Destructive ASAT tests are rare. The Pentagon’s destructive anti-satellite test in February 2008 followed thirteen months after China used one of its aging satellites for target practice. The previous voluntary, global moratorium on destructive ASAT testing lasted twenty-two years. Only a few ASAT tests are needed to generate insecurity among space-faring nations, clarifying the vulnerability of satellites that are essential for national and economic security.
Destructive ASAT tests are the most visible aspects of larger, space warfare programs that proceed beyond plain view. While the United States and China are the primary focus of attention at present, Russia is surely gearing up its efforts in this field. It is also likely that Israel, India, and France are focusing more attention on ASAT capabilities. Each test acts as a prod: Nations that feel most threatened by ASAT capabilities will accelerate hedging strategies when their essential satellites are placed at risk. They need not race to compete with each other, since modest ASAT capabilities can still do great harm.
Much has been made of the differences between the US and Chinese ASAT tests. While the People’s Liberation Army apparently did not seek to hide its ASAT test preparations, neither did it provide advanced public notice of this threat to manned and unmanned space operations in low Earth orbit. Far worse, China, which supports a treaty banning space weapons, carried out this test in such a way as to create, according to computer models, approximately 100,000 space weapons in the form of lethal debris fragments. The Pentagon, in contrast, provided advanced notice, and sought to greatly mitigate the debris resulting from its ASAT test.
These differences are important, but the central fact is that both the Pentagon and the PLA tested destructive ASAT technologies. The Bush administration’s public rationale was that the dead satellite’s fuel tank might survive re-entry, and could cause a hazardous chemical spill. This explanation lacked credibility, since over 5,400 metric tonnes of space junk as fallen to Earth without any resulting fatalities. If government officials or military leaders in Beijing or Moscow had used a similar rationale for carrying out a destructive ASAT test, very few in the United States would be so credulous as to believe them.
The Bush administration delayed its public announcement of an imminent threat of a chemical spill to the eleventh hour. The Pentagon did not release the assumptions and probability risk assessments used to justify the ASAT test because to have shared unclassified estimates would have sparked a debate over the severe and costly nature of the proposed remedy. Media outlets faithfully reported the administration’s case, and congressional overseers were quiescent, unwilling to buck the public safety argument.
The administration’s tactics have led to larger misadventures, followed by widespread buyer’s remorse. But they again served their intended purposes. Advocates succeeded in carrying out a destructive ASAT test that would have otherwise not been approved by the Congress. The Navy demonstrated how ballistic missile defense capabilities could be quickly adapted for ASAT purposes. And the Pentagon sent a thinly-veiled rejoinder to the PLA’s destructive ASAT test.
The immediate consequences of the U.S. ASAT test include the loss of credibility of US government spokespersons who have long claimed that the Bush administration was innocent of charges that it sought to demonstrate and covertly acquire “offensive counter-space” capabilities. The Bush administration’s argument that new space diplomacy initiatives are unnecessary has also become even more threadbare. In diplomacy, as in politics, you can’t beat something with nothing. But the Bush administration still has not, and will not, offer a substantive alternative to the draft treaty banning space weapons proposed by Russia and China.
To counter this draft treaty, which has serious deficiencies, the Bush administration has proposed transparency and confidence-building measures. The Pentagon’s transparency measures prior to the ASAT test actually undermined US credibility abroad regarding its intentions in space. And other CBMs that the Bush administration has wisely championed, such as voluntary international constraints on debris mitigation and space traffic management, will be vitiated if ASAT testing continues.
The Bush administration’s rejection of any diplomatic initiatives that constrain US military options in space warfare, even after testing ASAT capabilities, is unwise and unsustainable. This is a sure-fire recipe for the further acceleration of ASAT capabilities and additional ASAT testing by others.
Diplomatic activity is admittedly an imperfect indicator of space security. Negotiations, for example, can be perfunctory, or they can focus on unwise objectives. At present, the diplomatic choices facing the international community are the treaty proposed by Beijing and Moscow, and the Bush administration’s nay saying. These are not sound choices. The next administration will have the responsibility to offer a better choice to enhance space security.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the StimsonCenter. He directs the Center’s Space Security Project.