No nation relies on space more than the United States, both for its economic well-being and its military security. For this reason, the obliteration of a decrepit weather satellite in a successful Chinese weapon system test Jan. 11 is especially troubling.
Launching a medium-range ballistic missile from deep within its territory, the People’s Liberation Army — the branch responsible for running China’s space program since the country has no NASA equivalent for peaceful purposes, even for its manned space program — placed a kinetic-kill homing vehicle into orbit more than 1,295 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Intersecting the orbit of the target at more than 28,000 kilometers per hour , the impact created a hypersonic implosion that shreds the target into thousands of pieces of deadly debris.
The United States simply has no defense against such a weapon system, and China’s provocative test is intended to remind the world of this weakness. Moreover, its use of a medium range ballistic missile (MRBM), which China produces in mass , to place the kill vehicle into position, indicates a potential anti-satellite weapons capability sufficient to target the entire U.S. low- Earth-orbit inventory.
Current efforts to place ground-based missile interceptors in strategic locations would be useless, regardless of deployment, as these are designed to engage incoming ballistic missiles in the mid or terminal phase of flight. Since t he Chinese missile achieves orbital altitude just minutes after launch, the only possible defense against it — which would have the added advantage of ensuring any destructive debris from a successful engagement would land on Chinese soil — would be from a network of anti-ballistic missile satellites operating in Earth orbit.
Just such a space-based anti-missile capability, envisioned for years and technically feasible since the late 1980s, has long been the optimum solution for military planners. Yet such a system has been annually tabled due to high cost estimates and fears of encouraging other states to develop anti-space weapons. The latter concern is now overcome by events. Only the cost issue remains.
With the global war on terrorism and major deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan drawing the lion’s share of attention and budget, shifting funds from immediate operational requirements to long-term security is a tall order. The timing of the Chinese test coincides perfectly with a perception that the United States is ill-positioned to respond with force, and they are probably right.
Current speculation is that in light of a U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty coupled with release of the recent National Space Policy, which reserves the right of the United States to defend its space assets and seek to deny access to space by its adversaries in times of crisis, the Chinese test is designed to bring the United States to the negotiating table, one that would forge a treaty banning the deployment of weapons in space.
It should be obvious by now that China’s propensity for deception is at the root of its public calls for disarmament and cooperation in space. America’s refusal to bind its options via a treaty banning weapons in space, the one capacity that might possibly defeat an anti-satellite MRBM, is evidence of its unwillingness to put itself into a position of undermining international law to further its own selfish interests. No such concern troubles its antagonist.
The archetype of Chinese military theory is achievement of Sun Tzu’s acme of skill: “to subdue the enemy without fighting.” The route to victory is the use of deception in all things, in particular deception that removes from the opponent’s psyche the will to fight. “Thus the highest form of generalship is to foil the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces” Sun writes in “The Art of War.” A treaty banning weapons in space would do nothing to curtail Chinese procurement of ground-based weapons, while defeating in advance any capability for the United States to prevent the Chinese from launching a space attack at the time and place of their choosing. Such an outcome truly would embody the acme of skill.
China’s ultimate goal is to assert its regional supremacy and achieve co-equal — if not dominant — status as a global hegemon. Control of space is a critical step in that direction.
To those who argue that China is as eager to avoid a damaging war in space, given its increasing integration into the world economy and dependence on foreign trade for its continuing prosperity: do not discount the capacities of its authoritarian leadership. This is the regime that embraces the deprivations of government-induced cyclical poverty — recall the “Great Cultural Revolution” following the economic expansion of “The Great Leap Forward” — to spare its populace the moral decadence of capitalist luxury.
The cloud of debris now scattered in the extremely useful polar orbit around the Earth, all that remains of the Feng Yun weather satellite, will be a dangerous obstacle to spacecraft for decades to come. Apparently this is not a problem for the People’s Republic of China , whose increasing use of space is a boon to their economic and military aspirations. In its own perverse views and calculations, no people suffer so well as the Chinese, and so when all suffer equally, China wins.
Everett Carl Dolman is professor of Comparative Military Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), Air University.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government or Air Force.