For more than 20 years the world showed remarkable restraint as no nation tested or deployed anti-satellite (A-Sat) weapons. This restraint ended Jan. 11 when
used a space launch vehicle derived from its DF-21 medium-range missile to strike and destroy one of its own aging weather satellites.
‘s test created an extensive debris field that could endanger many of the 850 active satellites on orbit, and even the manned international space station.
The test was no technical surprise, since it has been known for years that
was working on various A-Sat capabilities, including co-orbital micro-satellites designed to attach like a parasite to a satellite and then explode and destroy it. Last year Donald Kerr, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said
used a ground-based laser to illuminate a
satellite in what apparently was a test of a laser A-Sat.
But this year’s test was a political surprise. Leading up to the 2008 Olympics, Chinese diplomats have engaged in a worldwide charm offensive, portraying their government as a responsible member of the world community. The unannounced destruction of a satellite and creation of space debris greatly damages that benign image.
‘s military writers stress the need for asymmetrical ways to fight the
. Holding at risk the large number of command, control and communications satellites on which
‘s military is now deeply dependent is a high priority for the People’s Liberation Army. The A-Sat test announces
‘s ability to destroy
A few years after Sputnik went into orbit in 1957 the
and U.S.S.R. were developing A-Sat capabilities. The
deployed a nuclear-armed direct ascent A-Sat on
in the Pacific, and
developed and tested extensively in space a co-orbital A-Sat that was operational from 1968 into the 1990s.
There have been efforts to ban A-Sats for almost as long. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s held three rounds of talks with the Soviets in 1978 and 1979, proposing a moratorium on A-Sat testing. The
had deactivated its Johnston Island A-Sat, but
, then flight-testing its co-orbital A-Sat, was not interested. The Soviets said an A-Sat ban was not feasible, considering the many ways satellites could be attacked and how easily a ban could be circumvented.
By 1983 the Soviet A-Sat had been thoroughly tested. Only then did
change its position. General Secretary Yuri Andropov announced a moratorium on A-Sat testing. It is no coincidence that the
then was about to begin flight-testing its F-15 air-launched A-Sat.
Although the abrupt Soviet reversal was an effort to block
testing, arms control groups and some members of Congress called for a testing moratorium. But former U.S. President Ronald Reagan was unwilling to leave
with an A-Sat monopoly and in 1985 the
conducted a flight test of the F-15 A-Sat, destroying a satellite in space. The Democratic majority in Congress reacted by blocking further flight tests and in 1988 the Air Force canceled the program.
In 1984 President Ronald Reagan issued a policy paper on A-Sat arms control that concluded that no agreement to control A-Sats would be in the national interest. Among its findings:
- Any rocket with sufficient thrust, including all the world’s space-launch vehicles, could be an A-Sat.
- Any object in space, including hundreds of civil and commercial satellites, could be an A-Sat.
- Lasers and other directed energy weapons, on the ground or in space, could be A-Sats.
- High-power radio waves and other electronic devices have A-Sat capabilities.
- Any aircraft or space vehicle could carry an A-Sat.
Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph, in remarks to a space forum on the day of the Chinese test, made similar points, noting that the Soviets even wanted to define the space shuttle as an A-Sat and ban it.
have pressed hard for a ban on weapons in space. But there is no agreed definition of space weapons or of an A-Sat. Since everything in space and many things on Earth could carry weapons, an effective ban is impossible.
In addition, an A-Sat ban would handicap efforts to protect
and allied forces from hostile satellites. Forces in the field are vulnerable to overhead surveillance, targeting, military communications, and other uses of satellites by an enemy or the ally of an enemy.
An A-Sat ban may be unwise, but what about a testing moratorium? Through mutual restraint there were no tests for years, until
ended that and now has the world’s only flight-tested A-Sat. But the
have built A-Sats before and can do it again – they might have to for self-defense.
effort is to find ways to block a satellite’s operation without creating debris. The Air Force is able to jam satellite communications, while the Army is developing technologies to cause non-destructive and reversible effects by, for example, blinding a satellite’s optics, sensors or solar panels. Tests in space will be needed to assure that these concepts work, precluding a binding moratorium on testing.
James Hackett was acting director of the Arms Control & Disarmament Agency early in the Reagan administration and a member of the President’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control from 1987 to 1993.