China's provocative test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon last week shines a spotlight on the long- overlooked national security issue of space weapons. Given the substantial US dependence on civilian and military satellites, the successful test's implications are troubling for US security – and relations with China. Before taking any hasty action, it would be prudent for the United States to think hard about how to react to this worrisome Chinese move.
For years, Beijing has called for banning space weapons, but the test flies in the face of this rhetoric. Washington and other governments are right to decry the test. However, it may reflect the logic the US used in the early 1980s when it deployed medium-range missiles in Europe to encourage the Soviet Union to negotiate limits on these weapons.
Ironically, had the US conducted this test, it would have been entirely consistent with its newly revised policy that places greater emphasis on offensive space capabilities. For several years, the Bush administration has signaled its interest in attaining antisatellite capabilities and has openly rejected any interest in legal agreements that could restrict countries from acquiring these capabilities. While China, Russia, and the US have demonstrated these capabilities, any country with a ballistic missile program could develop an antisatellite weapon.
"There is no arms race in space and we see no signs of one emerging," said Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph last month. That remark is now probably moot, but America should pause before reacting with a demonstration of its own. Negotiating restrictions on space weapons may be a better path forward.
China's test wasn't exactly a surprise. In Beijing last November, Chinese security experts told one of us that China was worried about US space policy and Washington's apparent unwillingness to consider mutual restrictions on offensive space weapons. They warned that China would respond with countermeasures if the US continued to refuse negotiations on these weapons.
At the very least, the US should consider a global ban on precisely the kind of weapon that China has demonstrated. Apart from this technology's military significance, weapons like these produce huge amounts of orbital debris that can damage all satellites and remain in orbit for many years – a dangerous legacy for all spacefaring nations.
The US could maintain many offensive options for space, if desirable, and still seek to ban weapons that create debris, just as the US and former Soviet Union agreed to ban atmospheric nuclear tests for environmental reasons in 1963 while still maintaining their ability to test nuclear weapons.
The US response to China should take a mix of military and diplomatic steps:
• Make it clear to China that its ASAT test has damaged US-China relations and that more tests will have important economic and other consequences.
• Accelerate programs to protect its satellites against ASAT weapons of all kinds, including lasers.
• Perform a thorough assessment of possible threats to its space assets, and the best options, military and diplomatic, for countering them.
• Reexamine its unwillingness to discuss limits on space weaponry. Washington loses nothing by talking, and it hardly serves its interests for a technologically advancing China to attain an antisatellite arsenal.
• Recognize that a space-arms competition could have unwanted consequences.
America stands at a critical space-weapons threshold. Whatever steps it takes, it should carefully weigh its options, mindful that once the US and China cross this space Rubicon, they may never be able to cross back.
• Bruce W. MacDonald was assistant director for national security in the Science Adviser's office in the Clinton White House. Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations.