Act now to stop a space arms race

June 10, 2005
Hui Zhang

The Financial Times

In the coming weeks, George W. Bush, US president, is expected to issue a national security directive on accessing space for various purposes, which is likely to open the door for deployment of space weapons. While the US views - and characterises - these weapons as defensive, to China and to many other countries the construction of such a system looks more like the development of the Death Star spaceship in the Star Wars film series.

There is much evidence to suggest the US move toward space weaponisation is gaining momentum. A number of US military planning documents issued in recent years point to the intention to control space by military means. Last year, the US Air Force publicised its vision of how "counterspace operations" could help achieve and maintain space superiority - the "freedom to attack as well as the freedom from attack" in space.

The space weapons under US development could be used not only to attack ballistic missiles in flight - as Ronald Reagan's 1983 Star Wars weapons programme envisaged - but also to attack military and civilian satellites and targets anywhere on earth. Certainly, this is a formidable defence mechanism, but at what cost? Putting weapons in space can only erode space security, which is in no one's interest. The most effective way to secure space assets would be to agree an international ban on space weaponisation.

No country seriously threatens US space assets. Only the US and, in the cold war era, the Soviet Union have explored, tested and developed space weapons; Russia placed a moratorium on its programme in the 1980s. A number of countries are capable of attacking US satellites by launching nuclear weapons into space, but the assurance of a deadly US response reduces potential intent to nil. In fact, many countries including China and Russia have sought multilateral negotiations on the prevention of space weaponisation. So far, however, the US has moved in the opposite direction, potentially fuelling a space weapons race.

Of primary concern is China's belief that the real purpose of US space plans is not to protect US assets but to enhance US military dominance. Space weapons are seen as "first-strike" weapons rather than defensive arms, because they are vulnerable to countermeasures. Their deployment, therefore, could be seen as a sign of US intent to use force in international affairs.

Many people in Beijing believe that China would be a target for US space weapons. From China's perspective, it is inconceivable that the US would expend such massive resources on a system that would be purely defensive and aimed only at "rogue" states. China worries that such weapons would give the US more freedom and power to intervene in its affairs, including undermining the country's efforts at reunification with Taiwan.

This concern is enhanced by US moves in recent years to boost co-operation in research and development of advanced theatre missile defence with Japan, and potentially with Taiwan. Adding to this concern, some missile defence hawks in the US have not minced their words about the utility of the system in the event of military confrontation with China.

In response to this perceived threat, China and other countries could possibly resort to developing low-cost space weapons. Thus, the US policy could trigger an arms race in space. To protect against the potential loss of its deterrent capability, China could also resort to building up its nuclear forces, which could in turn encourage India and then Pakistan to follow suit. Also, Russia has threatened to respond to any country's deployment of space weapons - an act that could undermine the already fragile nuclear non- proliferation regime.

China's concern is undoubtedly partly due to fears that putting weapons in space would constrain its civilian and commercial space activities. The country sees itself as a developing economic space power, dependent on free access to space for financial gain. US moves to weaponise space directly threaten this access, increase the potential for space debris damage to any satellites and hinder other peaceful uses of space.

In recent years, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted resolutions calling for negotiations on preventing an arms race in outer space. Washington has opposed these resolutions. If the history of nuclear weapons tells us anything, it is that banning the testing and deployment of weapons from the outset is much more effective than attempting disarmament and non-proliferation after the fact.

Given the global challenges that are facing the US today, the billions of dollars it has spent developing and testing space weapons over the past decade simply give the world one more reason to view America with suspicion and anxiety.

Hui Zhang, a Chinese physicist, is a research associate at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and specialises in issues related to nuclear arms control and China's nuclear policy.

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