News of China’s successful satellite-killing missile test (BBC) on January 11 raises new questions for the United States with regard to its national space policy. A Chinese ground-based ballistic missile shattered an eight-year-old Chinese weather satellite slated to be retired, proving China can play with the big boys in space. It also caused U.S., British and Japanese officials to express concern that China may now be capable of targeting foreign spy satellites and risking a space arms race. Others, however, speculate that China conducted the first space weapons test in two decades to compel the U.S. to negotiate (NYT) a treaty forbidding such weapons. The United States has historically vetoed Russian and Chinese proposals for such a policy on the grounds that it would violate American “freedom of action” (Space.com) in space.
While news of China's test, first broken by an industry magazine, Aviation Week & Space Technology, stunned officials, it hardly represents a bolt from the blue. A report in October alleged China had “dazzled” (Defense News) a U.S. satellite with a ground based laser—that is, painted the satellite with the laser in a test of its ability to blind the U.S. military in times of crisis. The Pentagon avoided specifics about the report, but soon afterward the Bush administration released an unclassified version of its new space policy, which goes far beyond previous policies in asserting America’s right to respond forcefully to such threats. Bill Martel, a space policy expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, tells CFR.org in this podcast that the new space policy “sounds like a precursor to the weaponization of space.” Supporters readily concede the point. “Space supremacy is now the official policy of the U.S. government,” writes Michael Goldfarb in the Weekly Standard.
Space policy traditionally applied primarily to the science and economics of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) efforts to send satellites aloft or to mount ambitious exploration programs. Even today, the public associates “space policy” more with things like NASA’s December 4 decision to work toward establishment of a Lunar Base Camp (National Geographic) by 2020 than with military affairs. Yet for years now, national security issues have driven much of American space policy, and claim an ever larger share of funding for space programs than purely scientific pursuits. Beginning with Ronald Reagan’s 1983 proposal for space-based missile defense, the military’s share of U.S. space spending has more than tripled. Related Pentagon-led efforts to create a National Missile Defense system have cost about $100 billion (PDF) since the Missile Defense Agency’s creation in 1985, though deployment of a reliable system remains possible only in theory.
Fearing the U.S. lead in this realm, and the perceived window left open by U.S. policy pronouncements, China and Russia jointly offered to open negotiations to ban space weapons at the UN’s annual Conference on Disarmament in 2002. But some in the United States viewed the initiative as a threat to the country’s freedom of action (Space Review) . Michael Krepon and Michael Katz-Hyman of the Stimson Center argue that foreclosing on negotiations without testing the possibility of banning some kinds of activity in space is shortsighted. University of Miami researcher Nader Elhefnawy notes China’s gross domestic product already is 75 percent that of the United States, and it might be the world’s largest economy as early as the 2020s. “A case can be made that the current U.S. lead in resources and technology would be best employed to slow down any further weaponization of space” (Space Review).