War in space isn’t a prospect anytime soon – but the US is preparing for it, just in case
Seven years after China tested an anti-satellite missile, US analysts believe it’s best to be prepared for war, which might come at any time in any form.
The US Council on Foreign Relations is preparing for a war in space. Earlier this month, the American thinktank released a “Contingency Planning Memorandum” specifying the ways in which the “space commons” could be threatened, and how the US should go about protecting it. China, of course, is the most worrisome potential aggressor.
The thinktank’s panic about a potential space war has its roots in an incident in 2007, when China launched an anti-satellite missile to destroy one of its own polar orbit satellites. The Chinese government confirmed the collision, which created the largest ever collection of space debris 12 days later. (The plot of Hollywood film Gravity, seems to have been inspired by this event, though it turned the Chinese into Russians.)
The paper by Micah Zenko carefully outlines several scenarios in which US interests in space could be threatened. According to Zenko, aggressors could attack satellites either intentionally or unintentionally, during times of peace or during times of conflict. The most significant weapon apart from direct missiles is the sort of debris China unleashed in 2007. Around 500 of all satellites around the earth are in the lower earth orbit, which is where there is the greatest accumulation of debris.
“Space objects—even flecks of paint—travel as fast as eighteen thousand miles per hour and can cause catastrophic damage to manned and unmanned spacecraft—creating even more debris in the process,” the paper said.
Zenko’s concerns might have something to do with the fact that the US has launched more rockets than any other country and the probability of debris hitting an American satellite is therefore much higher than damage to spacecraft of other countries. The US funds 75% of space ventures across the world; it also owns 43% of all active satellites.
A significant portion of American space activity is connected with US military interests around the world. The US depends especially on satellites for “encrypted communications, reconnaissance over Afghanistan, missile defense, and other missions critical to national security”, the paper says.
As a result, “threats to U.S. satellites would reduce the country’s ability to attack suspected terrorists with precision-guided munitions and conduct imagery analysis of nuclear weapons programs, and could interrupt non-cash economic activity depending on the severity of the attack and number of satellites disrupted”.
Although the paper notes that the US already has in place several “unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral options for preventing dangerous space events most detrimental to U.S. interests,” it acknowledges that these solutions – such as asking other nations to join a moratorium against anti-satellite tests – are unlikely to be entirely successful.
Despite having the largest presence in space, the US continues to guard access to its assets and watches nervously as other countries – India included – develop their space resources. Zenko fears that these new entrants might not care to also put a moratorium on testing similar anti-satellite missiles.
“China’s demonstrated disregard for the consequences of ASAT tests is the greatest threat to international space security,” he claims, because the country showed poor precedent by not informing the US about its anti-satellite mission.
The report concludes, “If the United States wishes to better guarantee its access to space as China, North Korea, and Iran advance their capabilities and other space powers emerge, it must intensify its efforts to have an impact or forsake its role in shaping rules of the road for space.”