A recent shift in U.S. military strategy and provocative actions by china threaten to ignite a new arms race in space. But would placing weapons in space be in anyone’s national interest?
“Take the high ground and hold it!” has been standard combat doctrine for armies since ancient times. Now that people and their machines have entered outer space, it is no surprise that generals the world over regard Earth orbit as the key to modern warfare. But until recently, a norm had developed against the weaponization of space—even though there are no international treaties or laws explicitly prohibiting nonnuclear antisatellite systems or weapons placed in orbit. Nations mostly shunned such weapons, fearing the possibility of destabilizing the global balance of power with a costly arms race in space.
In war, do not launch an ascending attack head-on against the enemy who holds the high ground. Do not engage the enemy when he makes a descending attack from high ground. Lure him to level ground to do battle.
—Sun Tzu, Chinese military strategist, The Art of War, circa 500 B.C.
That consensus is now in danger of unraveling. In October 2006 the Bush administration adopted a new, rather vaguely worded National Space Policy that asserts the right of the U.S. to conduct “space control” and rejects “new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.” Three months later the People’s Republic of China shocked the world by shooting down one of its own aging Fengyun weather satellites, an act that resulted in a hailstorm of dangerous orbital debris and a deluge of international protests, not to mention a good deal of hand-wringing in American military and political circles. The launch was the first test of a dedicated antisatellite weapon in more than two decades—making China only the third country, after the U.S. and the Russian Federation, to have demonstrated such a technology. Many observers wondered whether the test might be the first shot in an emerging era of space warfare.
Critics maintain it is not at all clear that a nation’s security would be enhanced by developing the means to wage space war. After all, satellites and even orbiting weapons, by their very nature, are relatively easy to spot and easy to track, and they are likely to remain highly vulnerable to attack no matter what defense measures are taken. Further, developing antisatellite systems would almost surely lead to a hugely expensive and potentially runaway arms race, as other countries would conclude that they, too, must compete. And even tests of the technology needed to conduct space battles—not to mention a real battle—could generate enormous amounts of wreckage that would continue to orbit Earth. Converging on satellites and crewed space vehicles at speeds approaching several miles a second, such space debris would threaten satellite-based telecommunications, weather forecasting, precision navigation, even military command and control, potentially sending the world’s economy back to the 1950s.
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