On Jan. 11, the strategic balance of power between the United States and the world’s largest communist nation shifted. The People’s Republic of China launched an anti-satellite weapon more than 500 miles into space and destroyed one of their own decrepit weather satellites. This development adds China to the small list of nations able to conduct military operations in space.
China, U.S. intelligence officials recently learned, also can hit targets in low Earth orbit with ground-based laser beams. Several months ago, Chinese military technicians "painted" a U.S. reconnaissance satellite by focusing a ground-based laser on it. Chinese military officials have also made it clear they intend to develop a much longer-range missile, one capable of reaching 22,000 miles high — high enough to threaten America’s critical GPS satellites.
China, moreover, is not the only country hoping to lay claim to space. According to news reports, Iran may soon acquire a crude anti-satellite capability. Nations with nuclear capabilities such as Pakistan and North Korea also could join this club.
The stakes are enormous. Civilian assets such as our financial markets, air-traffic control systems, and television and radio networks depend on satellites, as do virtually all of our military operations.
Since China’s test, the silence from Washington has been deafening — no public statement by the president or any cabinet official, no congressional hearings, floor debates, or legislative activity, no indication that the Pentagon has revised the space budget in any concrete way.
On Capitol Hill, the reaction has been either to dismiss the test ("I don’t think we should be overly worried about this at this point," said Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) or seize upon it to justify yet another arms control treaty. "It’s urgent," said liberal Rep. Ed Markey (D.-Mass.), "that President Bush move to guarantee the protection [of American satellites] by initiating an international agreement to ban the development, testing, and deployment of space weapons and anti-satellite systems."
Echoing Markey, The New York Times and other liberal media outlets chided the Bush Administration. The Times derided Bush’s "bellicose attitude" and concluded, "The way to counter China or any other potentially belligerent space power is through an arms control treaty, not a new arms race in space."
Last week, the Senate’s leading expert on space security, Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.), delivered a rousing speech to The Heritage Foundation in which he acknowledged the threat to vital U.S. interests and dismissed the call for another treaty. Instead, he called on the president and Congress to launch a major program to deter China from attacking U.S. satellites.
"Going down the arms-control route," Kyl noted, "is only likely to weaken our security." The history of arms control agreements, he pointed out, is replete with failure. The Hague Convention in 1899 tried unsuccessfully to ban the launching of projectiles and explosives from balloons. The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 sought to ban war one decade before the fury of World War II. Democratic nations like the U.S., France and Great Britain adhered strictly to naval arms control agreements negotiated between the two world wars even as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan flaunted them. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty failed because it "encouraged responsible nations to sit by complacently while their more ambitious or ruthless neighbors [went] nuclear."
As with previous arms-control efforts involving democratic and non-democratic nations, this latest foray is also destined to fail. Why? During the negotiations, the U.S. would be pressured to freeze its space programs while an unconstrained China would blithely dismiss world opinion and move forward with its anti-satellite programs. Once signed, a treaty would lull the U.S. into a false sense of security: We would feel compelled to comply while China would not. And, for a variety of technical reasons, a ban on anti-satellite weapons would be entirely unverifiable.
The more prudent course, Kyl suggests, is to recognize that space is a top national-security priority and that it is in our national interest to deny our adversaries the ability to exploit space for military purposes. This will require a far larger and more sustained financial commitment from the Pentagon than the paltry $500 million in this year’s Air Force budget.
Conservatives, especially, must make space security a national priority again. "Space security and missile defense are as much a part of the Reagan legacy as economic growth and constitutional judges," Kyl notes.
President Reagan summed it up best. "Of the four wars in my lifetime," he once said, "none came about because the United States was too strong."
Amen. And kudos to Sen. Kyl, a modern-day Churchill.