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January 19, 2007
Raising The Stakes In Space

Russia and China have pushed for a ban on weapons in space for the past few years, but the Bush administration has resisted it while the US develops its missile shield program. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US alone retained the ready capability of attacking and destroying satellites in orbit, and no one had actually attempted it in 20 years. That period came to an end yesterday, when the Chinese successfully hit and destroyed one of their older weather satellites, demonstrating clearly that they could do the same to our critical military reconnaissance satellites:

China successfully carried out its first test of an antisatellite weapon last week, signaling its resolve to play a major role in military space activities and bringing expressions of concern from Washington and other capitals, the Bush administration said yesterday.

Only two nations — the Soviet Union and the United States — have previously destroyed spacecraft in antisatellite tests, most recently the United States in the mid-1980s.

Arms control experts called the test, in which the weapon destroyed an aging Chinese weather satellite, a troubling development that could foreshadow an antisatellite arms race. Alternatively, however, some experts speculated that it could precede a diplomatic effort by China to prod the Bush administration into negotiations on a weapons ban.

“This is the first real escalation in the weaponization of space that we’ve seen in 20 years,” said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket launchings and space activity. “It ends a long period of restraint.”

White House officials said the United States and other nations, which they did not identify, had “expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese.” Despite its protest, the Bush administration has long resisted a global treaty banning such tests because it says it needs freedom of action in space.

The action brought immediate protest, and not just from the United States. Japan called for an explanation through its diplomatic missions of the test, and Australia warned against a weapons race in space.

Does China intend on striking our sensitive military satellites? Perhaps not. This seems more like a pressure tactic by Beijing to get the US to change policy on space weapons. Last October, the Bush administration reiterated its stance on the issue, claiming that America needed a free hand in space for research and development, and specifically refused to eschew the kind of test the Chinese conducted yesterday. Now that China has demonstrated its capability to successfully launch the same kind of mission, the Chinese probably hope that the US will reconsider its position.

However, the test itself could prove troublesome for all of the satellites currently orbiting the Earth. The explosion left a lot of debris and apparently accelerated their movement in space. Satellites are remarkably delicate instruments, and having them peppered with shrapnel could knock several of them out of commission. The Chinese used a blunt instrument for its attack, and the fallout could continue for years and force the expensive replacement of other satellites, and some owners might not be able to afford the cost. Will the Chinese offer to bear the cost of replacement over the twenty-five years or more that the debris will stay in orbit?

The Bush administration will have to consider its options. We can't really afford to have more debris fields get created in orbits where our critical assets operate. The kinds of offensive weapons that we are rumored to pursue (satellite-killing lasers) appear to still be years away, even with the combined R&D efforts of both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The reluctance may come from the impact such negotiations could have on the efforts to build an missile shield for the US using space-based laser systems to destroy ballistic missiles and warheads in flight. The question will be of priorities -- is it more important to secure our existing military and communications satellites, or to keep open a path to a missile shield that the Chinese now could knock out?

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 19, 2007 5:50 AM

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