Many US observers believe anti-satellite (ASAT) attacks could be China’s trump card in a major military confrontation with the United States. But the reality may be exactly the opposite. The United States could have more to gain, and China more to lose, from taking the fight to outer space. A US presidential decision to pursue this advantage would make the United States, not China, the protagonist in a new space arms race that would undermine the security of both nations.
Skewed US Perceptions
Sixteen years ago a Congressionally mandated commission on US space security ignited a debate on the role of ASATs in US-China relations with the incendiary assertion that China was preparing to launch a massive pre-emptive attack on US satellites. US analysts described this as a “space Pearl Harbor”—a form of asymmetric warfare that a weaker China could use to gain a decisive military advantage over a stronger United States. Chinese military authors reported and discussed the US claim, and US analysts mistakenly interpreted what they published as official confirmations of a Chinese plan for space warfare.
China’s successful test of a destructive ASAT weapon in January 2007 increased US concerns about a Chinese attack on US satellites. In February 2008 the United States demonstrated that its Aegis sea-based missile defense system could also be used as an ASAT weapon. The two events helped define the US discussion of the role of anti-satellite weapons in US-China relations by placing the focus on the potential consequences of Chinese ASAT attacks and how the United States might deter or defeat the hypothetical Chinese threat.
Although Chinese research, development and testing of ASAT capabilities continues there is no indication Chinese military planners intend to launch a pre-emptive strike against US satellites at the beginning of a future war with the United States. Moreover, Chinese military strategists do not see the US military use of satellites as a weakness they can exploit. To the contrary, they see it as a strength they should emulate. Nevertheless, US concerns about a Chinese “space Pearl Harbor” attack on US satellites continue to cast a large shadow over US perceptions of Chinese space policy and programs.
Consequential Chinese Realities
Over the past 16 years China steadily increased the number and capabilities of its satellites.
The first US warnings of a Chinese ASAT attack came at a time when China had no significant presence in space. Today China ranks second, behind the United States, in the number of functioning satellites on orbit. The planned introduction of a new generation of launch vehicles capable of placing heavier payloads into space suggests the number of functioning Chinese satellites will continue to increase. Congressionally imposed restrictions on civil and scientific cooperation with China make it difficult for US observers to assess progress in the quality and capabilities of Chinese satellites. But accounts of Chinese cooperation with the European Space Agency and media reports on advances in Chinese satellite technology suggest the quality of Chinese satellites is increasing at a rate comparable to the increase in quantity.
The military value of China’s satellites is arguably much greater than the value of its ASAT research, development and testing program. Satellites are a force multiplier that use the inherent advantages of space to augment the communication, command, control, intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and navigation functions of military forces on earth. In addition to helping Chinese commanders control their own forces, satellites can significantly increase their ability to find US forces over very large areas, track their movement, guide munitions to these targets and assess the damage afterwards.
US Turning the Table on Chinese ASATs
A recent US study of the technologies likely to be employed in a future war in the Western Pacific suggests that instead of being a trump card that a militarily weaker China might use to defeat a stronger United States, ASAT weapons could play a key role in helping the United States contain China. This is because satellites make it possible for China to threaten US and allied ships sailing thousands of kilometers away from Chinese shores. As the study states:
“…the United States enjoys a variety of alternatives to military satellites that could allow operations even without it. For the Chinese, by contrast, survivable sea-surveillance radar satellites would make the difference between accepting a U.S. sphere of influence covering much of the Western Pacific and the opportunity to threaten U.S.-allied commerce out to or beyond the Second Island Chain. For China, the military difference between satellites and their absence is thus important in ways that go far beyond efficiency. “
In other words, China’s military dependence on satellites may be greater than that of the United States. Perhaps that is why some US officials argue the United States should refuse to support international efforts to place limits on the use of anti-satellite weapons.
The Risks of Anti-Satellite Weapons
Attacking Chinese satellites may be able to provide a measure of protection for US and allied shipping in the event of a major war between the United States and China. But US decision makers should weigh that hypothetical benefit against the risks.
The impairment or loss of an important satellite, such as one used for reconnaissance, can quickly escalate a conflict or generate unpredictable and dangerous consequences. Determining if the loss is a result of an attack or simply a malfunction takes time and the US has little experience with adversarial conflict in the space domain; this may increase the possibility of errors in judgment. Recent US war games that include ASAT attacks suggest the potential for escalation is high. In an all-out war between the United States and China the combination of escalatory pressure and poor judgement could lead to an accidental or unintended nuclear exchange. Moreover, the mutual targeting of satellites is highly likely to accelerate an already troublesome military competition between the two nations, deepen growing mistrust and inhibit much-needed cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and other pressing international problems.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems willing to accept the risks of playing the protagonist in an ASAT arms race with China. In the summer of 2014 the president initiated a new long-term effort to develop anti-satellite technologies the United States can use in a future war with China. This effort was supposedly launched in response to a Chinese ASAT test in May of 2013, but Obama’s push for new US ASAT capabilities may have more to do with broader concerns about the balance of power in the Western Pacific than a single ASAT-related Chinese experiment in outer space.
Time to Talk
ASAT negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War failed to produce a formal agreement but did help both sides recognize the risks of attacking each other’s satellites. Cooperative projects like the Apollo-Soyuz mission created constituencies of scientists and engineers who helped shift nationalistic perceptions of the Cold War space race towards international space exploration and discovery.
The United States and China have a great deal to gain from fostering a cooperative approach to outer space and much to lose by turning it into a battlefield. And now is the time to talk about it, before both bureaucracies become so heavily invested in anti-satellite strategies and technology that the current drift towards space warfare becomes too hard to reverse.