Chinese ‘kill’ and space ethics

Posted in China , Russia , United States | 25-Jan-07 | Author: Muhammad Aslam Khan

BrigGen (ret) Muhammad Aslam Khan Niazi

Ominous figure 11 that wreaked awe and shock on USA directly and stunned rest of the world in 2001 was again beeping in the US sensitive military installations, monitoring devices and worried brains alike. For China this time, 11 January by US calendar, marked an important land mark when it successfully killed a retiring weather satellite in the space. The degree and volume of protests suggest that it caused commotion for the US and some other space power’s military wizards. The act was termed as inconsistent with the international obligation, all space powers owe to space by keeping it de-weaponized.

Chinese top brass successfully stage managed a strategic gain to the best of their policy maneuver. The ‘kill’ was achieved by an unarmed IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) through its sheer force of impact without using any detonating device. The targeted satellite, named ‘Feng Yun’ was about five feet cube that was energized by about thirty feet solar panels. US sources reveal that an IRBM was tracked during the launch which shattered ‘Feng Yun’ to millions of fragments that are called ‘debris’ in space terminology, several hundreds of them of the size from 4-6 inches.

Space has no formal definition but is generally assumed to exist above the earth surface from 100 km and beyond. A credible Canadian Govt. sponsored study in 2003 addressed several space issues. While the aspects of ‘space negation’ and ‘space-based strike weapons (SBSW)’ are focused here, the zones are labeled as low earth orbit, LEO (100-1500 km), extending to medium earth orbit, MEO (5000-10000 km) and further on to geo-stationary orbit, GEO, at 36000 km. These orbits utilization is certainly affording an opportunity to the increasingly dependent space powers and through them the entire world to reap the commercial benefits of space industry. As of 2003, there are nine space powers, achieving access to the space in varied point of time i.e. Russia, USA, France, Japan, China, UK, European Space Agency, India and Israel. On becoming the commercial clients of the launch capability of these space powers for their indigenous or acquired satellite system(s), the expanded inventory of space users now stands above 55. As a result, 620 operational satellites orbit in the space that have virtually become linchpin for the every conceivable activity including, unfortunately, the ongoing wars. The capacity of the space gadgets to provide real time battlefield intelligence has equated them to crucial ‘force multipliers’. It may, however, be pertinent to probe a few relevant questions briefly:

1) Was it the first kill ever by any space power? USA and USSR had been the earliest powers to weaponize space, albeit temporarily in early 60s with nuclear ballistic missile interceptors at the peak of Cold War. When such nuclear explosions in LEO were considered threat to unhardened satellites, only then both the powers suspended the dangerous exercise. Besides, between 1960s and 1980s, USSR launched a series of ground based anti-satellite interceptors to achieve mixed results, producing substantial space debris. In 1985, US successfully conducted anti-satellite experiment with an air launched device. Also in 1997, it illuminated one of its own imaging satellites with ground based high energy laser device for testing advanced ballistic missile defense technologies.

2) Do the space related treaties or organization charters restrain the space powers to keep it as an arena of peaceful activities? There are numerous treaties and organizations that lay down the broad guidelines for maintaining the sanctity of space as the region, free of hostilities. Russia and China are particularly concerned about the US use of space for military purposes once they see its projections about the concepts expressed in National Space Policy-2006. It declares that (US) “would preserve its rights, capabilities and freedom of action in space and dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so…. (US would) deny, if necessary, the adversaries the use of space capabilities, hostile to US national interests.” Under such diktat perhaps, US Missile Defense Agency plans to deploy a space based interceptor test bed by 2012. It has already led to apprehensions by some space powers, notably India and China that such a stage if reached would inevitably lead to weaponizing of space and action-reaction syndrome would set in. At least China’s official position is crystal clear about the use of space who thinks that space security would be in jeopardy rather than enhanced through weaponization. Therefore China is a leading advocate of multilateral treaty, seeking ban on all kind of weapons in the space. It gives China a clear moral ascendancy over the powers seeking arming of the space or abetting such efforts by maintaining quiet about it.

3) Who will blink under the weight of responsibility? Being a lone super power, any thing any where going askew within the human domain, in the first instance, is attributed to US. That is the weight of responsibility it has embraced so happily. Perhaps The New York Times recent commentary carries really a subtle advice for President George W. Bush’s administration that its refusal to consider an arms control treaty for space, “gives it scant standing to chastise the Chinese…..the administration needs to reverse course promptly and join in talks aimed at banning further tests or use of anti-satellite weapons.” In fact these are the supplications China and Russia are offering the US since long. Theresa Hitchens, as quoted by William Broad and David Sanger, is of the view, “For several years Russian and Chinese have been trying to push a treaty to ban space weapons. The concept of exhibiting hard power capability (by China) to bring somebody to the negotiating table is a classic cold war technique” Some analysts were seen making effort to divert the gush of diatribe among China and Russia. However in the whole episode, Russia and China have lot more harmony than any cogent reason to differ on space issues. The crux of situation is that both are squarely opposed to Star War pursuits of Cold War era by US what US calls it Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI or Missile Defense Initiative, MDI.

4) Why US does not enter into negotiations to draw a clear cut multilateral treaty on peaceful use of space and resents (say) China’s bid to enhance its space capability? A combination of several factors play in the space game from a mere hypothesis or a fiction to the facts. It is a fiction when the likes of Charles Smith portrayed a doom scenario for US in 2001 “China’s sudden and brutal attack forced America to surrender on Beijing’s terms. In little more than 48 hours, China won WW-III.” The fact is that US has no plausible missile defense against China as China does not have it against US missiles either. US also did not have the luxury of missile defense shield during the peak Cold War versus USSR but peace prevailed through MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) deterrence. Mr. Smith was not alone to inflate the fear. In fact US Space Command warned US Govt the same year, “To avoid ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ it needs to take seriously the possibility of attack on US space systems.” Experts opine that among US planners there is growing concern that US is vulnerable to ballistic missile attack. Others may contend that it is fine maneuver to make MDI case strong.

Having said it all, a cursory look at the US National Security Strategy of March 2006, signed by George W. Bush, amply proves that the document is marred by serious controversies. Though in the preamble it emphasizes upon the values but in details it smacks interventionalism, unilateralism and US exceptionalism even towards China. The gory space scenario may turn pleasant for US if it only cuts on a few ‘–isms’ and cleans considerable debris at home.

The article published in a daily ‘The Nation’ Pakistan, 25 January 2007.

The author is also a member of WSN International Advisory Board (E-mail: [email protected])