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New CFR Report Warns Against U.S.-China Competition in Space

September 18, 2008

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China's successful test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, followed by the U.S. destruction in early 2008 of an out-of-control U.S. satellite, demonstrated that space may soon no longer remain a relative sanctuary from military conflict. A new Council Special Report says that as the United States, China, and others increasingly benefit from the information that military and intelligence satellites provide, the temptation to attack these satellites provides troubling potential for instability and conflict in space that could dramatically affect U.S. military capabilities on earth.

The report, China, Space Weapons, and U.S. Security, explores the strategic landscape of this new military space competition and highlights the dangers and opportunities the United States confronts in the space arena. Acknowledging that some degree of offensive space capability is inevitable, the report calls on the United States to lead in establishing a more stable and secure space environment.

China's test demonstrated that it could build anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) and might soon be able to damage or destroy U.S. satellites. "The strategic reverberations of that collision have shaken up security thinking in the United States and around the world," writes Bruce MacDonald, an independent consultant in technology and national security policy and currently senior director to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. Within fourteen months, China and the United States both demonstrated the capability to destroy satellites, "heralding the arrival of an era where space is a potentially far more contested domain than in the past, with few rules."

As the new administration is inaugurated in early 2009, both the United States and China face fundamental choices about the deployment and use of space capabilities, and the development of more advanced space weapons. "The United States and China stand at a crossroads on weapons and space: whether to control this potential competition, and if so, how," says MacDonald.

"The United States' relative space advantage will probably shrink as China strengthens its space capabilities over the next ten to twenty years," notes the report. "As China becomes a credible space power with a demonstrated offensive counterspace capability, the question for U.S. policy is what kind of feasible and stable space regime best serves U.S. long-term security interests."

"Both countries have interests in avoiding the actual use of counterspace weapons and shaping a more stable and secure space environment for themselves and other spacefaring nations," says the report. Space weaponization, or "offensive counterspace capabilities," would involve space-based or earth-based weapons that could destroy, disable, or disrupt space-based systems such as satellites.

The report says that certain objectives in space are in the interest of the United States. "The risks inherent in space conflict, where vital U.S. interests are at stake, suggest that preventing space conflict should be a major U.S. security objective, and that all instruments of U.S. power, not just military measures, should be drawn upon to this end. The United States needs to deter others from attacking its space capabilities and bolster an international space regime that reinforces deterrence, the absence of conflict in space, and the preservation of space as an environment open to all."

To achieve this, the United States needs vigorous diplomatic initiatives as well as defense programs and strategy, says MacDonald. In his view, U.S. space capabilities can be strengthened by preventing space conflict through deterrence and active diplomacy. Any offensive U.S. space capabilities, the report says, should be developed primarily for deterrent purposes and should meet stringent criteria such as survivability, resiliency, and temporary and reversible effects.

For its part, as it plans its upcoming manned orbital space mission with great fanfare, China "should give serious consideration to steps that can help it play a more effective role in world space issues commensurate with its rising power."

The report notes that, "While China represents the most prominent challenge to U.S. space assets, it is not the only one. Russia and others are taking another look at space to counter U.S. military capability, and friendly countries such as India are reexamining space’s role in this new era, in at least partial response to China’s 2007 test."

The report concludes: "The fundamental U.S. security interest in the wake of China's 2007 ASAT test should be deterring China and others from attacking U.S. assets in space, using both a combination of declaratory policy, military programs, and diplomacy, and promoting a more stable and secure space environment. At the same time, the United States and China should both pursue diplomatic options to increase clarity and minimize misunderstanding on space-related matters, and reduce the chances of accidental conflict. This comprehensive mix of military and diplomatic measures is more likely to achieve U.S. space and larger national security objectives than either by itself."

This publication was funded, in part, by the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

For full text of the report, visit www.cfr.org/china_space

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Bruce W. MacDonald is a consultant in technology and national security management and is currently senior director to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. From 1995 to 1999, he was assistant director for national security at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as well as senior director for science and technology on the National Security Council staff. Earlier, MacDonald was a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee and was national security adviser to Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-AR). He also worked for the State Department as a nuclear weapons expert in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, where he led the Interagency START Policy Working Group and served on the U.S. START delegation in Geneva. MacDonald holds a BSE from Princeton in aerospace engineering and two master's degrees from Princeton—one in aerospace engineering and a second in public and international affairs.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the author.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

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