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“Space doves,” conversely, have been angered by the appalling amount of orbital wreckage the Chinese test has created, but they interpret it as a reaction to U.S. failure to respond to China’s calls for a space-weapons ban and to an increasingly provocative U.S. policy, manifested in the revised National Space Policy that the Bush administration released last year (See “A Dangerous Step toward Space Warfare”). The doves also point to the U.S. military’s predilection for proposing expensive, futuristic weapons systems like “Rods from God” (projectile rods launched from satellites that could strike their ground targets anywhere on the planet at a minimum velocity of nine kilometers per second), a Space Plane that could carry smaller craft that then drop smart bombs and other high-velocity penetrators from space, and a suborbital transport that could deliver U.S. Marine squads anywhere on Earth within a couple of hours. This sort of thing is confrontational, the doves argue, and now the Chinese have used their ASAT test to send a message back to the United States that if it wants to weaponize space it will not be alone.

Experts on China agree that Beijing has sent a message, but they stress that current space affairs are best understood in a longer-term geopolitical context.

Robert Ross, an MIT Security Studies program fellow who’s collaborating with Beijing University’s Institute of Strategic Studies on a project examining the influence of China’s rise on contemporary international politics, says the ASAT test is part of the country’s larger military modernization, which is seen by the Chinese as “simply prudent behavior to improve security against the other great power in the system.” Beijing doesn’t expect to catch up with the United States, Ross says, or even achieve war-winning capability off of the Asian mainland. “Rather,” he says, “China aims to erode U.S. war-fighting superiority however it can, thus reducing U.S. confidence that it can wage war against China at no cost and engage China over peripheral less-than-vital issues. The U.S. has enjoyed a monopoly of space-based C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] for the past 20 years. It’s to be expected that China would work to end this monopoly. It may be an unpleasant awakening for the U.S., but it doesn’t necessarily portend expansive Chinese military ambitions.”

Still, Jonathan Pollack, of the Naval War College, in Newport, RI, notes the policy dilemma for China in all this: “You can make, as the Chinese have, boundless numbers of statements about disapproving of American activities in space and American plans for space warfare. But unless you demonstrate a capability, it’s not going to be so compelling. So do you demonstrate that capability or do you simply warn of unspecified consequences to what the U.S. might be doing? That’s a political call. However, for the U.S. constituencies wanting to pursue militarization of space, China’s ASAT test has without a doubt helped their case.” Moreover, while the Chinese may have decided to demonstrate forcibly to the United States that it’s much easier and cheaper to knock down weapons placed in orbit than to put them up there, other technical means existed of demonstrating that fact without creating such an unprecedentedly large debris cloud around Earth. Thus, China has to some extent shot itself in the foot in this respect also. Ross believes it quite likely that the PLA didn’t even talk to knowledgeable physicists about the possibilities: “Rather, it had responsibility for the test, focused narrowly on its concerns, and it was either unconcerned or unaware of the issue.”

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Credit: Dr. Thomas Kelso at CSSI (Center for Space Standards and Innovation)

Tagged: Computing, NASA, China, satellite, military

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