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The Final Frontier for Weapons

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
February 22, 2007

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China’s decision in January to blast one of its own aging weather satellites out of orbit using a ballistic missile drew global criticism. The explosion left large amounts of dangerous debris in orbit (Defense News) that could damage any of more than three hundred other satellites in orbit, and raised doubts over China’s claims that it plans a “peaceful rise” (Times of London). But the chief concern was that the blast could lead to a space arms race.

Several nations already use space for military purposes, including satellites for intelligence gathering and positioning military attacks. But experts say a difference exists between militarization and weaponization, as defined in this essay from the journal Astropolitics. While militarization is a fact of life in space, weaponization, involving major deployment of weapon systems designed for space warfare, has not. More than two decades before China’s anti-satellite test, the United States and the Soviet Union proved they had the same capabilities with their own tests, but none of the three has deployed weapons for large scale anti-satellite attacks. This new Backgrounder looks at China’s recent test and its space policy.

Though Beijing remains years behind the Washington in terms of space technology, the January test showed Beijing could strike at the fragile surveillance infrastructure of America’s military might by attacking the satellites the United States depends on for surveillance and precision-guided weaponry. In a recent talk at the Heritage Foundation, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) called China’s anti-satellite test “a wake-up call” and warned against “a flagging enthusiasm for space security” in the United States.

The White House has long shown interest in a more aggressive space policy, even well before the January test. In 2001 a commission on space security chaired by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld released a report (PDF) with ominous warnings: “The U.S. is an attractive candidate for a ‘Space Pearl Harbor,’” and, “We know from history that every medium—air, land and sea—has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different.” The Air Force Space Command FY06 Master Plan (PDF) makes a clear call for weaponization when it says, “We must also pursue the ability to apply conventional combat in, from, and through space.”

In October, China reportedly disrupted a U.S. satellite by temporarily blinding it with an earth-based laser—a process known as “dazzling.” Shortly afterward, the White House declassified its new National Space Policy from August 2006. The document vowed to resist restrictions on U.S. activities in space and said “freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power.” William Martel, associate professor at the Fletcher School and a former member of the Air Force advisory board, says in this CFR.org podcast that the policy “sure sounds like a prelude to weaponization.”

How the new Chinese threat will play out in U.S. policy remains to be seen. During a speech to the UN in Geneva, U.S. envoy Christina Rocca protested calls from China and Russia for a space arms treaty, saying previous agreements, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, were sufficient and “there is no arms race in space.” But the White House budget proposal includes $10 million for studies that could lead to a multi-billion dollar space-based interceptor missile program (Reuters)—the first of its kind. The Chinese anti-satellite test may provide the excuse for weaponization the White House has been looking for. Philip Coyle, a senior adviser with the Center for Defense Information writes in Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog: “The Pentagon isn’t content without a good threat, and the Chinese ASAT test played right into their hands.”

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