he U.S. decision not to try and dissuade China from testing an anti-satellite weapon despite concerns about potentially destructive orbital debris does not seem unreasonable, at least based on publicly available information. At the same time, it does raise questions about U.S. government policy governing the sharing of sensitive intelligence information that affects all spacefaring nations.
According to Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force for space, the U.S. government maintained its silence while China went ahead with preparations for the Jan. 11 test so as not to tip its hand
that it knew what Beijing
was up to.
Those preparations resulted in a successful intercept and
the worst orbital-debris-generating event in recent memory.
So far at least one working U.S. satellite, NASA’s billion-dollar Terra Earth observing spacecraft, has had to maneuver to avoid a collision with test remnants. Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s top orbital debris expert, has said a collision between a satellite and the test debris is not a matter of if, but of when.
Determining when to act on intelligence information – to risk compromising clandestine sources and methods to head off an unwanted event – and when not to is one of the classic dilemmas of statecraft. In the case of China’s deliberate destruction of its aging FY-1C satellite, those who lack intelligence backgrounds and security clearances only can speculate as to exactly why the U.S. government elected not to take any pre-emptive action.
Clearly the debris hazard did not, in the minds of U.S. intelligence officials, meet the necessary threshold for taking action that might give Beijing insight into America’s information-gathering capabilities. Timing appears to have been a key factor in the risk calculus: U.S. government officials had no problem saying after the fact that they knew of the planned test well in advance and also that two previous tests had failed.
Other potential considerations include the intelligence on Chinese technical capabilities that the United States gleaned from observing the test and related preparations. Meanwhile, the fact that Beijing would take a public relations beating in the test’s aftermath, particularly in light of its repeated calls for a ban on space weapons, might not have been
lost on U.S. officials either.
Finally, there is the question of whether China’s leadership could have been dissuaded from going through with the test in the first place. There is no point in putting sources and methods at risk if doing so is not likely to prevent a given outcome, no matter how undesirable.
All of which is to say that it is difficult, especially for anyone lacking direct knowledge of the discussions that took place in the days and weeks leading up to China’s test, to criticize Washington’s decision to remain silent.
The matter does not end there, however. Clearly one of the U.S. responses to China’s action will be to beef up its space-surveillance systems, something military officials had been calling for well before the demonstration; America’s already unrivaled ability to monitor the goings on in Earth orbit is only going to get better.
With that unique capability comes a certain responsibility given the fact that Earth orbit, beyond being critical to U.S. military operations, is an important international medium of commerce and scientific research. The question is whether the United States has adequate policies or guidelines in place for dealing with natural or unnatural orbital events affecting other spacefaring nations – both before and after the fact.