Note for Reporters by Daryl G. Kimball
Immediate Release: January 26, 2007
Press Contact: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 x107 (Office)
Since the beginning of the space age, countries have contemplated how they might protect their military and civilian space assets from attack by others. China’s destruction of one of its satellites using a ground-launched ballistic missile January 11 reaffirms the fundamental reality that space assets are physically vulnerable to attack, as U.S. and Soviet anti-satellite testing first demonstrated decades ago.
The January 11 event also raises many questions that Beijing should answer. Most importantly, why did China shoot down its own satellite and what did China hope to gain from this provocative act? Was China signalling that U.S. satellites would not be safe in a potential conflict with China? Was China hoping to push the United States toward negotiations on controlling space and anti-satellite weapons? Or both?
It is essential that Beijing clarify its intentions in order to help avert an unnecessary and destabilizing space weapons competition. It is also essential that the United States and other countries respond in a manner that reduces, rather than stokes, space weapons concerns.
All countries share a strong and enduring interest in preventing space from becoming a future battlefield and would benefit from limitations on the development and deployment of weapons that could be used to impair or destroy valuable space-based assets. Consequently, the United States, China, Russia, and other spacefaring nations should begin negotiations to prohibit space-based weapons and anti-satellite arms. James Clay Moltz outlined what such an agreement could entail in a 2002 Arms Control Today article, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2002_04/moltzapril02.asp.
The logical forum for such talks is the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD). Unfortunately, the conference, which operates by consensus, has been deadlocked over competing negotiating priorities since 1996. Driven in part by its concerns about the United States’ rudimentary but evolving missile defense programs, China has been a leading advocate of CD talks on outer space. For its part, the United States has been staunchly opposed to the proposal, arguing that there is no need for such an agreement.
A trio of articles by notable arms control experts in the December 2007 Arms Control Today, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_12/, provide several recommendations for reviving the conference, including talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit and on celestial bodies, but contains no provisions against developing anti-satellite weapons or deploying kinetic or laser weapons in orbit. If countries pursue and attain such capabilities, the consequences would be serious and devastating, as Michael Krepon argued in a November 2004 Arms Control Today article, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_11/Krepon.asp.
U.S. policymakers should seize on the Chinese anti-satellite test as an opportunity to constructively address mutual concerns and plug the current loopholes in the existing space security framework.
If the United States forsakes negotiations, continues with plans to test space-based missile defense systems, and seeks to ensure its own “freedom of action” in space as outlined in a recently unveiled space policy (see http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_11/ACSpace.asp), Washington will only further spur China to pursue anti-satellite weapons. Harvard scholar Hui Zhang warned of the negative implications of such an action-reaction cycle in this December 2005 Arms Control Today article, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2005_12/Dec-cvr.asp.
For more information on space and related weapons issues, see the ACA space resource page at http://www.armscontrol.org/subject/space/. Additional information on the CD and its ongoing deadlock is available at a separate ACA resource page at http://www.armscontrol.org/subject/cd/.
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The Arms Control Association (ACA) is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting effective arms control policies. ACA publishes the monthly journal Arms Control Today.