Editorial: China’s Anti-Satellite Test

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  Space News Business

Editorial: China’s Anti-Satellite Test

posted: 26 January 2007
11:45 am ET



China
‘s apparent deliberate destruction of one of its own satellites with a ground-based missile is a very serious incident that makes a mockery of
Beijing
‘s recent overtures regarding international cooperation in civil space. It also is an unambiguous signal that the public policy debate over how best to deal with the growing threats to critical space infrastructure can wait no longer.

 

According to the White House,
China
launched a medium-range missile that smashed into the aging FY-1C weather satellite Jan. 11 at an altitude of 865 kilometers. The impact created a field of debris – the full extent of which is not yet known – in an orbit that is heavily populated by a variety scientific and Earth observation spacecraft.

 

China
‘s exact motivations in conducting this test – unannounced, no less – are unclear. But to call it an irresponsible provocation is an understatement, especially in the wake of
U.S.
allegations that
China
used a ground-based laser to illuminate a
U.S.
satellite.

 

What makes the incident even more galling is that comes on the heels of NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s unprecedented visit to China; and less than a year after Luo Ge, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, made appearances in both Washington and at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., to trumpet Beijing’s interest in international space cooperation. It appears now that Mr. Luo’s charm offensive was designed to score rhetorical points more than anything else.

 

It is true that the
United States
and
Russia
have tested anti-satellite weapons, and that these tests created orbital debris. But the last of those tests was conducted two decades ago at a time when space faring nations were only beginning to recognize the growing danger posed by orbital debris and when near-Earth space was far less crowded with operational satellites than it is today. For either country to conduct a similar test today would be equally as reckless as what the Chinese have done.

 

As of Jan. 18, according to the White House,
Canada
and
Australia
had joined the
United States
in voicing their concerns to
Beijing
about the test.
Japan
also has asked the Chinese for an explanation.
Britain
,
South Korea
and perhaps others were expected to follow suit. All spacefaring nations, including the rest of
Europe
,
Russia
and
India
, should join in conveying to
China
in no uncertain terms that its actions are unacceptable.

 

Meanwhile, the test sends a strong – and one must assume deliberate – message that the satellites upon which the United States more than any other country relies on for national security, commerce and public safety are vulnerable. The need to protect critical space infrastructure from all manner of threats has never been clearer.

 

There is little disagreement on the need for better situational awareness in space, something military officials have advocated for some time. It is somewhat puzzling in that regard that the U.S. Air Force apparently is putting the brakes on an effort to upgrade its Space Fence orbit-tracking system by 2013. Publicly available Air Force budget documents show a funding profile for the upgrade that is substantially lower than the service proposed last year, which means the new capability will become available later rather than sooner. Congress might want to ask why this program apparently has dropped on the Air Force list of spending priorities.

 

Also relatively uncontroversial are benign countermeasures such as satellite hardening and redundancy. Some might question the value of more advanced countermeasures, such as highly maneuverable or stealthy satellites, but this is more of a resource than a policy issue.

 

It is on the question of whether space can or should be preserved as a peaceful sanctuary that the real philosophical divide emerges.

 

To arms control advocates, China’s test is evidence that a wasteful and potentially destructive arms race in space – one they have warned would be fueled by any U.S. move to deploy space-based weapons – is indeed heating up. Those on the other end of the spectrum, who view space as a just another medium of warfare, might draw the same conclusion but argue that arms control agreements are ineffective and that the best way to protect
U.S.
interests is to win the race.

 

According to a U.S. State Department spokesman, the White House position that new treaties are not the solution remains unchanged in the wake of China’s test. The spokesman argued that there is no arms race in space and that existing accords such as the Outer Space Treaty already provide an appropriate legal framework for space activities.

 

While it is true that arms control has its limitations, the White House position seems premature. In the first place, the assertion that there is no arms race in space seems debatable in light of the Chinese test – after all, there is no commonly accepted definition of the term “space weapon.” Moreover, the fact that there already are treaties governing space activities, as noted by the State Department spokesman, should not foreclose discussion of whether new and verifiable accords – such as a ban on the testing of anti-satellite weapons in space – are feasible. It only makes sense to ban an activity that creates debris that threatens the satellites of multiple countries – in
China
‘s case it is inexplicable why they would want to create so much debris in the orbit they use for other active weather satellites.

 

Both sides of the argument, minus the rhetoric, obfuscations and hyperbole that have tended to confuse space-control debates in the past, need to be heard. If any good can come of
China
‘s action, it will be to force this poorly understood issue into the open.