Friday, February 22, 2008

The Fallout from the US Satellite Interception

The United States has apparently successfully intercepted a failing satellite using a missile fired from an Aegis-class cruiser. However, it's not clear that the benefits of the strike will be worth the likely fallout. Coming on the heels of a Chinese test of a dedicated anti-satellite weapon, pressure seems to be mounting towards a space-based arms race as countries race to develop ASAT and AASAT capabilities at the same time as they seek to protect their own satellites. According to Clay Moltz, a professor of nuclear and space policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, "[the destruction of the satellite] solved a short-term problem, but it may cause us long-term headaches in terms of emerging test programs in other countries.”

This is a bad situation for the United States. The US is far more advanced in its satellite technology and capabilities than any other country. And while satellites are fairly expensive and sophisticated, it doesn't take nearly as much effort or sophistication to shoot them down. If American dominance in space is threatened, American dominance in many other fields is threatened as well. From my previous post on the January 2007 Chinese ASAT test:

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 US needs to move quickly to derail the emerging space arms race. The US stands to lose far more than does any other actor, including China. There may have been pressing reasons to use a missile to destroy this particular falling satellite (although the only one that is credible is that the US feared that enough of the satellite would survive re-entry and impact as to pose a security threat if another country was able to retrieve it), this incident must not be allowed to set a precedent or spur spiral pressures for an arms race. The US has long opposed a global treaty banning ASAT weapons developments, largely for concerns over verification. Just last week, China and Russia proposed an international treaty banning ASATs. The US needs to work to figure out a mechanism by which it can confidently create a regime ensuring that space will remain peaceful and available for use by Americans and the world alike.

No comments: