Destructive anti-satellite (A-Sat) tests are rare. The Pentagon’s destructive anti-satellite test in February followed 13 months after
used one of its aging satellites for target practice. The previous voluntary, global moratorium on destructive A-Sat testing lasted 22 years. Because tests that blow up satellites are so rare, they are important indicators of space security. They make all spacefaring nations less confident about the security of vulnerable satellites that are essential for national and economic security.
Destructive A-Sat tests are the most visible aspects of larger space warfare programs that proceed beyond plain view. While the
are the primary focus of attention at present,
is surely gearing up its efforts in this field. It is also likely that
are focusing more attention on A- Sat capabilities. Each test acts as a prod: Nations that feel most threatened by A-Sat capabilities will not stand idly by when their essential satellites are placed at risk. They need not race to compete with each other, since satellites are so easy to harm. Only a few A-Sat tests are needed to generate insecurity among spacefaring nations.
Much has been made of the differences between these tests. While the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) apparently did not seek to hide its A-Sat test preparations, neither did it provide advanced public notice of this threat to manned and unmanned space operations in low Earth orbit. Far worse,
, which supports a treaty banning space weapons, carried out this test in such a way as to create, according to computer models, approximately 100,000 space weapons in the form of lethal debris fragments. The Pentagon, in contrast, provided advanced notice, and sought to greatly mitigate the debris resulting from its A-Sat test.
These differences are important, but they did not mask the central fact that the Pentagon and the PLA both tested destructive A-Sat technologies. U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration’s public rationale was that the dead satellite’s fuel tank might survive re-entry, and could cause a hazardous chemical spill. This explanation lacked credibility, since more than 5,400 metric tons of space junk have fallen to Earth without any resulting fatalities. If government officials or military leaders in
had used a similar rationale for carrying out a destructive A-Sat test, very few in the
would be so credulous as to believe them.
The Bush administration delayed its public announcement of an imminent threat of a chemical spill to the 11th hour. It did not release the assumptions and probability risk assessments used to support the A-Sat test because to have shared unclassified estimates would have sparked a debate over the severe and costly nature of the proposed remedy. Media outlets faithfully reported the administration’s case, and congressional overseers were quiescent, unwilling to buck the public safety argument. While military capabilities were placed on high readiness, there was insufficient time and data to clarify the flimsiness of the administration’s argument, or to consider seriously downside risks.
The administration’s tactics again served their intended purposes. Advocates succeeded in carrying out a destructive A- Sat test that would have otherwise not been approved by the Congress. The Navy demonstrated how ballistic missile defense capabilities could be quickly adapted for A- Sat purposes. And the Pentagon sent a thinly veiled rejoinder to the PLA’s destructive A-Sat test.
The immediate consequences of the U.S. A-Sat test include the loss of credibility of
government spokespersons who have long claimed that the Bush administration was innocent of charges that it sought to demonstrate and covertly prepare “offensive counter-space” capabilities.
The Bush administration’s argument that new space diplomacy initiatives are unnecessary also has become even more threadbare. In diplomacy, as in politics, you can’t beat something with nothing. But the Bush administration still has not, and will not, offer a substantive alternative to the draft treaty banning space weapons proposed by
This draft treaty has serious deficiencies, but to many nations, it is more appealing than the Bush administration’s weak offerings of transparency and confidence-building measures. Because the rationale for the Pentagon’s A-Sat test was suspect abroad, the transparency offered by the Pentagon undermined, rather than built confidence in
credibility regarding its intentions in space. Other confidence-building measures that the Bush administration have wisely championed, such as voluntary international constraints on debris mitigation and space traffic management, will be vitiated if A-Sat testing continues.
In most aspects of national security, effective diplomacy is as important as a strong military posture. When diplomacy is denigrated, very heavy burdens can be placed on
military forces. The Bush administration’s rejection of any diplomatic initiatives that constrain
military options in space warfare, even after testing A-Sat capabilities, is unwise and unsustainable. This is a sure-fire recipe for the further acceleration of A-Sat capabilities and additional A- Sat testing by others.
Diplomatic activity is admittedly an imperfect indicator of space security. Negotiations, for example, can be perfunctory, or they can focus on unwise objectives. At present, the diplomatic choices facing the international community are the flawed treaty proposed by
, and the Bush administration’s nay-saying. These are not sound choices. The next administration will have the responsibility to offer a better choice to enhance space security.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the
and a Diplomat Scholar at the