Countering China's anti-satellite weapon

Les AuCoin

Editor's Note: Today, former Congressman Les AuCoin joins our regular cast of contributors.

I don’t know if the recent Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test is a simple act of technology-strutting, or, as a National Security Council spokesman claims, an aggressive bid to militarize space.

I do know it demonstrates that our need to get on top of national security problems is not confined to the Mideast. And that it presents an opportunity for an arms control legacy for President Bush where there is none now. And that by negotiating a flight test ban on ASATs, the President would substantially improve the security of the U.S. and the world at large.

The most self-defeating response would be for America to charge off on a race between ASATs and defenses against them. In such a contest, the inherent advantage lies with the ASAT. Today, our technological superiority can protect us from hostile ASATs. In ten years, it may not. 

An ASAT battle against low-orbit satellites can resemble a hand-grenade duel in a telephone booth.  A destroyed satellite is shattered into multiple high-velocity fragments, any one of which can impact and destroy another satellite, creating still more lethal fragments, etc.  At some point, an ASAT battle could start a chain reaction that would fill low-earth orbits with so much bullet-like space junk that no satellite could survive there.  Everyone would lose.  But since U.S. satellites are the best in the world and we depend on them more than any other nation, our country would lose the most. 

ASATs could take out the most important satellites of all: the heat-sensors that would provide first warning of an enemy missile launch. These expensive and vital satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, about 22,500 miles up.  Today, their altitude probably places them beyond ASAT reach. In the next decade, that may no longer be true.

Some might say a ban on ASAT deployment cannot be verified. But flight testing is a prerequisite to deployment and U.S. surveillance capabilities can spot a flight test with ease.

Unfortunately, the Administration seems to ignore the national security opportunity at hand. A National Security Council spokesman stated, “China's development and testing of (ASAT) weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area," This suggests that China’s test was an unprecedented unilateral aggressive move. In fact, the U.S. conducted more than a score of ASAT tests from 1956 through 1985. Like the Chinese, our last test was against a civilian satellite.

Compounding the problem, U.S. defense policy-makers of both parties have repeatedly said the U.S. intends to maintain unrestricted civil and military use of space ourselves, and to deny it to whatever other nation we choose.  The Chinese appear to be aping them: aggressive space-dominance programs, fig-leaved by vague mumbling about cooperation and freedom of access to space.

If the president fails to act on banning ASAT flight tests, the Congress should do it for him. In 1985, Congress passed into law, over President Reagan’s objection, my amendment banning U.S. ASAT flight tests against a target in space, unless the President certified that the Soviets had conducted such a test. It created arms control by legislation where another President had refused to do it by negotiation.  It worked, and neither side tested. 

Though that rider expired, ASAT programs on both sides had been effectively interrupted, and no flight tests followed. The Cold War was ending, and the ASAT issue lost significance. Now the Chinese test has returned it to the front burner. We would have nothing to lose and everything to gain to resume a mutual flight test ban—by treaty if the President will, or by legislation if he won’t.

Of course, the “success” of the Chinese test could be a fake.  Fraudulent Chinese claims of military capability are not unknown. Nevertheless, we would be prudent to assume that within the next decade China can have an effective ASAT. 

The Chinese test has given President Bush the opportunity to create a national security legacy other than the fiasco in Iraq.  There is every reason to believe the Chinese would be receptive to a U.S. proposal for an ASAT flight test ban. The Russians would need to be included, of course. If these negotiations succeed, they could serve as the first step toward creating a far-reaching structure of strategic stability in a future world in which China may be a military superpower.

  • Jon (unverified)

    For more on the Bush administration's rudderlessness in the face of rapidly rising Chinese economic power, military might and diplomatic strength, see:

    "China Rising, America Adrift."

  • (Show?)

    Perhaps we should be focussing on the real threat that China poses to the United States -- the decimation of our middle class thanks to a United States Congress that refuses to insist on trade policies that put worker's rights and environmental concerns on an equal plane with the free flow of capital.

    Is it any surprise that they have subs that can sneak up on our carriers or missiles that can knock down our satellites? More kids graduate with a college-level engineering degrees in China than attend colleges and universities in the United States.

    If we want to win the arms race against China, perhaps the best place to start is to invest in education and start closing the market on which their economic engine depends until they begin adhering to minimum standards of environmental and worker's rights.

    I see those as a much greater national security challenge than the testing of any given defense system.

  • (Show?)

    Actually Sal, I think the two are interconnected.

  • Rich Rodgers (unverified)

    I agree with Rep. AuCoin that we have a great opportunity to chart a new cooperative course with China, not only on military matters, but in economic, intellectual, and cultural contexts as well. The United States may have no greater opportunity nor challenge in the world today.

    To my friends who may be quick to cry foul on labor grounds, let's be very careful regarding injecting partisan or parochial domestic politics into the US's relationship with China. China has made great strides under its recent leadership, and even when it has offended US interests on human rights, it has proven itself robust enough to compel US presidents like Bill Clinton to retreat on that front, in favor of strategic and economic concerns.

    As recently noted in the Jan/Feb issue of Foreign Affairs by David Lampton, Director of China Studies and Dean of Faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, China is a stronger advocate of the current international system than the current US administration, and as a result China's standing in the world may be stronger than ours. If we were to call certain questions on an international stage at this time, we would likely not be pleased by the response. We need to restore the standing of the US in the eyes of the world, and a long term and in-depth cooperative venture with China is, in my humble opinion, our wisest choice.

    For those who may be inclined to persist on questions of economic or environmental fairness, Lampton also notes the scholarship of Dutch historian Angus Maddison, who reminds us that from the 1st century AD until the early 19th century, China's economy represented between 22% and 33% of global GDP. Following the Opium Wars, protracted civil war, and the humiliations of the previous century, China saw that % drop to 4.5% in 1950 under Mao. In this context, China's recent boom may easily be seen as a restoration of China's position in the world. We can bet that China's incredible intellectual capital sees the situation this way.

    China's central bank holds over $1 trillion in Treasury debt, and we're depending upon them to buy more. In addition, a large percentage of China's manufacturing represents assembly of parts from other areas, including the US. The whole of SE Asia, along with Australia, are experiencing an economic boom as a result of imports to China. We are not in a position of diplomatic strength, and so cooperative ventures like those mentioned by Rep. AuCoin are more important than ever.

    Labor and environmental concerns are of critical importance, but they should not lead us to reflexively pick a fight for the next few decades with China. No one wins in that situation.

    We'll do well to take an unconventional approach, by respecting China's power and welcoming China's stated attempt at a peaceful rise/restoration. At the end of the day, interconnections between people--Americans and Chinese who get to know each other as friends, business partners, teachers and students--will show us the best path for both US interests and those of the world at large.

  • (Show?)

    China has made great strides under its recent leadership, and even when it has offended US interests on human rights...

    How do we define "great strides," Rich? Environmental degradation, the suppression of labor, the continuing emmiseration of the peasantry? The increasing importance of foreign capital?

    China saw that % drop (in GDP)to 4.5% in 1950 under Mao

    Kind of an odd comparison when Mao, and the Chinese Communist Party, were only successful at ending the Japanese occupation and winning the Civil War in 1949. A better comparison would be the early 1970s, after two decades plus of "self-reliance" and transformation of the country and economy.

    That China holds a trillion dollars in Treasury debt should scare the crap out of us. That we have become so dependent on China as our manufacturer of choice --though, let's be real, we're the assemblers-- should really give us pause as to what we're doing to our own manufacturing base and the middle class it's helped to create.

    I totally agree we need to be thoughtful, and open, in our relationship with China. But concern for the environment --as well as support of worker and human rights-- is neither parochial nor a distraction.

  • Rich Rodgers (unverified)

    My central point is that we should avoid picking a fight with them if we can. But go ahead and do your thing. Whatever. It's just a blog.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    An article about Chinese spending for scientific research, and another, and another, and another....

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but China was technologically ahead of the West for almost all of its history, until the Industrial Revolution began about 150 years ago....

  • Dave Porter (unverified)

    Kudos to Les AuCoin for a fine post. I wish to associate myself with all the views expressed by Rich Rodgers. The China-US relationship is the pivotal strategic security relationship of the 21st century. I agree with Les AuCoin that an ASAT flight test ban "could serve as the first step toward creating a far-reaching structure of strategic stability in a future world in which China may be a military superpower."

    Note: the Oregon House Education Subcommittee on Higher Education will hold a hearing on China on 2/14 (1:00, Rm D). China experts from the U of O and PSU will present panels on China. YOu can watch it live online.

  • (Show?)

    Kevin, I agree that the two issues are interconnected. However, given that the United States currently accounts for more than half of all global spending on defense and nearly half of all non-US arms sales, I would argue that the security emphasis should not be placed on China's military threat to the United States. This is nothing more than a rationalization for yet another increase in military spending.

    The biggest threat that China poses to the United States is economic. And the way to combat that threat is not to throw more money at the military, but to reduce military spending and to increase investment in education, infrastructure, and to fund innovative ideas that will help create new jobs and new markets.

  • (Show?)

    Sal, you completely miss my point. Negotiating arms control to prevent China, the US and other countries from starting an arms race with anti-satellite weapons (and anti-anti satellite weapons, and anti-anti-anti...) is the solution, not the problem. It effectively stops what could become an international effort to "throw more money" at a whole new, destabilizing generation of weapons and the militarization of space.

  • (Show?)
    <h2>Fair point, Mr. AuCoin. It's hardly the first time that's happened to me in the last few weeks. Thanks for the clarification.</h2>

connect with blueoregon