Over the past couple of years, we've written extensively about China's accelerating efforts to develop anti-satellite weapons. Those weapons crossed a new threshold in January of this year, when Beijing successfully tested an orbital kill vehicle, launched from a modified, medium-range missile. During the January event, the Chinese used the kill vehicle to disable one of their defunct weather satellites--a platform that was also targeted during previous evaluations of the ASAT system. When the kill vehicle slammed into the meteorological satellite three months ago, the PRC crossed an important threshold, demonstrating an ability to target U.S. military and commercial satellites operation in low earth orbit (LEO). It represents one of the most serious challenges (to date) of our dominance of the high frontier.
In its coverage of the January test, The New York Times suggested that China might have an ulterior motive for staging the demonstration. According to the Times, the ASAT test might have been aimed at goading the U.S. into signing some sort of space weapons treaty. The logic goes something like this: by demonstrating its own ability to degrade or destroy our satellites, Beijing gains more leverage in pushing for limits on space-based weapons.
But, as we noted at the time, there are some serious problems with that argument. Following the Times' logic, Beijing is prepared to "give up" a program that has consumed billions of dollars and at decade of work, in exchange for a U.S. ASAT program that's been dormant for 20 years. In the mid-1980s, the United States successfully tested a satellite kill vehicle that was launched at high altitude by an F-15 fighter. After that demonstration, we essentially abandoned our ASAT efforts, fearing that it would lead to a "militarization" of space.
By comparison, China's ASAT development is one of the nation's highest-priority programs. In addition to the missile-launched kill vehicle, Beijing is also developing high-power, ground-based lasers, designed to blind our LEO reconnaissance satellites. One of those lasers was reportedly used to track a U.S. recce satellite last year, underscoring China's ability to engage those platforms. Would the PRC readily surrender critical military capabilities that just beginning to bear fruit, while the U.S. gives up virtually nothing in return? The answer to that question is an obvious--and resounding--"no."
Moreover, it's difficult to imagine that China will continue to cede space dominance to the U.S. Any space weapons treaty that limits (or completely cancels) Beijing's ASAT program would, essentially, lock-in American advantages in space-based reconnaissance, navigation and communications. Chinese military writings over the past decade have highlighted these advantages--and the need to counteract them. Now, on the verge of achieving that goal, the Times would have us believe that Beijing is prepared to simply abandon that effort, in pursuit of a proposed weapons agreement. That sort of reasoning simply fails the Aggie test.
Still, the Times remains undeterred. In Monday's editions, reporters Michael Gordon and David Cloud suggest that the United States might have prevented the January ASAT test. According to Gordon and Cloud, U.S. intelligence agencies tracked preparations for the event, and provided updates to senior administration officials. Those officials, in turn, debated potential courses of action and even began drafting a preemptive protest. But in the end, they elected to say nothing until after the test was conducted.
And, not surprisingly, the Times implies that the administration's approach was a serious mistake. The paper quotes two "out-of-government" experts that echo the paper's editorial position:
“Had the United States been willing to discuss the military use of space with the Chinese in Geneva, that might have been enough to dissuade them from going through with it,” said Jeffrey G. Lewis, an arms control expert at the New America Foundation.
“This was absolutely preventable,” said Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress, a research group. “The Chinese have been proposing a treaty to ban weapons in space for years. We have refused in order to pursue this fantasy of space-based antimissile weapons.”
To their credit, Gordon and Cloud did find a couple of analysts who support the administration's policy. Peter Rodman, a former senior Pentagon official, notes the disconnect between China's diplomatic overtures, and their emerging space doctrine:
“It is a bit of arms-control mythology that there is always a deal to be made,” Mr. Rodman said. “For years, the Chinese military has been writing about how to cripple a superpower that relies on high-tech capabilities like satellites. They have been patiently developing this capability. I don’t see why they would trade it away.”
Even John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org expressed doubts about China's intentions. He notes that Chinese proposals for a space weapons ban have always excluded a "pop up" ASAT system, like the one tested in January. Mr. Pike--hardly a fan of the Bush Administration--doubts that the U.S. could have convinced the Chinese to abandon the test.
We've applauded the Bush Administration for seeing through Beijing's little charade, and adopting a more realistic national space policy, unveiled last October. Mr. Bush's stated goals of securing our "freedom of action in space" are a welcome departure from the Clinton Administration, which stressed space control and diplomacy. Continuing on that latter course would have (likely) put the U.S. on the road to a disastrous space weapons treaty, limiting our own options on the high frontier, while enabling China (and other potential adversaries) to develop and deploy anti-satellite weapons aimed at our own orbital platforms. By allowing the January test to proceed, the Bush Administration accomplished something far more valuable than pointless diplomacy or sham weapons deals; they allowed Beijing to reveal its real intentions regarding space, the threat posed to our own space systems--and the need to do something about it.