No Need to Give Up on Peace in Space

May 6, 2015
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

The headlines from this year’s space symposium in Colorado Springs were full of doom and gloom. The U.S. assistant secretary of State for arms control warned, “The threat to outer space is real and growing.” He drew bright lines in the heavens between enemies and allies, dismissed international entreaties for negotiations in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (UNCD), and called on U.S. allies to strengthen space deterrence.

U.S. Air Force Lt. General Jay Raymond told the packed house of space enthusiasts that China was enemy number one. He claimed a July 2014 Chinese missile defense test was actually an anti-satellite test and that it was successful, although he offered no new information in support of either claim. U.S. officials are using the recent Chinese test to justify greater U.S. reliance on space weaponry to protect U.S. satellites.

You say tomato, I say 西

Chinese interest in anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons is not new. A survey of Chinese publications contains analyses of U.S. and Soviet ASAT programs from the late 1970s. Interestingly, even these early Chinese studies view anti-satellite and missile defense as two applications of the same hit-to-kill technology. Researchers from the Air and Missile Defense Institute of China’s Air Force Engineering University expressed the same view in a paper published this March. These views are correct, of course. For example, in February 2008 the United States used a modified missile defense interceptor to shoot down a malfunctioning U.S. satellite.

After decades of research and development, China tested its own hit-to-kill interceptor in an ASAT mode in January 2007. The test obliterated one of China’s own satellites. Widespread international condemnation of the test, which created a large field of hazardous space debris, led China to begin sub-orbital testing of the interceptor, much like U.S. missile defense tests. China conducted what it described as missile defense tests of the interceptor in January 2010, January 2013 and July 2014.

The United States did not object to China’s descriptions of the 2010 and 2013 tests, so its decision to challenge China on the 2014 test is a cause for concern.

U.S. officials refuse to reveal why the 2014 test is different than the earlier two tests. China remains characteristically silent. In the absence of additional information neither description is convincing. But even if there were distinguishing characteristics that justify the ASAT label, it is hard to understand why China’s 2014 test suddenly justifies greater U.S. reliance on space weaponry.

Calling off talk of an international agreement

China has been requesting international negotiations on binding limits on space weapons since 1985. China currently has a proposal, submitted together with Russia, for negotiations in the UNCD on the prevention of an arms race in outer space. The United States rejects the proposal on the grounds that it fails to address important U.S. concerns but it is unwilling to offer an alternative.

The Obama administration was willing to promote the voluntary norms proposed by the European Union in their International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. But the July 2014 Chinese test seems to mark a turn towards a more aggressive U.S. approach to space security emphasizing space deterrence, space control and “active defense”—a euphemism for space weaponry. U.S. space diplomacy is now more focused on rallying allies to contribute to a new U.S. effort to deter U.S. enemies in space, especially China.

Negotiating a space security treaty with China and Russia is no picnic. Both want an agreement that includes limitations on U.S. ballistic missile defense, which may be one reason the United States has consistently refused to engage in negotiations on space security within the UNCD. And since missile defense technology can be used to shoot down satellites, it is hard to conceive of a credible international ban on ASAT weapons that would not include restrictions on missile defenses.

After considerable expenditures and decades of development, the United States still does not have a credible missile defense and recent government and independent studies document its failures. It may be time for the United States to reconsider accepting limits on missile defense and to explore an international agreement that would prohibit attacks on satellites.

Negotiating a verifiable treaty to protect satellites from attack may be extremely difficult but at least it is possible. Defending satellites is not. They are inherently defenseless. Satellites are extremely fragile and cannot be hidden, maneuvered, or hardened against a physical attack to any meaningful degree.

Threatening to destroy enemy satellites in the hope of deterring an enemy attack in space is not the best approach to space deterrence and will lead to deploying space weaponry. Whatever the Chinese did in July 2014, a U.S. decision to favor this military option remains a poor strategic choice.

Better options

There are a number of practical steps the United States can take to make satellites less attractive targets and blunt the effect of a space attack, such as building redundancy into satellite systems and developing the ability to rapidly replace them. They can be hardened against electronic attack. If, as some people claim, satellites are an Achilles heel for the U.S., then that is very poor military planning and should be fixed.

Limiting the capabilities that countries have to carry out such attacks can strengthen this approach. A binding international agreement forbidding anti-satellite attacks would raise the strategic costs and lower the strategic benefits for any nation that chose to violate it.

The United States has much more to gain from negotiating a binding international agreement to protect U.S. satellites than it does from deploying the means to destroy Russian and Chinese satellites.

The good news is that both Russia and China are ready to open negotiations in the UNCD. Instead of seeing that as a ploy to somehow dupe the United States and its allies, the United States should take advantage of the offer, especially since it holds the potential to solve a serious U.S. security problem. Just because the United States does not like where the negotiations start does not mean that is where they must end up. That’s why they’re called negotiations.