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Key Issues Space Weapons Issues Chinese Perspectives of Space Weaponization

Chinese Perspectives on the Prevention of Space Weaponization
by Hui Zhang

A series of U.S. military planning documents issued in recent years, including the U.S. Space Command’s Long Range Plan (1998), the Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (2001), the Defense Department’s 2001 Transformation Study Report, the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, the U.S. Air Force’s biennial Strategic Master Plan, the U.S. Air Force’s Transformation Flight Plan (2003),

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and the U.S. Air Force Doctrine Document Counterspace Operations (2004), explicitly reveal the U.S. wants to “control space” by using weapons in or from space and establish superiority over the world.

The control of space is aimed at assuring the U.S. access to space, freedom of operations within the space medium, and denying others the use of space. Indeed, a number of highlevel official documents have shown the U.S.’ intention to develop, deploy, and use space weapons. The 2001 Commission, originally chaired by current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, warned of the need “to avoid a ‘space Pearl Harbor’”and the Commissioners believe “the U.S. government should vigorously pursue the capabilities called for in the National Space Policy to ensure that the President will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests.” [1]

In its Transformation Flight Plan (Nov. 2003), the U.S. Air Force lists a number of space weapon systems it would like to have for space wars.[2] Furthermore, in August 2004, the U.S. Air Force released the Counterspace Operations Doctrine Document.[3] This high-level official document shows clearly what the U.S. Air Force actually intends to do is to achieve and maintain space superiority – the “freedom to attack as well as the freedom from attack” in space.[4] To preclude an adversary from exploiting space to their advantage, Offensive Counterspace (OCS) operations would attack, possibly pre-emptively, an adversary’s space capability, including satellites, space stations, or other spacecraft; communication links; ground stations; launch facilities; command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems; and those operated by third party providers. As the document shows, to conduct these OCS operations, a number of space weapon systems would be used, such as ASATs, which include direct ascent and co-orbital systems that employ various mechanisms to affect or destroy an onorbit spacecraft, and Directed Energy Weapons, such as land-, sea-, air, or space-based lasers.

Missile Defense and U.S. Control of Space


The control of space would require ASAT weapons in order to negate an adversary’s space capability, including satellites. The current deployment of U.S. missile defense would provide such ASAT capacities. The U.S. has deployed Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) systems since September 2004. Ten interceptors will be deployed by the end of 2004 (six in Alaska and four in California) and ten more (in Alaska) by end of 2005. This GMD system, however, will have no demonstrated defensive capability and will be ineffective against a real attack by longrange ballistic missile, because the technology is not ready: as yet, no flight intercept tests have been undertaken under realistic conditions; such a system could be easily defeated by unsophisticated countermeasures; and there is no adequate tracking capabilities.[5] In spite of this, GMD will have a significant ASAT capability. Many technical experts realize that satellite interception is technically easier than intercepting ballistic missiles. As Richard Garwin explained, “the satellite is far more fragile than is a nuclear warhead equipped with reentry vehicle; the satellite follows a highly predictable trajectory; the satellite is considerably larger than a warhead; the intercept time can be chosen, for the most part, at the convenience of the attacker, and the attack can take place within a short range of ground-based radars or laser systems to aid the attack.” [6]

The GMD system, the sea-based midcourse defense system, and the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system all will have the capability of attacking satellites in a low earth orbit (LEO; below 3,000 km), and if given an augmented booster, these systems can even reach satellites in a geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO; 36,000 km). Moreover, as David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, GMD “could intercept a large fraction of those satellites even from two deployment sites” and “the missile defense tests that have been done so far are much more relevant to demonstrating an ability to intercept satellites than to intercept missile warheads.” [7]

Thus, many Chinese argue that one real purpose for the Bush administration’s rush for GMD deployment could be to acquire an ASAT capability for its space control strategy.

In addition, the U.S. pursues a number of other ASAT weapons programs. For instance, the Army has the Kinetic Energy Anti-Satellite program, launched in 1990, and would use a ground-launched kinetic kill vehicle to hit an enemy satellite and destroy it. Another potential ASAT weapon system – the ground-based Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), originally planned for Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, is still under development. In addition, the U.S. Air Force has a research project on smaller satellites which could be used for surveillance and as anti-satellite weapons.

Space-Based Missile Defense and Space Weapons.

To control space and defend U.S. space assets, the US will need to control the adversaries’ access to space, which would require a global-coverage missile defense system. In fact, as shown in related documents, missile defense has been taken as one important part of the U.S. “space control” strategy. For example, the U.S. Space Command’s Vision for 2020 (1997) noted the rationale for missile defense and global engagement and made it clear that National Missile Defense is a “key” to “Global Engagement Capabilities.” “Global Engagement is the application of precision force from, to, and through space.” [8] Also, the US Space Command’s Long Range Plan shows a clear roadmap for the use of missile defense systems for space control.[9]

The goal for an effective, globalcoverage ballistic missile defense (BMD) system is to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) already in the boost phase, for which weapons such as a Space-Based Laser (SBL) and Space-Based Interceptor (SBI) are to be used. Also, a layered BMD system would include spacebased sensors, such as early warning satellites (DSP/SBIRS-high) and space-based missile tracking system (SBIRS-low). Thus, a global BMD system would be partly space-based and therefore weaponize space. President Bush indicated in December 2002 that the United States would continue the “development and testing of space-based defenses, specifically space-based kinetic energy (hit to kill) interceptors and advanced target tracking satellites.” [10]

Current U.S. BMD strategies aim to engage ballistic missile in all phases – boost, midcourse, and terminal. In addition, the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review (2002) reveals one guidance for missile defense program development: “Missile defense is most effective if it is layered; that is, able to intercept ballistic missiles of any range in all phases of their flight.” [11] Thus, many Chinese feel that U.S. plans to deploy missile defense is an intentional first step toward space weaponization.

Indeed, the current U.S. budget for missile defense shows continued interest in a number of space weapon related programs:[12]

  • The Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) satellite, carrying infrared sensors and releasable kill vehicles, is scheduled to be launched into LEO in late 2006. The infrared sensors are designed to gather infrared data to assist in distinguishing between a rocket body and a rocket plume during its boost phase flight. The data from these tests would be used to develop space-based boost phase interceptors. Moreover, the NFIRE onboard kill vehicle can be a potential space-based anti-satellite weapon.
  • The Space-Based Interceptor Test Bed is funded to develop and test plans for a lightweight SBI. It is planned to launch about 3-6 satellites in an effort to build such a test bed in 2010-2011. This small numbers of SBIs would provide little defense against missiles, since a global coverage against missiles would need about thousands interceptor satellites in LEO.[13] However, such small numbers could have very significant ASAT capability, including against satellites in GEO.[14]
  • Research on the Space Based Laser had been conducted for some time for boost phase missile defense. In 2002, the Missile Defense Agency cancelled the SBL program. However, a number of directed energy initiatives can be found in various other programs. The possibility that the SBL program will be revived in the Missile Defense Agency is still there.

In addition, a space-based BMD system would encourage other countries to deploy ASAT weapons, since, as discussed in the following section, these space weapons and sensor satellites would themselves become prime high value target and the most vulnerable elements for ASAT attacks.

Finally, in addition to these space weapon programs for missile defense, there are several space weapons research programs that the Pentagon plans for prompt, global force projection. These space weapons would be used to attack terrestrial targets. For example, the long-rod penetrator, often termed “Rods from God,” is one of the active research programs in the Pentagon. The use of space-based lasers against ground targets is also discussed.

Operation Practice for “Space Control”

Beyond these space weapons programs, the organizational aspect is also steadily moving towards space weaponization. For example, in October 2002, the U.S. Space Command was merged with the U.S. Strategic command, which now unifies the management and operation of space systems, missile defense systems, and strategic nuclear forces. Since 2000, the U.S. has established 527th Space Aggressor Squadron and the 76th Space Control Squadron. And the U.S. Air Force Space Command conducted space warfare exercises in 2001 and 2003.

Consequence of Space Weaponization

Space Weaponization and International Security

The advocates of space weaponization claim that U.S. space assets would face a “Space Pearl Harbor” threat. However, many experts do not believe there are credible threats to U.S. space assets from other countries. Besides the U.S., only the Soviets had explored, tested, and developed ASAT weapons or other space weapons. However, Russia announced a moratorium of its ASAT program in the early 1980s. There is little reason to believe that Russia has changed its policy against deploying such weapons. There is also no evidence that any other nations have any intention to launch a war in space. Although some countries would have the capability to attack U.S. satellites, there is no reason to believe that any government would take such a risk by incurring a deadly U.S. response. On the contrary, most countries, including China and Russia, have given high priority to negotiations on the prevention of space weaponization.

Many Chinese believe that the real purpose of “space control” is to achieve space domination. By unilaterally developing missile defense and pursuing space weaponization, the U.S. will establish a global military superiority in both offense and defense and dominate both outer space and the Earth, thus hoping to achieve unilateral absolute security and perpetual superiority. Moreover, because of their vulnerability to other cheaper, asymmetric measures (e.g. ground-based kinetic energy ASAT weapons), those space weapons are inherent first-strike weapons. Consequently, their deployment will disrupt the global strategic balance and stability and further destabilize the international situation. Many Chinese are concerned that this will make U.S. hegemony more aggressive. With the unilateral absolute military superiority and security at the cost of other countries’ security, the U.S. will gain absolute freedom in using or threatening to use force in international affairs. Specifically, the U.S. would use such freedom to interfere China’s Taiwan affair. Indeed, the Taiwan issue is taken as one threat in the 2001 Commission Report. And furthermore, China was taken as an assumed enemy in the 2001 space war exercise.

Given the tremendous military advantage that space weaponization could provide, as a sole possessor, the U.S. would have great flexibility in launching global strikes and would put other nations in serious danger. Thus, it will inevitably encourage other countries to respond both politically and militarily.

As one response measure, for example, other nations could develop ASATs to targets those space-based weapon systems. It is widely believed that these space weapons and sensor satellites would themselves become prime high-value targets and the most vulnerable elements for defense suppression attacks. Since, as mentioned before, destroying a satellite is far simpler than destroying a warhead carried on a re-entry vehicle, therefore, for those systems (e.g. BMD) relying on weapons or crucial sensors based in space, as Prof. Ashton Cart (of Harvard University) stated, “ASATs attack on these components is probably the cheapest and most effective offensive countermeasure.” [15] It is reasonable to believe that other countries could resort to asymmetric methods to counter these critical and vulnerable spacebased components in low earth orbit.

Moreover, space weaponization would seriously obstruct the arms control and disarmament process. U.S. space-based BMD would end further reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia. China could build more missiles to maintain its nuclear deterrence. Eventually, failure to proceed with the nuclear disarmament process would damage the nuclear non-proliferation regime. As China’s Ambassador Hu points out, “With lethal weapons flying overhead in orbit and disrupting global strategic stability, why should people eliminate WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) or missiles on the ground? This cannot but do harm to global peace, security and stability, hence be detrimental to the fundamental interests of all States.” [16] Consequently, U.S. space weaponization plans would inevitably lead to a new nuclear arms race and a weapons race in space and raise the risk of turning outer space into a battlefield.

Space Weaponization and Space Debris

As space has been developed and used for military and civilian purpose over four decades, a large number of manmade space debris has been created. These artificial objects – and of course natural objects (meteoroids) – create the particular environment of the Earth. The space debris results from spacecraft out of operation, discarded rocket bodies, launch- and mission-related castoffs, remnants of satellite breakups, solid-rocket exhaust, and frayed surface materials.[17] Even a collision with a tiny piece could damage or destroy a spacecraft, since their approach velocity would be very high. The increasing population of space objects poses a considerable hazard to all kinds of spacecraft. Many scientists are already concerned about space debris.

There are about 10,000 debris space objects larger than 10 cm in size.[18] However, the collision probability with a spacecraft is still rather low. Moreover, the larger pieces are traceable, so that spacecrafts can take measures (such as maneuvering) to avoid them. Accordingly, these larger objects do not yet pose a significant threat. While the space objects smaller than 1 cm probably exceed tens of millions and are hard to detect, spacecrafts would be easily protected against them by shielding (depending on the shield type).

The main threat to spacecrafts is from medium-size debris (between 1 cm to 10 cm), since they are very numerous and almost impossible to track and avoid. A spacecraft will be destroyed once it collides with such an object, and it is hard to shield against. It is estimated that there are over 300,000 medium-size debris objects – 20, 000 in LEO, 170,000 in MEO, and 20,000 in GEO.[19] At present, these objects do not yet pose an unacceptably high risk for a spacecraft. However, it could be expected that even if the space activity continues in a business as usual (no space weaponization) scenario, if there were no mitigation measures to limit and control the future growth of the space debris population, the risk from space debris, in particularly in LEO, could increase within decades to a level which is very high or even unacceptable for spacecrafts.[20] In practice, to reduce the risks to future space missions, scientists and engineers have investigated during the last years different debris mitigation measures and spacecraft protection techniques.

Weaponizing space would further worsen the space debris issues. Under U.S. space weaponization plans, a larger number of space weapons could be deployed. Most of these systems would be stationed in LEO. The launching and testing of these weapons would considerably increase space debris and pose serious hazards for satellites and other space activity. Moreover, the deployment of unlimited space-based weapons in the increasingly crowded realm of LEO would also limit orbit resource usage for civilian purposes.

Even worse, eventually these space weapons will be used to attack satellites – this is part of the U.S. space control strategy. In addition, an adversary could use ASAT weapons to attack these space weapons. Once a satellite is destroyed and fragmented, more orbital debris would be generated. For example, at an ASAT test in September 1985, the U.S. fragmented the Solwind spacecraft with an air-launched miniature homing vehicle. More than 200 catalogued pieces of debris were produced, and most remained in orbit for several years.[21] While the fragments from SBI impacts on boost-phase missiles could not significantly increase the amount of orbital debris in LEO,[22] an SBI would fragment a satellite into hundreds of pieces of tractable debris (larger than 10 cm) and far more medium-sized orbital debris. Then, these medium-size orbital debris, with mass of several grams to tens grams, at a collision velocity about 10 km/s, could fragment another satellite of hundreds of kilograms or a few tons. Based on the mass distribution of fragments generated in hypervelocity impacts, for example, a two-ton satellite could be broken into several hundred thousands medium-size pieces, hundreds larger ones, and billions of debris smaller than 1 cm. Thus, fragments from several shattered satellites could several times the current orbital debris in LEO.

Furthermore, many scientists are concerned that once a “critical density” of space debris is reached, a process called collisional cascading (or chain reaction) – collision fragments will trigger further collisions – would start. Thus, the Earth would be covered by a cloud of debris too dense to allow stationing any satellites or even passing through. It is also estimated that such a “critical density” of space debris in LEO would already be achieved when its population increases a few times.[23] Some scientists estimate that the density may already be sufficiently great at 900-1,000 km and 1,500-1,700 km that a cascade of collisions can be sustained.[24] Thus, fragmenting several satellites at LEO may lead to a chain reaction. Consequently, there would be no more satellites in LEO either for space exploration, civilian or military purpose, such as the Hubble Space Telescope (at about 600 kilometers), the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, earth-observing satellites, photo-reconnaissance satellites, and part of the navigation satellites. As Prof. Primack (University of California at Santa Cruz) pointed out, “Weaponization of space would make the debris problem much worse, and even one war in space could encase the entire planet in a shell of whizzing debris that would thereafter make space near the Earth highly hazardous for peaceful as well as military purposes.”[25]

In short, space weaponization will have a disastrous effect not only on global security but also on global economy, which is closely tied to assets in space.

This paper was written for the conference "The Challenge of Hiroshima. Alternatives to Nuclear Weapons, Missiles, Missile Defenses, and Space Weaponization in a Northeast Asian Context" organized by INESAP and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation on October 8-11, 2004, in Hiroshima, Japan.

  1. Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, Washington DC, Jan.11, 2001.
  2. United States Space Command, Long Range Plan, March 1998.
  3. U.S. Air force Doctrine Document 2-2.1, Counterspace Operations, August 2, 2004.
  4. Ibid, Ref. 1.
  5. Lisbeth Gronlund et.al., Technical Realities: An Analysis of the 2004 Deployment of a U.S. National Missile Defense System, Union of Concerned Scientists, May 2004.
  6. Richard Garwin, Space Weapons or Space Arms Control, presentation at American Philosophical Society Annual General Meeting, April 2000.
  7. David Wright, Technical Issues of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Weapons, presentation at UCS-BUAA Workshop, Beijing, April13-15, 2004.
  8. U.S. Space Command, Vision for 2020, 1997.
  9. Ibid, Ref. 3
  10. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, National Policy on Ballistic Missile Defense Fact Sheet, May 20, 2003.
  11. U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review, (Excerpts), 8 January 2002.
  12. See e.g. Federation of American Scientists, Ensuring America’s Space Security: Report of the FAS Panel on Weapons in Space, October 2004; Jeffrey Lewis, Programs to Watch, Arms Control Today, November 2004.
  13. American Physical Society, Report of the APS Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense, July 2003, Washington, D.C., USA.
  14. Ibid, Ref. 7.
  15. Ashton Carter, The Relationship of ASAT and BMD Systems, in: Franklin Long et.al. (eds.), Weapons In Space, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1986.
  16. Hu Xiaodi, Remarks at panel discussions on A Treaty to Prohibit Weapons and War in Space? — Missiles: How Can We Reduce the Dangers They Pose?, October 11,2001.
  17. N.L. Johnson, Controlling Debris in Space, Scientific American 279 (2) 62, August 1998.
  18. R. Walker et.al., Update of the ESA Space Debris Mitigation Handbook, Executive Summary, July 2002. Ref: QINETIQ/KI/SPACE/CR021539. ESA Contract 14471/00/D/HK.
  19. Ibid.
  20. See e.g. P. Eichler and D. Rex, Debris Chain Reactions, Paper AIAA-90-1365, AIAA/NASA/DOD Orbital Debris Conference: Technical Issues and Future Directions, Baltimore, Maryland, 16-19 April 1990; D.J. Kessler, Collision Probability at Low Altitudes Resulting from Elliptical Orbits, Adv. Space Res. 10 (3) 393, 1990; D.J. Kessler, Collisional Cascading: The Limits of Population Growth in Low Earth Orbit, Space Dust and Debris, Adv. Space Res. 11 (12) 63, 1991.
  21. N. Johnson and D. McKnight, Artificial Space Debris, Malabar, Florida: Orbit Book Company, Inc., 1987.
  22. Federation of American Scientists, op.cit.
  23. P. Eichler and D. Rex, op.cit.
  24. D.J. Kessler, op.cit.
  25. J. Primack, Pelted by Paint, Downed by Debris, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October2002