C hina’s Jan. 11 anti-satellite (A-Sat) test has conjured up prospects of an arms race in space. The analogy that naturally comes to mind is the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union — a competition that included more than 50 A-Sat tests of various kinds. This analogy is not, however, analytically sound. The good news is that an arms race between the United States and China is unlikely. The bad news is that an arms race is not needed to mess up space.
In some respects, the superpower competition in space reflected the classic symptoms of a race, including tit-for-tat demonstrations of new and better capabilities. So why shouldn’t the competition in space between the United States and China be any different? Actually, there are many reasons why Washington and Beijing are unlikely to engage in an arms race in space — at least in classic Cold War terms. A closer look at the U.S.-Soviet competition holds some clues as to what we might expect.
To be sure, both superpowers competed full-bore in manned spaceflight and in launching new and improved satellites for military purposes, but other aspects of the Cold War space competition could hardly be characterized as an arms race. Fifty-plus A-Sat tests sounds like a high number, but these tests occurred over three decades. During the same period, the Pentagon and the Soviet Ministry of Defense combined to carry out thousands of ballistic missile tests and, on average, one nuclear weapon test per week between the Cuban missile crisis and the fall of the Berlin Wall. A-Sat testing was very modest by these standards.
In addition, the Cold War arms race generated many thousands of deployed weapons. In contrast, rudimentary American and Soviet A-Sat weapons were considered to be deployed only during brief periods, after which they were mothballed. So even during the Cold War’s space race, some aspects of the military competition were held back — and for good reason. Satellites were — and remain — linked to the nuclear deterrents of major powers. To mess with satellites would invite nuclear danger. Washington and Moscow separately decided that the Cold War competition was hot enough without adding A-Sats to a volatile mix. To symbolize this understanding, the superpowers agreed formally not to interfere with satellites that monitored treaty compliance.
If the Cold War space competition did not rise to the level of an arms race in some respects, there are strong reasons why the Chinese-U.S. competition can be even less intense. The Chinese leadership is smarter than the Soviet leadership. Beijing will not bankrupt itself in a military competition. Instead, the Chinese military will compete asymmetrically and cost-effectively. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could employ temporary and reversible effects against U.S. satellites — the Pentagon’s preference — or it could fight dirty, with kinetic energy weapons. Presumably one message of its crude A-Sat test was to clarify that, if push comes to shove, China will contest the Pentagon’s objective of space control using weapons of its choosing.
Beijing’s ambitions in space go well beyond this objective. China’s space program is also intimately connected to its economic goals and status consciousness. Beijing’s status has been damaged by creating an enduring hazard to space operations in low Earth orbit. Its economic ambitions also will be jeopardized if the Cold War taboo against destroying another nation’s satellites is broken. The interconnectedness of the economic and military aspects of space power — another key difference from the Cold War — constitutes another reason why an arms race in space is unlikely.
The Pentagon also has learned important lessons from the Cold War. Back then, the United States had insufficient appreciation of the dangers of space debris. Now all stake holders in space are keenly aware that debris constitutes an indiscriminate, lethal hazard. This is why the Chinese test was so irresponsible — and why Congress would further damage America’s standing and security by emulating Chinese misbehavior.
Perhaps the most important reason why an arms race in space between the United States and China is unlikely is because a race is not required to mess up essential satellites. A single nuclear detonation can do extraordinary harm, as can a modest arsenal of old-fashioned kinetic energy weapons. Neither China nor the United States needs to race to mess up space.
As creatures of habit, many of us will continue to talk about an arms race in space. But increased satellite vulnerability is likely to result in old-fashioned proliferation, not new-fangled arms races. The more insecure nations feel, the more likely they are to acquire weapons of punishment and deterrence. Consequently, if the Chinese test prompts more A-Sat testing rather than efforts to stop these practices, the natural result will be more vertical and horizontal proliferation. The military competition between Washington and Beijing will certainly heat up, but unlike the Cold War, this contest now takes the form of asymmetric warfare, not arms racing.
As the January Chinese A-Sat test demonstrates, the vulnerability problem in space is a global concern: All space faring nations stand to lose if a few operate irresponsibly. The most effective rejoinder to irresponsible behavior is not to mimic it, but to take the lead in laying out rules of the road that responsible spacefaring nations follow.
Irresponsible space faring nations interfere with another nation’s space objects, use lasers in a harmful manner against space objects, and conduct activities, experiments or tests that result in the deliberate generation of persistent space debris.
Responsible space faring nations provide advance notice if there is reason to believe that their activities, experiments or tests may cause harmful interference with the operation of another nation’s space objects. They share space surveillance data to the maximum extent possible to increase safety. They adopt and abide by the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee guidelines on space debris. They seek to develop and implement a space traffic management system, and they provide accurate and timely launch notification and registration. They also consult with others before taking actions that could cause harmful interference with space operations.
The key elements of a code of conduct for responsible space faring nations have become clearer after the Chinese A-Sat test. The Bush administration can either engage and shape an international discussion of these provisions, or continue to sit on the sidelines, insisting on freedom of action in space — including the freedom to do great harm to satellites that are essential to national security and global commerce.
Michael Krepon is the co-founder and Michael Katz-Hyman is a research associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.