The wars of the future will not be fought on a battlefield or at sea. They will be fought on space, or possibly on the top of a very tall mountain. In any case, most of the fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today, remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots. Thank you.
-- Commandant, Rommelwood Military School ("The Secret War of Lisa Simpson," The Simpsons).
The war envisioned in the above quote is perhaps not quite so far off any more. On January 11, China successfully tested a ground-based weapon system designed to intercept and destroy space-based platforms, such as satellites. Using a kinetic-kill vehicle (a weapon that uses kinetic energy rather than explosives to destroy its target), China successfully knocked out an aging weather satellite using a ballistic missile. The test has been greeted with condemnation from the US, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, and Canada as an unnecessary creation of a space-based arms race, to which China has responded by professing its desire to "oppose the weaponization of space."
Why is a successful test of an ASAT (anti-satellite) weapon so troubling to so many countries? War is a pretty awful and comprehensive business anyway? Why would extending war into space be so vexing? Several reasons: First, from a national security perspective, a good deal of the American dominance in combat comes from its huge advantages in information -- reconnaissance, communications, imaging, GPS targeting and navigation, and so on -- which relies on satellites. An early strike on those space-based assets could blind the US military and level the playing field. True, the US has better weapons platforms and better trained soldiers, but without satellites, those advantages get mitigated.
Second, from a more global perspective, there is so much dual-use technology sharing between the military and the wider public that satellites, even military ones, are rarely purely military targets. GPS navigation, cell phones, weather imaging...all of these technologies rely on satellites that would be targeted in any preemptive military strike. Extending war into space could have dire consequences not just for the US military, but for the economies and civilian populations the world over.
The Bush Administration has, to date, not been willing to expend any resources for a ban on anti-satellite weapons, stating that "there is no arms race in space." Now there is. And it's serious. Despite Chinese professions to the contrary, "in the short-term, the Chinese will simply not be credible partners in efforts to keep space peaceful. Moreover, other countries could follow suit with their own anti-satellite programs, including the United States." Furthermore, the test sends another strong signal that China is moving to balance the might of the US.
The US needs to move quickly to deal with this development. While a war with China may be a long, long, LONG off, the US strategy of engagement cannot become complacent. If China is to be slowly brought in to the Western fold, it needs to be presented with stark choices: Its support for the genocidal Sudanese regime, for example, should be punished by the restriction of economic ties, as should any further development of ASAT weapons. Such actions may hurt in the short run, but if China really prefers economic engagement with the West to military confrontation, the pain won't last too long. However, if China desires to challenge US hegemony, better to know now than later.