Friday, January 19, 2007

Chinese Missile Shoot Raising U.S. Security Issues

China conducted an anti-satellite missile firing last week, which destroyed one of China's own outdated satellites, but raised alarm-bells in Western capitals concerning Beijing's threat to the global commercial satellite system. This Los Angeles Times story has the details:

The Chinese military shot down one of its own aging satellites with a ground-based ballistic missile last week, demonstrating a new technological capability at a time of growing Bush administration concern over Beijing's military modernization and its intentions in space.

The shoot-down, which U.S. officials said occurred on the evening of Jan. 11, prompted a formal protest from Washington that was joined by allies including Canada and Australia, U.S. officials said Thursday. Japan has demanded an explanation, and Britain and South Korea are also expected to file formal objections.

"The United States believes China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area," said Gordon D. Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council. "We and other countries have expressed our concern to the Chinese..."

The shoot-down has rattled U.S. defense officials, who are concerned both about the commercial crafts and government spy and military satellites that operate at that height.

Larger telecommunications satellites and certain military satellites that provide early warning of missile launches travel in much higher orbits — up to 23,000 miles above Earth....

Concerns about rising threats to U.S. satellites led the Bush administration to issue a new national space policy in August, which held that the U.S. viewed freedom of action in space as important as air or sea power.

The administration was widely criticized for its aggressive attitude toward defense activities in space. But a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday that satellites and access to space were considered vital to U.S. national and economic security and that any event "that can hinder passage through space" was of concern.

This is a troubling development. CNN reported this morning that the missile test is creating a degree of chill in U.S.-China relations not seen since the 2001 American spy-plane incident, in which a U.S. surveillance aircraft crashed into a Chinese jet fighter.

I blogged yesterday on China's growing global role and its challenge to U.S. hegemonic leadership of the international system.

According to MIT's Barry Posen, in his article, "
Command of the Commons," the U.S. currently enjoys unrivaled military leaderhip in the command of space. Top U.S. military personnel are quoted in the article as indicating the U.S. in 2001 had 100 military and 150 commercial satellites in space (close to half of all active space satellites), and space-related assets served a vital communications role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Posen also notes that the NAVSTAR/GPS (global position system) satellite system serves a military function as its primary purpose, and that civilian GPS utilization for commercial purposes is permitted by the U.S. government.

Posen notes the nature of security concerns surrounding U.S. control of space:

The dependence of the United States on satellites to project its conventional military power does make the satellites an attractive target for future U.S. adversaries. 33 But all satellites are not equally vulnerable; low earth orbit satellites seem more vulnerable to more types of attack than do high earth orbit satellites. Many of the tactics that a weaker competitor might use against the United States would probably not be usable more than once—use of space mines, for example, or so-called microsatellites as long-duration orbital interceptors. The U.S. military does have some insurance against the loss of satellite capabilities in its Âșeet of reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. A challenge by another country could do some damage to U.S. satellite capabilities and complicate military operations for some time. The United States would then need to put a new generation of more resilient satellites in orbit. One estimate suggests that the exploitation of almost every known method to enhance satellite survivability would roughly double the unit cost.
Command of the commons is the military basis for American global preponderance. The Chinese anti-satellite missile test is threatening to that dominance, but it will be decades before U.S. military leadership in space is eroded by international peer competitors. Still, because command of space -- as well as the air and seas -- is vital to long-term U.S. national security, prudence requires checking rival states' effort to weaken U.S. primacy, and the Bush administation is correct to vigorously protest China's space weapons development.

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