U.S. Wants a Space Debris Hotline With China Patterned on the One With Russia

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HERZLIYA, Israel — The U.S. government wants to enlist Russia and China in an international code of conduct for space, and is seeking a direct line with Beijing — similar to one recently established with Moscow — to prevent collisions and potentially destabilizing events in space.

Washington remains opposed to a draft space arms control treaty proposed jointly by Russia and China in 2008, principally on the grounds that it would not be verifiable. Nevertheless, U.S. officials hope to involve both prominent spacefaring nations in so-called transparency and confidence-building measures planned for international deliberation beginning later this year.

In parallel, Washington has proposed a bilateral space security dialogue with China patterned after a U.S.-Russian forum that kicked off in mid-2010 and expanded last summer into a direct hotline connecting U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) in California with the Russian Space Surveillance & System Command Center in Moscow.

“JSpOC in California has direct contact with space operations centers throughout the world, as well as with commercial operators … so that when there’s a close approach, they call companies or countries directly. We’d very much like to have a number to call in China,” Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, said.

In a Jan. 29 address to an international space conference here, Gen. William Shelton, commander, U.S. Air Force Space Command, said the 1,100 or so active satellites in orbit today are increasingly threatened by the proliferation of space debris. He said JSpOC at Vandenberg Air Force Base tracks some 22,000 orbiting objects measuring centimeters or more, each of which could severely damage other satellites if they collided.

China’s 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) test, he said, created more than 3,000 pieces of trackable debris that will remain a threat to U.S. and other assets for decades to come. A 2009 collision of a U.S. Iridium satellite with a spent Russian Cosmos generated another 2,000 pieces of debris.

Two weeks ago, the international space station had to be maneuvered away from debris caused by the Iridium-Cosmos crash, Shelton said.

“Space debris has grown considerably in the last four years, and it’s becoming a challenge to our ability to maintain space situation awareness,” Shelton said. He added, “We can’t afford to lose our space assets.”

Absent a direct line with Chinese space authorities, notifications of impending debris threats will be passed from JSpOC to the State Department, then to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Such a case occurred about 18 months ago, when JSpOC detected a piece of debris from China’s 2007 ASAT test that was heading very close to a Chinese satellite, Rose said in an interview prior to his Jan. 29 address at the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies.

“At first, my initial reaction was, ‘Why do we want to notify them?’” Rose said. “But then I caught myself and realized that if a piece of debris hit their satellite, then we’d have more debris threatening our own satellites, and that would not be in anyone’s interest.”

He added, “As China continues their economic expansion, they will become ever more dependent on space systems, and that’s one of the reasons why we want to talk with them. We believe it’s in the interest of all nations not to have collisions in space.”

In a seminal 2007 study for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Pentagon analyst Michael Pillsbury reported some 30 Chinese proposals and scholarly articles advocating the development and deployment of a variety of weapons that could disable or destroy satellites, including lasers and jammers, as well as plasma-based and hard-kill systems.

Of all the proposals, he cited two books by Chinese military officers advocating covert deployment of a sophisticated system to be used against the U.S. in a pre-emptive, surprise attack. “Even a small-scale ASAT attack in a crisis … could have a catastrophic effect not only on U.S. military forces, but on the U.S. civilian economy,” Pillsbury wrote.

“There is copious Chinese literature highlighting the general U.S. vulnerability to losing space assets — ergo, their conclusion that killing them would scare away the Americans,” Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the National Defense University’s International Assessment and Strategy Center, said Feb. 2.

“But the Chinese need to contain their arrogance,” he added. “Very soon in both the space and maritime realms, they will have significant capabilities that can be held hostage as they are trying to do to the United States today.”

Rose said direct strategic dialogue with China — similar to the bilateral talks he leads with Russia — are important for preventing misperceptions and miscalculations. “There have been a number of Chinese defense intellectuals arguing that shooting down American nuclear early warning satellites is de-escalatory. We want to have a discussion with them so that they understand that this is not the case.”

He added, “We did not agree with the Soviets on many things during the Cold War, but they had a pretty good understanding of what made us tick [and vice versa]. They knew that attacking American early warning satellites would escalate a crisis to places they didn’t want to go.”

Theresa Hitchens, director of the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, said direct channels between the United States and China would be most welcome at a time when China is assuming an increasingly prominent role in space.

Speaking in her personal capacity as a former analyst and advocate for space demilitarization, Hitchens said, “I think it’s a great idea. The real problem between the United States and China is that they don’t understand each other on a lot of levels. Direct contacts would do much toward reducing tensions and misperceptions.”

Hitchens stressed that Chinese thinking on space is not monolithic. “They have their hawks and doves, just like we do. … All the more reason for direct engagement.”

In his Fisher Institute address here, Rose said 2012 should mark a defining year for advancing shared goals for ensuring the long-term sustainability, stability, safety and security of space. He said Washington, as president of the G8 industrialized nations [the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia] is introducing space security as a discussion item on the multilateral economic and national security agenda.

Similarly, he said Washington will continue to work bilaterally and multilaterally through the United Nations and an international group of government experts toward a voluntary, nonlegally binding, but politically binding international code for responsible space behavior.

 

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