Standing by the new space policy the White House issued last year, a U.S. State Department official said China's Jan. 11 test of an anti-satellite weapon in space is not cause to open negotiations on a new treaty that would place limits on what countries can do in space.
“We do not think there is an arms race in space. The United States believes that the existing body of existing international agreements — including the Outer Space Treaty, as well as the liability and respective compensation conventions — provide the appropriate legal regime for space,” the State Department official said Friday in a telephone interview.
The official said the space policy clearly states that the United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to, or use of, space — and that no change in that policy is warranted.
“Arms control is not a viable solution for space. For example, there is no agreement on how to define 'space weapon.' Without a definition you are left with loopholes and meaningless limitations that endanger national security. No arms control is better than bad arms control,” the State Department official said.
Evidence of orbital strike
Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council’s chief spokesman, said in a statement Thursday that the Chinese used a ground-based, medium-range ballistic missile to knock out an aging Chinese weather satellite orbiting the earth at an altitude of about 537 miles (865 kilometers).
Johndroe described the incident as a kinetic strike, adding: “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. We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese.”
The State Department official said U.S. Defense Support Program's missile warning satellites and “other assets” detected the launch of a ballistic missile and an event that generated debris. “Our space-tracking sensors subsequently observed that an old Chinese weather satellite is no longer on orbit. … We will continue to track these pieces of debris. We are especially concerned about any increased risk to satellites, but most importantly to human spaceflight, including the U.S. space shuttle and the international space station.”
The State Department official also said the United States received no advance notice from the Chinese. “We have expressed our concern to the Chinese and asked them to clarify their intentions in seeking to develop a ballistic-missile-based anti-satellite capability. ... The Chinese have not responded to our expressions of concern.”
Official: Two previous tests failed
A U.S. intelligence official told Space News on Friday that the Chinese had conducted two previous tests that were unsuccessful. The official declined to provide any additional details.
A Senate aide said the Jan. 11 test was the first one that was successful. The aide also said weather satellite was under control but dying.
“It made a lot of debris potentially affecting other satellites in [low Earth orbit]. We have to track each piece to see where it goes, to see which satellites specifically are potentially at risk,” the aide said, adding: “I hope the U.S. does now spend more and take space situational awareness more seriously.”
Reminder of space frontier's importance
Bretton Alexander, a former senior analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy who worked on space issues for both the Clinton and the Bush administration, said the Chinese anti-satellite test is a reminder of why the United States believes it needs to protect its space-based capabilities.
“The Bush administration has been on the defensive about its policy language on the need to defend U.S. space assets,” Alexander said. “But this highlights that the threat is real and why we need to protect our assets.”
Early details of the event were first reported last Wednesday in a blog written by Jeffrey Lewis, executive director of Harvard’s Managing the Atom Project, on the Web site ArmsControlWonk.com and in a story posted Thursday on the Aviation Now Web site.
“This is an enormous mess they [the Chinese] have created. There is no excuse for what is a reckless, stupid and self-defeating decision on their part,” Lewis said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Lewis said a U.S. Air Force database of objects in orbit showed the Chinese FY-11 weather satellite intact on Jan. 11, but that the data a day later “showed about 40 pieces of debris, which is probably just the tip of the iceberg.” Lewis said. Space-Track.org is the Air Force Web site that provides public satellite tracking data.
Lewis said one positive result of the Chinese action could be a call for improved debris field modeling. “Our models of debris spread are quite speculative, so this event should help improve our models,” Lewis said.
Reaction was almost universally critical of the Chinese actions.
“Space technologies are critical to the U.S. military and to the U.S. economy, so any action that puts our space assets at risk is a matter of great concern,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said in a statement issued by his office. Skelton said the committee “will carefully monitor activity that may impact the way the U.S. military utilizes space technology.”
A U.S.-based China watcher, who asked not to be identified, said the Chinese “shot themselves in the foot with this one. They couldn’t resist this demonstration of their capabilities after we came out with our space policy saying 'We are going to defend the heavens.' The new [U.S] space policy says we can defend the heavens with technology. But we can’t, and the Chinese just proved it.”
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Month in Space: January 2014
Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations in Taiwan, said China’s motivation is likely rooted in their perception of the new U.S. space policy.
“The perception is that the U.S. is attempting to dominate space and the U.S. refuses any space-related arms control,” Ding said. “Further, China suspects that the U.S. is attempting to militarize space in the future. ... A possible consequence is that space-related arms control is likely to be added to U.S.-China dialogue in the future,” he said.
Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the Naval War College’s department of national security decision making and one of the United States’ top experts on Chinese space issues, said the long-term impact of the incident will probably not be that severe.
“I think there will be a lot of very vocal rhetoric, but I don’t think it will have a substantive impact. There are just too many reasons for both of us to work together on so many issues,” she said.
Correspondent Wendell Minnick contributed to this article from Taipei. Staff writer Brian Berger contributed from Washington.