not ban research and development or production.

Although the concept of a new treaty has support among some arms-control advocates, the Bush administration has categorically rejected the idea, concerned about limitations on U.S. access to, and use of, space. There are also worries about treaty language such as the definition of the phrase “space weapon”; a seemingly benign satellite could be used to attack another satellite simply by ramming it — making it, in essence, a weapon.

Other technologies or systems with real counterspace abilities possibly could escape restriction, or even be included to the detriment of other civilian programs, such as when the Soviets tried to identify the space shuttle as a space weapon.

Another concern is verification of treaty compliance, minimizing the possibility of a breakout. A high degree of transparency would be required to inspect every payload to be put into space, not to mention the national security risks from espionage.

And even though they are not included in the draft treaty, what about terrestrially based systems, which could include direct-ascent ASAT and directed energy weapons, which appear to be the future wave of counterspace capabilities?

The Chinese have admitted the challenges of implementing such an agreement but are not interested in discussing their ASAT test, which some states are insisting on as a prerequisite for beginning discussions of the draft treaty. Some argue that considering their great power ambitions, it is naïve to believe that Beijing or Moscow would not deploy space weapons today if they could; the treaty is merely a diplomatic gambit to buy time to develop their own programs.

Detractors of a treaty point out that the U.S. has the most to lose in any new agreement. As a leading space power, the U.S. would be relinquishing much more in strategic advantage than China or Russia — for the moment, at least. No nation relies more on space than the U.S. It is the ultimate military high ground and critical to maintaining the supremacy of American armed forces.Potential enemies know this, seeing space as America’s Achilles’ heel. As the DNI noted to Congress this year, “Over the last decade, the rest of the world has made significant progress in developing counterspace capabilities.”

Moreover, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, told the House Armed Services Committee in February, “The Chinese kinetic anti-satellite test … made it clear space is not a sanctuary.”

China is on a trajectory to challenge Washington for pre-eminence in space. Beijing believes that if it has the capacity to target U.S. space assets, Washington will be more reluctant to, and less capable of, challenging it on the battlefield.

Protecting American space assets — and freedom of action on the high frontier — must be central to U.S. national security strategy. Failure to maintain space superiority would only invite a Pearl Harbor in space, leaving us deaf, dumb and blind — and at war.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.