In today's editions, The New York Times weighs in on China's recent (and apparently, successful) test of an anti-satellite system. As Aviation Week & Space Technology recently reported, the Chinese conducted an evaluation of a missile-launched ASAT on 11 January, using the system to knock-out an obsolete weather satellite. Our information suggests this was merely the latest in a series of tests with the ASAT and the meteorological satellite; during each successive evaluation, the Chinese managed to maneuver the kill vehicle closer to its target, before disabling the weather bird last week.
The implications of this event are clear; you don't have to be a space analyst to understand that China is positioning itself to challenge us on the high frontier, and (possibly) deny our access to critical, space-based intelligence platforms. According to Aviation Week, the "kill" demonstration took place roughly 500 NM above the earth, an altitude block that is used by many of our reconnaissance satellites. If China were able to degrade or destroy those platforms, our ability to prosecute a war would be greatly jeopardized. Additionally, the PRC ASAT program may give Beijing a mechanism for threatening some commercial satellites as well, with potentially dire consequences for the global economy.
Simply stated, China's ASAT program is a clear threat to the west, and that threat has grown geometrically over the past decade. In the mid-1990s, Beijing (essentially) had no anti-satellite capability. Since that time, they've invested tremendous resources in developing not only an orbital ASAT capability, but ground-based systems as well. Last July, the PRC reportedly fired a high-powered laser at a U.S. recce satellite in low earth orbit (LEO), demonstrating a potential ability to blind overhead sensors, and further limit our collection and surveillance capabilities.
But if you read today's account in the Times, you'll discover that China had a more "sensible" motive for conducting its recent ASAT tests. Quoting "experts" from organizations that are hardly friends of the Bush Administration (or, its recently-announced space policy), the NYT postulates that Beijing may be attempting to pressure the U.S. into negotiating an agreement that would prevent the militarization of space.
From a military stand-point, that logic choo-choo jumped the tracks a long time ago. Let me get this straight: China spends a decades (and billions of dollars) on a program that is one of its highest state priorities, yet it would gladly surrender those capabilities in exchange for a U.S. ASAT program that has been dormant for roughly 20 years. Analysts cited by the Times claim that Russia wants a similar deal. But such conjecture ignores another disturbing fact: Moscow is hard at work on its own, top priority space program a hypersonic glide vehicle that is capable of evading existing detection systems, and defeating ballistic missile defenses. Vladimir Putin is reportedly putting a lot of money into that effort, which (again) raises that nagging question: why give up a program that holds tremendous promise for a U.S. ASAT effort that has been largely abandoned?
Fact is, most "successful" Cold War arms treaties (noted by the paper's experts) were based on the elimination of viable systems or capabilities on both sides. Remember that 1980s agreement that banned intermediate range weapons from Europe? It came only after the U.S. deployed ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II IRBMs to bases in Sicily, England and Germany, countering Russia's sizeable arsenal of comparable weapons in eastern Europe. Ronald Reagan showed the Kremlin he meant business, and backed up his rhetoric with action.
Given the present status of our ASAT program, it would be difficult to negotiate a meaningful treaty on weapons in space, despite the propaganda "spin" from Moscow and Beijing. Besides, implying that Russia and China want a substantive agreement in this area--and suggesting that the White House is ignoring those overtures--is merely another excuse to blame George Bush for a problem that our adversaries are perpetuating.
As we noted yesterday, Mr. Bush's more assertive "national space policy," announced last October, is a step in the right direction, given the emerging threats from China and Russia. the Administration should make it clear that any space weapons treaty must include an end to Moscow's weapons-related HGV testing, and the dismantlement of China's ASAT program. In return, the U.S., Russia and other interested countries could mount a "peaceful" HGV research program, and we would continue our self-imposed moratorium on ASAT deployments. Put those criteria on the table, and we'll see just how interested the Chinese and Russians really are. Based on recent activities in those countries, I'll guess there won't be any takers for a "serious" space weapons treaty, one that requires Moscow and Beijing to surrender (or forestall) their own capabilities.
Suggesting that China's ASAT tests are little more than a negotiating ploy represents a dangerous--yet predictable--distortion of these events by the Times.
BTW, a tip of the hat to armscontrolwonk.com, among the first to publish rumblings about the Chinese ASAT test, which was revealed by Aviation Week yesterday. Armscontrolwonk published early details/speculation on the event on Wednesday, a full day ahead of the magazine.