Both the United States and China are increasingly invested in and dependent on space for their prosperity and security. Yet the space systems and missions of both are becoming more vulnerable to counterspace threats—notably, each other’s ASAT capabilities.1 Space is approaching the status of a strategic domain in which either global power can harm the essential well-being of the other. This chapter will begin by delving into U.S. and Chinese uses of space, including military. It will then analyze the relationship of offense to defense (for example, satellite protection) in space, as well as how space may compare to the nuclear domain in regard to both the need and the opportunity for restraint. It will conclude by examining options and suggesting an approach to Sino-U.S.
The United States and China both use space—satellites and associated systems that position, control, communicate with, and use them—for important commercial, civilian, and security missions: public, business, and governmental communications; remote Earth sensing and imaging; weather tracking and warning; geopositioning and navigation on land, at sea, and in the air; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; military command, control, communications, and targeting; and guidance for precision weapons.2 Increasingly, space is essential for both countries’ productivity, competitiveness, normal functioning, warning, and security from natural disasters as well as human threats.3
In addition, the use of space supports and is supported by a more than $250 billion global industry in satellites, on-board systems, communication links, ground-based components, launch systems, and launch services, in which the United States and China are leading competitors.4 China is expanding its technological, industrial, and operational capabilities to launch and support satellites. Its space industry is increasingly competitive in the global market, especially on price and value, whereas the U.S. space industry is struggling to hold its market share.
Because major powers prefer to build and use their own satellites, the number being launched is a reasonable indicator of national reliance on space. The data suggest that while the United States is more heavily invested in space than China, China’s dependence on and role in space are expanding rapidly. The United States launches an average of about 17 satellites annually. China is now launching at a rate of about 7 annually, has the fastest growth rate in launches per year, and intends at least 10 launches annually over the next 5 years, bringing it closer to the U.S. launch rate.5
China’s growing economy both dictates and permits greater use of space. Its integration into the global economy requires global communications, largely through space. China’s voracious appetite for foreign raw materials and energy requires sensing and mapping services. Global positioning plays a growing role in everything from traffic management to navigation to Internet applications. At the same time, China’s ambitions to be seen as a great power find expression in becoming a space power, strategically and commercially. China now has ample resources, know-how, and infrastructure to build, launch, operate, and use advanced satellites on a large scale. Even as access to space is becoming vital for China, it is using some of these resources to develop capabilities to deny access to others.
Of course, the United States has been active in space much longer and therefore has invested much more than China in this domain. Assuming that each launch costs $50 million and each satellite costs $100 million (which has been the average over the last 10 years), the United States has invested about $60 billion in space assets, whereas China has invested only about $10 billion. In proportion to economic scale, however, China’s current investment in and growing dependence on space are comparable to America’s.6For every satellite China currently operates, the United States operates four; but the U.S. economy is nearly four times the size of China’s. As China’s economic growth continues—outpacing U.S. growth—its need for and wherewithal to invest in space systems will grow as well.
Table 5–1 compares Chinese and U.S. investment in space. In addition to a comparison of the numbers of satellites in orbit and launched each year, it looks at the relationship of Chinese and U.S. space investments to their respective gross domestic products (GDPs). This better represents the economic reliance of each country on space. Because it has been investing in space much longer than China, the United States has one working satellite for approximately every $70 billion in GDP, while China has one for every $100 billion in GDP. However, China is now launching a satellite for every $700 billion in GDP, while the United States is launching one for every $800 billion in GDP. The rate of Chinese satellite launches is growing more rapidly than the Chinese economy. Broadly speaking, China is quickly becoming as dependent economically on space as the United States is. By the time China’s GDP matches that of the United States, the two could be at rough parity in number of satellites being launched and in overall investment in space.
Table 5–1. U.S. and Chinese Investment in Space
Both China and the United States depend on space capabilities not only for economic gain but also for national security and possible military advantage. Both increasingly rely on space to support military capabilities and operations, including plans for major warfighting contingencies involving the other. Space is used for wide-area intelligence gathering; focused and persistent staring; locating, tracking, and targeting enemy forces; managing and coordinating among one’s own forces (jointly); assessing battlefield conditions before, during, and after hostilities; navigation of platforms; and guidance of weapons systems. Satellites are capable of observing Earth in a variety of ways, including optical, infrared discrimination, and radar, with striking resolution. The United States, with its global security interests and activities, is ahead of China in these technologies and thus its uses of space; but China is advancing on all fronts.
For both countries, space is critical for the performance of these intelligence and military functions anywhere. Although land and sea-bed fiber optic cables carry larger volumes of data and voice telecommunications, the more ubiquitous and flexible space-based links will remain indispensable. This is germane for how both the United States and China manage their military forces and might operate those forces in the event of conflict. The United States could not function militarily on the scale and in the way it does across the sprawling Pacific without satellites. China’s reliance on satellites will increase as it extends its military reach to counter U.S. forces or to perform out-of-area missions. Similarly, observing events anywhere with potential national security implications (for example, missile launches) requires global surveillance, which the United States has and China aspires to have.
Importantly, military space assets and missions overlap with civiliancommercial ones. Most of the communications supporting the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the Afghanistan war were and are over commercial communications satellite links.7The U.S. Defense Department’s Global Information Grid (GIG), on which it depends for C4ISR, is comprised largely of commercial switching and transmission systems. Global positioning systems (GPS) support national security missions but are also available for a growing and important set of public and commercial applications. U.S. (and undoubtedly Chinese) requirements for remote Earth observation for national security are met by a flexible mix of government and commercial platforms and services. Because it has not invested as heavily as the United States in dedicated satellites for national security, China depends more on commercial services to meet this need. In sum, most U.S. and Chinese assets in space are dual-use, making a clear demarcation between military and nonmilitary capabilities hard to draw.
Both China and the United States have another interest in space: ASAT capabilities to deny an adversary’s use of space. While the United States has potential, if not actual, superiority in every aspect of ASAT capability, China has conducted a successful, recognized ASAT test with at least two other reported attempts, has growing and diverse capabilities, and has the potential for an operational capability that can overcome U.S. efforts to protect most American satellites.
China is increasingly interested in soft-kill ASAT weapons, using directed energy and nonkinetic means to disable satellites or at least to impair their performance. According to the Defense Department, China is pursuing a broad range of counterspace capabilities in addition to the direct-ascent ASAT weapons. The department’s most recent report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments describes China’s multidimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by potential adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.
Clearly, both the United States and China view the other as the main threat to access to space. Accordingly, both have an interest in ASAT weapons at least for purposes of deterring the other. The United States has singled out China in explaining its "comprehensive approach to deterring attack on our space systems," which includes "readiness and capability to respond in self-defense, and not necessarily in space [in order to] complicate the calculus of a government considering an attack on our space assets."8
At the same time, ASAT development is also motivated by a desire to have the option to attack an adversary’s use of space for military contingencies. The very fact that each country considers deterrence necessary implies the interest the other one may have in using ASAT weapons for warfighting. Prospects for mutual restraint in using ASAT weapons must confront the reality that knocking out the opponent’s satellites could be advantageous during combat.
Use of ASAT weapons can also have more strategic consequences, if not purposes. Commercial and other civilian satellites that enable economies and societies to function are typically more vulnerable than military and intelligence satellites (though no satellite can be invulnerable). Moreover, civilian-commercial satellites may be inviting targets for escalation aimed at breaking the enemy’s will, and possibly its broader warmaking capacity. Yet because many satellites are dual-use, the line between battlefield (to hamper enemy military operations) and strategic (against civilian uses of space) ASAT weapons is blurred. There is no firebreak in space.
The interests of the United States and China, the only two current counterspace powers, in ASAT capabilities are each strongly motivated by the other’s interest in space and counterspace. Clearly, neither would find it acceptable for the other to have a monopoly. Again, deterrence logic is at work: given the difficulty of defending satellites, the best way to mitigate the vulnerability of one’s satellites is to be able to retaliate against the enemy’s satellites. It is reasonable to expect that the origin of ASAT attacks will be identifiable, especially because few countries have such potential.9 Because both the United States and China will almost certainly have deployed ASAT capabilities, as well as vulnerable satellites, it is likely that some degree of mutual deterrence will take effect, whether or not the two countries agree explicitly to mutual restraint.
One of the chief obstacles to mutual restraint is the potential military benefit of attacking an adversary’s satellites in the event of hostilities, and the fact that this benefit grows as space becomes more critical to complex military operations over great distances—the sort of operations for which the United States and China plan and prepare. Unlike nuclear weapons, ASAT weapons may be integral to and thus hard to decouple from conventional hostilities, especially in the form that hostilities could take in the western Pacific. Simply stated, satellites can be instruments of war, critical to success or failure. So making space a sanctuary and satellites off-limits for attack will be counterintuitive to military planners.
While space is militarily important to both powers, the nature and degree of U.S. and Chinese military reliance on space vary as a function of their different positions, geographies, and strategies. The United States is an established global sea and air power that can use joint expeditionary and strike forces wherever it must to defend its interests and meet its security responsibilities. China is a rising, historically land-oriented power with growing global interests, regional ambitions, and increasing concerns about its security and maritime access.10 Consequently, while the United States needs space as a medium through which to monitor the world and orchestrate distant military operations, China, for now at least, is using space in a limited capacity to protect itself and to extend power mainly in its immediate region and waters. While the United States relies more on space militarily—managing far-flung forces, being an ocean away from the battlefield, and having a head start in space—China’s military use of space is expanding.
The military use of space by China and the United States is influenced heavily by the strategy, plans, and preparations of each for conflict with the other. The most challenging, space-intensive military contingencies either country could face are with the other—namely, a large-scale war in the western Pacific, perhaps over a Chinese assault on Taiwan, with mainly U.S. naval and air strike forces pitted against Chinese amphibious, antiaccess, naval, and air forces. The proximity of a conflict to China, the transpacific distance from the United States, and the greater U.S. prowess in and reliance on integrated warfare shape respective Chinese and American attitudes and plans about space and counterspace.
China’s strategy in such a contingency is to deter, delay, or degrade U.S. intervention, contain the fighting in geographic scope, duration, targets, and weaponry, and score a sudden and irreversible victory (for example, control of Taiwan) without a full-scale and protracted Sino-U.S. war, in which the United States could bring superior power to bear. U.S. strategy, for purposes of our analysis, is to stop Chinese forces with strike forces and to expand and prolong the conflict as necessary to prevail operationally and weaken China’s ability and will to fight. Space is essential to both strategies, although in different ways.
Because it is assumed that China may start a conflict over Taiwan, it is crucial for the United States to have strategic and tactical warning by conducting space-based surveillance of Chinese warfighting capabilities, readiness, and military movements. Absent such warning, the United States would be less able to concentrate enough of its forces to prevent China from succeeding with a swift seizure of Taiwan. In the event of hostilities, the United States must use space to locate, track, and target Chinese forces: amphibious ships and surface combatants, air forces, missile launchers, radars and other sensors, command and control nodes, and force concentrations, staging, and flows. The United States would then use space to guide weapons to their Chinese targets. Increasingly, U.S. precision strike weapons rely on off-board guidance, which makes each weapon more affordable and thus allows more of them. Space is therefore a critical medium for weapons performance.
The United States would also use space platforms and links to direct, coordinate, and manage U.S. forces, as well as to enable collaboration among them. This is especially important because U.S. expeditionary and strike forces are joint and operate best in an integrated way. Any unit, platform, sensor, or weapon anywhere should be able to support or be supported by those anywhere else, regardless of armed service. The United States is especially committed to fighting its forces this way in complex and intense operations against a militarily formidable enemy. Its ability to harmonize the actions of all its forces can be a huge advantage, made possible by digital communications and, when at great distance, by the use of space. At the same time, this U.S. integrated warfare makes its ability to use, secure, and control space of paramount importance—a U.S. dependence that the Chinese fully appreciate.
Because hostilities would be close to its mainland and because its forces would be relatively concentrated, China can make greater use of land, sea-bed, and other terrestrial communications links in which it has invested heavily. However, one of China’s greatest challenges is that of long-range surveillance—learning where U.S. strike forces are, especially mobile forces such as ships. As Chinese antiaccess and area-denial capabilities improve, the United States is becoming more reliant on greater standoff ranges, stretching back into the Pacific. The longer the range of U.S. strike systems, the farther China must see to target them. While China is developing and fielding extended-range ground-based sensors (such as over-the-horizon radar), its ultimate solution is space-based sensors to find distant and distributed U.S. strike platforms. Once having found U.S. forces, the Chinese increasingly will rely on space to support precision strikes against these forces, chief ly by mediumand longer range missiles. As essential as space systems are now to the ability of the United States to intervene, they will become essential to the ability of the Chinese to prevent effective U.S. intervention.
In the event of a conflict over Taiwan, Chinese strategy calls for being able to attack U.S. aircraft carriers, thus either deterring U.S. intervention by threatening loss of the carriers or, failing that, delaying and degrading their strike operations. The chief weapons China would use for this purpose are attack submarines, which it is buying and building in significant numbers, and ASBMs with maneuverable terminal trajectories, which it is vigorously developing and about to field.11The range of submarines and ASBMs is only helpful to China if it knows where to send them. So space is becoming essential for China’s military strategy: reconnaissance and warning, space-based navigation and weapons guidance, finding and tracking carriers, and augmenting land-based communications to command, control, and coordinate air, missile, and submarine attacks. As U.S. forces begin to operate at greater ranges because of Chinese antinaval capabilities, China’s military reliance on space will grow. Without the use of satellites, it will be difficult for the PLA to locate and engage U.S. forces at a distance, placing China at a disadvantage despite its improved close-in defenses.
Assuming that each side will have ASAT weapons available, Chinese and American reliance on space in a conflict presents each with a conundrum: which side stands to gain, or lose, more if the conflict includes destroying or disabling satellites? With the loss of its satellites, China would be seriously handicapped in attacking U.S. strike platforms at the distances from which they are able to strike, leaving Chinese forces, operations, and potential homeland targets vulnerable. Whether China could gain control of Taiwan under such conditions depends on the losses it is prepared to absorb. China’s dilemma is that losses could mount if it either fails to deny U.S. forces the use of space or loses its own use of space.
With the partial loss of its satellites or impairment of their performance, the United States would find it more difficult to locate Chinese targets and to control its joint forces in integrated operations. The Chinese have identified space as the U.S. Achilles’ heel.12 They may even be convinced that without using ASAT weapons, they cannot defeat U.S. forces.13 But as China attempts to extend its military—naval, antinaval, and aviation—reach, the vulnerability of its satellites will become its Achilles’ heel as well. Once both countries have robust ASAT capabilities, China will face a tough choice between escalation of a conflict into space and maintaining its use of space.
It is safe to expect that the United States will have better ASAT capabilities than China for the coming decade, given its wealth of direct-ascent and directed energy technologies and options. But China also has the technological and economic wherewithal to field enough ASAT capability to degrade U.S. use of space in a conf lict. Thus, for now, the United States may be more dependent on space but somewhat less vulnerable to Chinese ASAT weapons than China is to U.S. ASAT weapons, given superior U.S. ASAT-related technologies. This situation provides a powerful impulse for both to intensify development and deployment of ASAT capabilities— which, in deterrence theory, is called arms race instability. Notwithstanding the perils of ASAT warfare for both, China and the United States are poised for an ASAT race (which Chinese stated policy seeks to avoid).
The introduction of ASAT weapons into Sino-U.S. military contingencies may also create crisis instability—a decided advantage in attacking first and, knowing that the other side knows of that advantage, preempting. Moreover, given the low costs of attacking and the absence of casualties, one side or the other—eventually both—may elect to attack the other’s access to space as an alternative to more costly and deadly military combat. Thus, a crisis or incident involving Chinese and U.S. forces could trigger attacks against satellites, which could lead to escalation in space, if not in the conflict as a whole.
To illustrate, the Chinese might decide to conduct soft-kill attacks on U.S. satellites at the outset or in expectation of a conflict, aiming to degrade the entire U.S. joint expeditionary and strike capability or, better yet, to deter U.S. intervention. They might be willing to risk the loss of their own satellites, expecting the United States to retaliate with ASAT weapons. But by then, China would have gained a critical initial advantage by knocking out the C4ISR network that is indispensable to the entire U.S. concept of operations. This would be consistent with China’s general strategy of gaining the initial upper hand, deterring or disrupting U.S. intervention, promptly achieving its war aims, and then presumably seeking a ceasefire with the United States. First use of ASAT weapons is also consistent with two tenets of general Chinese doctrine: using asymmetric weapons and tactics to neutralize U.S. conventional military superiority, and striking U.S. vulnerabilities, of which space is clearly one.
Of course, knowing the Chinese could see it this way, the United States might choose to preempt by launching a large-scale attack on Chinese satellites, possible ASAT launchers, and ground-based space-tracking facilities, which are on the Chinese mainland. The compounded dangers of Chinese first use and U.S. preemption could trigger a large conflict, including strikes against China itself, the moment either side calculates it would be imprudent not to attack the other’s satellites. The crisis instability of ASAT weapons could lead to not just satellite warfare but also general warfare, which is what the Chinese especially want to avoid. Then again, the Chinese could come to believe that their only chance of prevailing in a conf lict with the United States, if one looks likely, is to use ASAT weapons first.
Concern about these instabilities in Sino-U.S. counterspace rivalry stems in part from the fact that space, like the nuclear domain, favors offense (ASAT weapons) over defense (satellite protection). Satellites are exposed objects with little or no potential for self-defense. Though increasing in number, satellites are conspicuous singularities in space: easy to observe and virtually impossible to hide. They are also distinguishable and trackable based on their orbits, physical characteristics, performance, and communications signatures. Both China and the United States seek to catalogue all objects in space. China’s efforts to do so are aided by U.S. openness.14 A fair assumption is that the United States and eventually China will have all of the other’s important satellites in their cross hairs.
Being inherently fragile, satellites can be physically destroyed with interceptors using high-precision tracking, targeting, and weapons guidance technologies of various types. Because they are either in predictable (low) or geostationary (high) orbit, targeting is getting easier as sensing, data processing, and communications technologies improve. The challenge of reaching satellites with direct-ascent ASAT interceptors is a function of rocket thrust and in-f light boosting for as many stages as it takes to get to and beyond the upper atmosphere. Launching ASAT interceptors is no harder than launching other strategic and space payloads. Both China and the United States have the potential capacity to reach highorbit satellites with direct-ascent interceptors.15Compared to other advanced weapons systems, such as ballistic missile defense, ASAT guidance and kill systems are not especially complex or costly, assuming they are fed data from targeting and guidance systems. A variety of information technologies make it possible to place an ASAT weapon at an exact point in space when and where the target satellite is there, regardless of its orbital speed.
Satellites can also be destroyed or disabled by directed energy weapons, such as lasers, microwave, and particle beams. These can be land, sea, or space-based. Co-orbital ASAT weapons represent another avenue of attack. In addition, ground stations that process and relay mission data can be located and struck.
Satellites and the systems in which they function are electronically fragile and thus vulnerable to being disabled, rendering them no more than space junk. It is thus unnecessary to be able to attack satellites physically to have counterspace capabilities. Whether jamming and other interference with satellite communications links and computer-based performance are deemed ASAT or cyber war is a distinction that could matter in the event that China and the United States consider mutual restraint in either or both domains.
Commercial satellites are more vulnerable than military and intelligence ones because they are typically not hardened with antijamming devices and are not given extra fuel to maneuver. However, even dedicated military and intelligence satellites, being fragile machines hanging in regions of space within ASAT reach, are inherently hard to protect. For every measure to protect them, there looks to be a more effective countermeasure, implying diminishing returns on investment to outrace counterspace capabilities. This is especially so when recognizing that counterspace assets can target satellite missions, not just satellites.
The U.S. national space policy calls for resilience and redundancy as ways to ensure access to space. While this is surely prudent, it is important to note that ASAT interceptors are decidedly cheaper than the sort of highperformance satellites that could be targeted, especially when the cost of the satellites and of launching them is taken in account.16 While resilience and redundancy do not depend solely on numbers of satellites, economics dictate strongly against increasing satellite numbers as a way to improve security.
Figure 5–1 shows how inexpensive it is for the offensive side to produce and launch interceptors compared to the cost of producing and launching satellites. If each satellite launched was afforded protective measures or methods, the gap between the cost of defense and the cost of offense would be even greater.
Figure 5–1. Costs of Offense and Defense in Space Domain
Chapter four highlighted the merits of Sino-U.S. mutual restraint in the first use of nuclear weapons. Having established in this chapter that space already is or is becoming a strategic domain of importance to the economy and security of both countries, that both the United States and China will possess counterspace means to harm the other in this domain, and that offense dominates defense, an interesting hypothesis is that a similar accord regarding ASAT weapons is worth considering. Testing this hypothesis should begin with a comparison of the Sino-American strategic relationship in the two domains.
The dissimilarities are evident. In the nuclear domain, because the United States has an unchallenged lead in strategic offensive power, China would suffer far more destruction in the event of nuclear war. In contrast, because the United States currently depends more on space than China does, it potentially has more to lose in the event of ASAT warfare (assuming the two have roughly equivalent ASAT capabilities). In the nuclear domain, China is content with minimum deterrence and thus with substantially smaller offensive forces than the United States has. There is no indication that China would be content with minimum ASAT deterrence or would allow the United States significant ASAT superiority.
When taking into account military reliance on space, the United States is more dependent than China because of the criticality of spacebased C4ISR to its ability to conduct expeditionary strike operations at transpacific distance. The Chinese may even contemplate initiating satellite warfare, despite the likelihood and effects on China of U.S. retaliation. The PLA can be counted on to resist any measures that would preclude this option. Overall, then, China may be less interested than the United States in mutual restraint in using ASAT weapons, whereas the opposite is the case in the nuclear domain. Again, this might change as informationization increases Chinese military reliance on space.
In contrast to nuclear weapons, the domain of space is integral to both U.S. and Chinese military strategies and war expectations. Moreover, unlike nuclear weapons, ASAT weapons can lead to crisis instability: while the incentive to use nuclear weapons preemptively is negligible for the United States (given its nonvital stakes) and nonexistent for China (given the huge consequences), both sides could have an incentive to use ASAT weapons first.
The stigma and lasting political condemnation associated with the use, especially first use, of nuclear weapons are not matched in space, where the only immediate casualties of war would be satellites or their performance. Other countries have frowned on ASAT tests. But in a war between China and the United States, which would be alarming enough, it is not clear that crossing the ASAT threshold would shock the world. The relative lack of moral compunction about attacking satellites cuts two ways: on the one hand, it makes the use of ASAT weapons more likely; on the other hand, it might make agreed mutual restraint all the more useful.
Nuclear weapons and the deterrence theories surrounding them have sharp firebreaks, two in particular: the nuclear threshold itself, and the break between battlefield and strategic (homeland) targeting. There are no such sharp firebreaks in counterspace. Again, while both countries have dedicated military and intelligence satellites—for example, for high-resolution, specialized, and persistent surveillance—they also rely militarily on a host of dual-use satellites—for low-resolution/broad area surveillance, GPS, and communications. The latter can be as critical as the former for supporting complex military operations. Consequently, if operational necessity motivates one or the other country to target satellites that contribute to military effectiveness, there is a strong logic in favor of attacking at least some dual-use systems along with dedicated military and intelligence ones. Moreover, even if initial attacks avoided dual-use systems, escalation could readily cross that line. Thus, the distinction between dedicated military and intelligence satellites and dual-use ones critical to military operations is at best a very weak firebreak—not one that either side would count on the other side to observe in a conflict.
Similarly, there is no clear threshold in regard to ASAT warfare as there is in nuclear warfare. An ASAT war—presumably as an extension of conventional war—could begin with jamming or computer network interference and then move to electronic disabling, directed energy attack, and physical destruction—begging the question of what the threshold is. With nuclear war, the first "event" is the detonation of a nuclear weapon. With ASAT war, the event may be some degradation of the performance of certain satellites—hardly as shocking or as certain to produce devastating retaliation.
The final dissimilarity between the nuclear and space domains is in attitudes about ASAT weapons within U.S. and Chinese civilian and military circles. The Chinese are of one mind that a U.S. nuclear attack would be catastrophic, that China must have a credible second-strike deterrent capability, and that nuclear weapons should not be used first or for warfighting. Americans are more ambivalent about nuclear weapons, recognizing that trying to deny China an effective retaliatory capability would be terribly costly and difficult, but they are also concerned that decoupling security in the western Pacific from the strategic level, by endorsing mutual nuclear deterrence, could be destabilizing.
Regarding ASAT weapons, both the Chinese and the Americans are ambivalent. U.S. strategists appreciate the advantages of being able to degrade China’s ability to target U.S. aircraft carriers by knocking out Chinese satellites, but the consequences for U.S. military effectiveness of ASAT warfare are not lost on them. It is also possible to read the Chinese two ways. The first is that China must have ASAT weapons to prevent U.S. supremacy and deter U.S. use of ASAT weapons.17 The second is that China needs ASAT weapons to neutralize U.S. expeditionary strike superiority, which clearly implies ASAT warfighting and possible first and early use.18 The problem in knowing which of these Chinese views will prevail is that both justify a robust Chinese effort to develop ASAT weapons.
This last uncertainty matters a great deal, for the ASAT-for-deterrence view would imply possible Chinese interest in , whereas the ASAT-for-warfighting view would imply Chinese interest in first use and therefore aversion to mutual restraint. The Chinese have been coy about their positions on ASAT weapons and other space security issues. They have declined to support no first use of ASAT weapons, while advocating nuclear no first use. The Chinese campaign against the militarization of space, but this is aimed at U.S. BMD and other possible spacebased weapons,19 not at ASAT weapons (which for now are ground-based). It must be assumed that the Chinese are unconvinced that agreed mutual deterrence in space would be advantageous. This in turn means that if the United States desires mutual restraint in the use of ASAT weapons, it will have to find a way to convince the Chinese. This finding informs the recommendations that follow.
An attempt at ASAT arms control by the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s was unsuccessful in large part because neither side wanted to forego an undeveloped but seemingly promising warfighting capability, and neither side was so dependent on space as to give it a compelling reason to negotiate. In addition, negotiations foundered over definitional and verification difficulties.
Could traditional approaches to arms control (such as efforts to limit development, testing, and deployment of ASAT weapons through legally binding treaties) succeed with U.S. and Chinese ASAT weapons today? Almost certainly not. While both sides are dependent on space, both see sufficient military utility in ASAT weapons that they will be reluctant to forego such capabilities even if the other were willing to do so. Moreover, there are too many ways to degrade satellite and satellite mission performance, and too little possibility of effectively controlling them, to make traditional ASAT arms control promising. For instance, neither side is going to give up direct-ascent rocketry or directed energy systems of the sort that could be used as ASAT weapons but have plausible alternative uses (for example, BMD). Limitations of soft-kill capabilities would be even harder to formulate, much less achieve agreement about. Verification of compliance with limitations on capabilities is virtually impossible. Moreover, because development of ASAT weapons could not be retarded even if systems were not operationally deployed, there would be huge breakout potential in any ASAT arms control agreement. Finally, unlike in U.S.-Soviet/Russian strategic nuclear arms control, third parties—India, Japan, and Russia, for example—could not be ignored.
A more promising course is to mitigate U.S. and Chinese space-access vulnerability by reciprocal restraint in denying such access. Given that both China and the United States might want to preserve options to disable an opponent’s warfighting satellites while avoiding loss of access to space for other purposes, the logical measure would be mutual restraint in attacking non-warfighting satellites. However, satellites for communications, positioning and navigation, geographic and situational awareness, and other functions are largely dual-use, making it hard if not impossible for either side to disable satellites that can support warfighting without also affecting commercial and other civilian uses and benefits. Given the cost of building and launching satellites, it is unlikely that dual-use satellites will be abandoned in favor of dedicated ones for either the United States or China. Indeed, apart from missions that are exclusively of military interest, economics will encourage both increasingly to "piggy-back" dual-use satellite systems for critical military purposes.
This lack of a firebreak brings us back to whether the two sides might agree to make any interference with access to space permissible only in retaliation. This would include both hard and soft kill, and it would cover dedicated, dual-use, and civilian satellites. As already suggested, the United States should have an interest in broadly defined mutual ASAT deterrence, given its reliance on space for critical C4ISR, the civilian and commercial importance of space, the difficulty of protecting satellites, and growing Chinese ASAT capabilities. The main drawback of mutual ASAT restraint for the United States would be forfeiture of the option of striking China’s space-based assets that support its ability to find and strike U.S. carriers. However, for the United States at least, the value of access to space for military purposes arguably exceeds the value of denying China access to space for military purposes. This implies that the United States would not favor a military-civilian ASAT firebreak, even if one were possible. In terms of deterrence—the underpinning of mutual restraint—the United States would regard any type of Chinese ASAT attack on any U.S. satellite as grounds for retaliation, possibly against Chinese dual-use satellites that support operations against U.S. forces.
The Chinese might be more reserved about mutual ASAT restraint than the United States—and decidedly less enthused about it than about . Chinese leaders may see merit in averting attacks on satellites that serve civilian and economic purposes. Indicative of this, at their January 2010 summit, President Hu agreed with President Obama that "the two countries have common interests in promoting the peaceful use of outer space and agree to take steps to enhance security in outer space." Nevertheless, the PLA may oppose restrictions on its options to disable U.S. C4ISR satellites. Again, however, a military-civilian firebreak is not easy to establish, especially since the United States would presumably resist the idea.
This raises the question of whether and how the United States could encourage the Chinese to accept mutual ASAT restraint. A necessary condition for mutual restraint in any strategic domain is some degree of mutual deterrence. It can be assumed that the United States will continue ASAT development along every promising path, which will bring home to the Chinese their vulnerability in space. The United States could also clarify that it reserves the right to retaliate for a Chinese ASAT attack by disabling any Chinese satellite that could support military operations—by implication, including satellites that may also support such civilian functions as communications, Earth observation, and GPS. In essence, the United States would be expressing the view that however ASAT war begins, it could escalate to widespread loss of access to space. This could be of great concern to the Chinese, who depend increasingly on space to support their economic growth. It would also elevate the matter of ASAT operations from a PLA warfighting concern to a Chinese national security concern.
China might try to sidestep such a U.S. deterrence policy by expanding its cooperation with other countries in civilian satellite programs. However, absent agreement on strategic restraint, ambiguity about whether such satellites would be targeted by the United States could dissuade others from cooperating with China. The Chinese might also respond to such a declaratory U.S. policy, backed up by continued U.S. ASAT weapons development, by accelerating development and proceeding with deployment of ASAT weapons. But the premise of this analysis is that China will in any case have robust ASAT capabilities, which the United States can best counter by deterrence (given offense dominance).
With the United States adopting a robust ASAT retaliatory posture, the Chinese would be faced with the possibility that ASAT deterrence would make a better strategy for them than ASAT warfighting—a matter on which they are currently of mixed minds. After all, they cannot protect all their satellites, cannot launch a disarming strike against U.S. ASAT capabilities, and cannot hope to deter the United States from launching a retaliatory attack for a China ASAT attack. Chinese refusal to accept mutual deterrence could lead the United States to redouble its ASAT development, leaving Chinese satellites of all kinds even more vulnerable.
As in the nuclear domain, there is an argument for going beyond de facto mutual deterrence. Mutual restraint in the use of ASAT weapons would signify that both countries agree on the imperative of respecting each other’s access to space. More than that, an agreement on reciprocal ASAT no first use could add confidence and demonstrate Sino-American initiative in reducing the threat to space. Given U.S. and Chinese advantages in ASAT weapons, other countries would have strong incentives to join a multilateral ASAT no-first-use regime. In this regard, the United States would want to stress that restraint in the use of ASAT weapons should apply not only against nations that possess ASAT weapons and can therefore deter their use, but also to nations that do not have ASAT capability. Indeed, in order not to stimulate proliferation of ASAT capabilities, the United States should favor ASAT no first use as a global norm.
Additionally, by working out a form of understanding on , the United States and China each would have greater assurance that the other accepts the logic of deterrence. As in the nuclear domain, mutual restraint would bolster confidence that deterrence is accepted and will be maintained, and thus that access to space is that much more assured, which is the overriding U.S. goal.
ASAT no first use begs the need to define what it is that the parties agree not to use first, given the difficulty of identifying, much less agreeing on, either a threshold or a firebreak. Would jamming of satellite signals be banned? Interference with space-linked computer networks? Electronic disabling of satellites? One definition of threshold would be any attack on a satellite, regardless of means and medium. By this standard, initiating directed energy and other nonphysical attacks that might damage satellite performance yet spare the satellite would be proscribed. But interfering with communications to or from a satellite would not be banned because the satellite itself could be unscathed.
The problem with restraint that covers only attacks on satellites is that there are ways, already noted, by which the performance of a satellite can be degraded without attacking the satellite itself. A satellite is part of a complex system that also includes communications links (upand downlinks) and ground stations. In this sense, because "access to space" means more than the presence of satellites, access can be lost without losing satellites. For the United States, as well as for China, the question of a narrow versus a broad definition of ASAT weapons use boils down to whether it is better off preserving soft-kill options at the cost of making its access to space vulnerable to the other side’s use of such options. On balance, the United States should prefer mutual restraint in regard to any operation that could deny or impair its access to space, backed up by a threat to retaliate for any such operation.
Our expectation is that both China and the United States will have ASAT capabilities, perhaps quite robust and diverse ones. This is what creates strong incentives to restrain their first use. However, as in the nuclear domain, no first use is no more than a contingent exchange of promises. This requires consideration of whether the parties to such an agreement could be expected to align their behavior in some way that would build confidence in no first use. Traditional approaches to ASAT arms control are not promising, but a Sino-American ASAT no-first-use agreement could be reinforced by agreement not to test those weapons that may not be used first. Such a moratorium would be hard to define, verify, and enforce, however. There are too many ways to portray testing of directascent or directed energy weapons, and the possibility of breakout would make an ASAT testing moratorium fragile.
Even with the United States providing strong incentives for mutual restraint, the Chinese may feel they have more to lose than to gain by foregoing first use of ASAT weapons, particularly as a way to degrade the C4ISR that is so vital to U.S. military operations in the western Pacific. Another possibility is that Chinese political and economic leaders would see the merits but be stymied by the opposition of the PLA, where most expertise on such matters resides.
The uncertain prospect for mutual ASAT restraint raises an important question: should the United States accept nuclear no first use, which the Chinese clearly want, without obtaining Chinese acceptance of ASAT no first use? It could be counterstrategic for the United States to accept while facing the combination of Chinese first use of ASAT weapons and anticarrier strikes, which could improve China’s chance of executing its strategy of degrading U.S. forces and winning an intense but brief and contained conflict. Moreover, if the United States is keen on but merely willing to go along with , whereas the Chinese are keen on , it stands to reason that the United States should insist on both.
Thus, a case is emerging for the United States to favor mutual strategic restraint generally, with the nuclear and space domains necessary components. It could argue that the power and vulnerability of the United States and China give them a shared responsibility and an opportunity to institute restraint at the strategic level. This is a natural extension of the case already put forward by the U.S. Government for Sino-American "strategic stability" and reassurance.20 The United States has said it intends to take up the issue of space security in the Sino-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue.21