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The Arms Race in Space (as Reported by the NYT)

Dec 2, 2017
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Analyzing the potential arms race in space, it’s hard to find reporting that’s more disingenuous than a piece that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times .

Written by Steve Lee Myers, the article begins (accurately enough) by outlining the potentially devastating consequences of a war in space. Debris from destroyed satellites and kill vehicles would crowd the lower reaches of space, making it virtually unusable for commercial purposes. The global economy might collapse, and our military forces—heavily-reliant on space-based systems—would face paralysis.

So, who does the Times blame for the militarization of space? If you answered the United States, give yourself a gold star and move to the head of the class:

In the weeks since an American rocket slammed into an out-of-control satellite over the Pacific Ocean, officials and experts have made it clear that the United States, for better or worse, is already committed to having the capacity to wage war in space. And that, it seems likely, will prompt others to keep pace


Whatever Pentagon assurances there have been to the contrary, the destruction of a satellite more than 130 miles above the Pacific Ocean a week earlier, on Feb. 20, was an extraordinary display of what General Chilton had in mind — a capacity that the Pentagon under President Bush has tenaciously sought to protect and enlarge.

So, in other words, that Chinese ASAT test in January 2007—13 months before the satellite shoot-down—was an effort to keep up with the United States. We suppose the same logic also applies to a 2006 incident, when a powerful, ground-based Chinese laser tracked an American reconnaissance satellite. That episode suggested that Beijing would use the weapon to target U.S. overhead platforms in wartime.

And, Mr. Myers is quite happy to lump the recent satellite intercept in the same category as the Chinese ASAT test, despite major differences between the two events. The spysat shoot-down was, officially a “one-time” event, conducted through modifications to an existing ballistic missile defense platform. The intercept occurred at altitudes much lower than the Chinese ASAT test, which targeted a defunct weather satellite, almost 600 miles above the earth.

Transforming the U.S. system–an SM-3 surface-to-air missile–into a true satellite killer would require extensive modifications to the SAM and its naval launch platform, an AEGIS cruiser or destroyer. By comparison, the Chinese kill vehicle and laser are stand-alone ASAT systems, developed through national-level programs, funded lavishly by the Beijing government over the past decade.

While the Times admits that the 2007 Chinese event shattered a long-standing ban on ASAT testing, it was, to hear them tell, simply the PRC’s attempt to match the United States. Never mind that the last U.S. ASAT test occurred in 1986, and our “official” program was shuttered after that. Or, that our reported “black” ASAT programs pale in comparison to known Chinese efforts.

As we’ve noted before, there is a place for serious negotiations on the militarization of space. But those talks should not follow the outline proposed by Beijing, which wants broad concessions from the U.S., while protecting its own capabilities. That’s why we believe the Bush Administration should offer a broad-based treaty in the near future. The response from Beijing will determine, once and for all, if PRC leaders are serious about the demilitarization of space, or merely intent on preserving their systems. We wonder how the NYT would spin that.

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