Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Space, the final frontier

National Post

It now appears evident -- judging from the frantic activity of diplomats -- that rumors of a major event in Earth's orbit earlier this week were true. China, it seems, has become the first country to destroy a satellite using a ground-launched vehicle.

According to a forthcoming report in Aviation Week and Space Technology, an obsolete Chinese weather satellite began to display signs of "orbital distress" on Jan. 12. The satellite soon metamorphosed on radar screens into a scattered cloud of tiny objects; it had apparently been smashed to bits by a "hit-to-kill" missile launched from within Szechuan province. Although Russian authorities remain publicly skeptical at press time, the other major powers seem prepared to accept that China has taken a step toward the militarization of space. An arms race on the final frontier is bound to follow unless the United States hangs its head and shuffles to the negotiating table to talk over the space treaty that the Russians and Chinese have long desired.

Despite appearances, China's seeing eye fastball should not be reflexively chalked up as a failure for U.S. intelligence. Av Week suggests that U.S. military planners foresaw something like the Chinese test last year, when they produced the first revision of overall U.S. space policy in nearly a decade. A 2003 Pentagon report specifically warned that "Beijing may have acquired high energy laser equipment that could be used in the development of ground based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons."

On the other hand, Washington arguably conceded some moral high ground in the language of its 2006 policy revision when it declared that "Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power." China can now expound the same policy in mirror image, when and if it chooses to admit to its act of satellite euthanasia. (A Friday afternoon New York Times Web headline summed up China's cryptic statements on the event: "Nothing to worry about, if we did it.")

The American diplomatic position is also somewhat compromised by the fact that the U.S. is the only other country to have used satellite-killing technology based within Earth's atmosphere: In a September, 1985 trial of a program that was later scrapped, an F- 15A fighter plane launched a multistage rocket that, in turn, fired a homing projectile into the bowels of an old communications satellite at 24,000 km/hr. (The Soviets are also said to have made successful anti-satellite tests, but their program used other satellites as a platform.)

Whatever the military and geopolitical ramifications of such a test, we now live in a globalized world whose information networks are highly dependant on satellite communications. China cannot deny its obligations to countries that are engaged in the purely peaceful exploitation of space, to the private companies that have an installed industrial base there, and to humankind in general, which benefits from space borne technologies such as global positioning. Even if the militarization of space is inevitable or desirable, safe commercial exploitation of the orbital environment remains a higher priority. The satellite destroyed in the Chinese test weighed over four-fifths of a ton, mass that is now whirling around in the orbital shell. The U.S. Air Force is tracking dozens of bits of debris and theoretical models predict that an ASAT kill would produce tens of thousands of fragments. If China wanted to show it can be just as irresponsible as any other superpower, it can be congratulated on success.

If genuine, this test will force U.S. planners to revisit estimates of overall Chinese technical sophistication. (In particular, it will affect U.S. operational planning against an invasion of Taiwan.) The implications for future military budgets are sobering, doubly so in light of recent indications that U.S. spy satellites are more vulnerable to being blinded by surface-based lasers than previously thought. Hardly any more is known publicly about secret U.S. capabilities in satellite warfare than about those of China. But the U.S. can take little comfort in being ahead in space-war prowess. As in Iraq, it faces another variant on "asymmetrical warfare": Right now the Chinese just don't have as much up there to lose as do America and the rest of the free world.