China's apparent success on January 11, 2007 in destroying one of its own satellites with a ballistic missile is a rubicon moment in the weaponization of space. The technology used in the test is not new. The U.S. tested similar systems in the 1980s and the Soviet Union tested anti-satellite technology in the 1960s. What is significant about China's test is its timing. It comes just months after the Bush Administration released a new National Space Policy that opposed any international arms control agreements that would limit "the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests." Within this context China's anti-satellite weapons test marks the first salvo in a space arms race.
While the U.S. has had military assets in space for decades, these have been satellites that have assisted the military in the surveillance and targeting of battlefields on earth. Space weaponization changes how militaries use space from simply assisting war fighting on the ground to actually waging war in, through and from space. China's test demonstrates its intention to the international community to begin developing weapons systems that can target enemy satellites. The U.S. has been conducting research and development into space weapons systems for decades. The most recent Pentagon Budget committed more than five hundred million dollars in public earmarks for space weapons systems. Most experts agree, however, that the classified portion of the budget pushes total spending on space weapons development well past the billion-dollar mark.
With China's anti-satellite test, this race for military control of space can now go one of three ways. The first possibility would be a classical arms race with the U.S., China, Russia, and possibly other space powers such as Europe and Japan each developing space weapons to protect their assets and threaten the assets of their rivals. The risk with this scenario, as with all arms races, is that the cycle of escalation will eventually lead to a shooting war. The destruction of even one satellite could cause complications for all the other satellites in its orbital path. Debris from destroyed satellites could collide with other satellites damaging or even destroying them.
The second scenario would see the U.S. respond to China's test by escalating its space weapons programs. The immediate beneficiaries of China's test may be the space hawks in Washington's defence establishment who have been calling for the U.S. to weaponize space for decades now. China's test gives these hawks evidence that the possibility of a space war is no longer confined to the domain of science fiction. By seizing military control of space the hawks reason that the U.S. would enhance its ability to project force to any point on earth on very short notice. Furthermore, space control – as the hawks call this strategy – would give the U.S. the power to decide which states could and could not have access to space. While the U.S. currently enjoys a significant advantage in space technologies, China's test demonstrates that this gap may be closing. As such space hawks will be pushing the Bush Administration to weaponize space now, while the U.S . still enjoys technological superiority in the area of space weapons.
The third scenario would involve both China and the U.S. taking a step back and realizing that a space arms race is in nobody's interest. All the space powers have scientific, commercial and military assets in space that would be seriously compromised by a space arms race. China's test demonstrates that any state with a reasonably sophisticated ballistic missile system could destroy a satellite. The state that has the most to lose from such an arms race is the U.S. as it has the most commercial satellites in orbit and its conventional military forces are most dependent upon satellites to wage war. China's test could provide the opportunity for states to begin work on a serious arms control agreement that would ban all weapons from space. Existing international law only prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons in space.
China's test raises serious questions for Canadian policy makers given Canada's assets in space range from telecommunications to weather to military satellites. While it is unlikely that Canada would ever become a major participant in a space arms race, such a race threatens these satellites. As such, the best possible scenario for Canada would be the development of a comprehensive space arms control treaty. With its history of leadership in arms control, Canada could play an important role in developing such a treaty. The question of course, is whether or not there is the political will in Ottawa to fight to keep space weapons free.
Jonathan Havercroft is a SDF Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre of International Relations