Lost in Space

Sunday, April 1, 2007

China’s foreign ministry has acknowledged its test of an antisatellite weapon in space. The danger now is that partisans and pundits will overreact. Some will claim the launch represents a new threat to the United States, and others will warn of the militarization of space.

They are both wrong. The real threat is that Washington will miss an opportunity to move China along the path to more diplomatic openness and democracy and deter it from aggression against its neighbors and U.S. interests.

It helps to begin with a few facts. First, it is not especially difficult to make a “killer satellite.” If a country can build a satellite, it can easily build one that can approach another satellite and destroy it. Modern guidance technology is widely available and more accurate than ever. Conversely, it is impossible to ban killer satellites without banning all satellites. Even if a country did not build a dedicated killer and train its operators, the skills for nonmilitary space rendezvous, docking, and refueling are the same.

Second, because these technologies and skills are interchangeable, it is impossible to verify a ban on killer satellites. Unverifiable treaties are worse than no treaties at all because they offer the illusion of control where none exists.

Third, the Chinese test is not a major step in “militarizing space.” Space is already heavily militarized. Most major military powers use satellite-based systems for communications, navigation, and imagery. It’s all available from commercial vendors. The United States may operate more satellites than any other country, but it is not uniquely dependent on them.

Fourth, even if one were to somehow ban killer satellites, there are many other ways to deny an adversary the use of space—for example, by bombing an enemy’s ground stations or jamming the radio links used to command satellites. So, even if a ban on killer satellites were possible, it would not solve the vulnerability problem.

Anyone concerned with the U.S. ability to use space should be concerned less by the fact that China tested a weapon and more by the kind of weapon it tested. Press reports say the Chinese killer satellite was a “kinetic” weapon, similar to the kind the United States and the Soviet Union tested 20 years ago. Those satellites destroy targets by ramming into them at high velocity or by shooting their victims with a mass of pellets, like buckshot. Either way, the result is a huge amount of debris in orbit, creating a hazard to other satellites. Most of this debris remains in space for several decades—or longer.

If a country can build a satellite, it is easy to build one that can approach another satellite and destroy it. Nor is it possible to ban “killer satellites” without banning all satellites.

According to NASA, there are already approximately 11,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters circling the Earth. The number of objects smaller than that—mainly unused rocket fuel, exhaust waste, and flecks and chips from routine operations—is so great as to be practically incalculable.

In time, this accumulation of debris could make space operations extremely difficult. The material orbits the Earth at seven kilometers per second or more, depending on its altitude. At this velocity, even tiny objects can cause enormous damage to satellites, which is why U.S. space operators are required to minimize debris under regulations administered by NASA.

Because the Chinese have ambitions of their own to use space, they have as much interest in limiting debris as the United States does. Washington should use this test as an opportunity to discuss an international convention on the subject. These discussions could codify the guidelines that Russia, Japan, the European Space Agency, and the United States already follow and would bring China into the fold.

Space is already heavily militarized. The United States may operate more satellites than any other country, but it is not uniquely dependent on satellites.

There is precedent for an agreement on space debris: the Incidents at Sea Agreement the United States signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. At the time, U.S. and Soviet warships were playing an aggressive game of intimidation, stunting, and near-misses as each shadowed the other’s exercises. Neither wanted to give in or allow the game to go too far.

In talks over the course of a year, the two navies agreed to guidelines for avoiding collisions. The agreement was negotiated largely at the working level, where naval officers dealt with each other on a professional basis to achieve a practical understanding.

If Washington simply protests the antisatellite test or ignores it, that will tell the Chinese military that there is no penalty for its actions nor any real desire abroad to stop them. On the other hand, if there is any discussion or disagreement among Chinese leaders on this subject, Washington can at least let Beijing know the test will affect U.S.-China relations.

Minimizing space debris is just like protecting intellectual property or setting a market value for the Chinese currency: it’s an obligation China must meet if it expects to take part in the free market. We’ll never demilitarize space, but we can make it a safer place to work, and in the process move America’s China policy along, too.