Space weapons and the risk of nuclear exchanges

The Outer Space Treaty keeps weapons of mass destruction out of orbit. That's not the same as prohibiting warfare in space. More than one nation has successfully tested destructive antisatellite weapons in space and many more are presumed to possess antisatellite capabilities. Meanwhile, important strategic capabilities such as early warning, secure communications, intelligence gathering, and command and control increasingly run through space. This raises the troubling possibility that the use of antisatellite weapons amid a crisis between nuclear-armed nations might lead to a nuclear exchange—indeed, US war games have repeatedly demonstrated that antisatellite weapons can cause crises to escalate in unpredictable ways. Below, experts debate this question: To what extent do antisatellite weapons increase the risk of nuclear war—and what can be done to moderate the risk?

Round 1

Antisatellite warfare without nuclear risk: A mirage

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty banned weapons of mass destruction in orbit, but it also established that space would be free for all states to use in accordance with international law (including the UN Charter). The Cold War superpowers interpreted the treaty as legitimating and protecting the use of satellites for early warning, crisis communication, verification, and other activities contributing to deterrence stability—but not for aggression.

In recent decades, however, as space-based reconnaissance, communication, and targeting capabilities have become integral elements of modern military operations, strategists and policy makers have explored whether carrying out antisatellite attacks could confer major military advantages without increasing the risk of nuclear war. In theory, the answer might be yes. In practice, it is almost certainly no.

Hyping threats. No country has ever deliberately and destructively attacked a satellite belonging to another country (though nations have sometimes interfered with satellites' radio transmissions). But the United States, Russia, and China have all tested advanced kinetic antisatellite weapons, and the United States has demonstrated that it can modify a missile-defense interceptor for use in antisatellite mode. Any nation that can launch nuclear weapons on medium-range ballistic missiles has the latent capability to attack satellites in low Earth orbit.

Because the United States depends heavily on space for its terrestrial military superiority, some US strategists have predicted that potential adversaries will try to neutralize US advantages by attacking satellites. They have also recommended that the US military do everything it can to protect its own space assets while maintaining a capability to disable or destroy satellites that adversaries use for intelligence, communication, navigation, or targeting. Analysis of this sort often exaggerates both potential adversaries’ ability to destroy US space assets and the military advantages that either side would gain from antisatellite attacks. Nonetheless, some observers are once again advancing worst-case scenarios to support arguments for offensive counterspace capabilities. In some other countries, interest in space warfare may be increasing because of these arguments.

If any nation, for whatever reason, launched an attack on a second nation's satellites, nuclear retaliation against terrestrial targets would be an irrational response. But powerful countries do sometimes respond irrationally when attacked. Moreover, disproportionate retaliation following a deliberate antisatellite attack is not the only way in which antisatellite weapons could contribute to nuclear war. It is not even the likeliest way. As was clearly understood by the countries that negotiated the Outer Space Treaty, crisis management would become more difficult, and the risk of inadvertent deterrence failure would increase, if satellites used for reconnaissance and communication were disabled or destroyed.

But even if the norm against attacking another country’s satellites is never broken, developing and testing antisatellite weapons still increase the risk of nuclear war. If, for instance, US military leaders became seriously concerned that China or Russia were preparing an antisatellite attack, pressure could build for a pre-emptive attack against Chinese or Russian strategic forces. Should a satellite be struck by a piece of space debris during a crisis or a low-level terrestrial conflict, leaders might mistakenly assume that a space war had begun and retaliate before they knew what had actually happened. Such scenarios may seem improbable, but they are no more implausible than the scenarios that are used to justify the development and use of antisatellite weapons.

Reducing danger. One way to moderate the nuclear risks associated with antisatellite weapons is to realistically assess arguments that attacking satellites would be an easy way to achieve major military advantages without creating unanticipated or uncontrollable consequences. For example, unclassified analysis by Jaganath Sankaran, a research scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, suggests that the practical limitations of Chinese ballistic missiles and launch facilities would make it much harder for China to attack critical US satellites during a crisis than it would be for Washington to respond in ways that denied Beijing any military advantage from such an attack. As more such studies are conducted and given serious consideration, policy makers will be less likely to invest heavily in antisatellite capabilities or to take pre-emptive action against purported antisatellite threats.

Another important way to reduce risk is to strengthen both the norms and the legal rules that protect satellites. The most straightforward way to accomplish this would be to prohibit using anything, including other space objects, to damage or destroy satellites that are not themselves being used as space weapons; and to prohibit any testing of methods for damaging or destroying such satellites. Currently, the biggest threat to established norms and legal protections comes from people who cite anticipatory self-defense—during a crisis or at the outset of hostilities—as a justification for disabling or destroying satellites, launch facilities, or ground stations. Almost as dangerous are those who argue that, once war begins, anything in space becomes fair game and therefore should be targeted. Although it might be legal in the midst of a war to attack satellites used for command, control, communications, and intelligence, it doesn't follow that attacking satellites would be smart strategy.

Voluntary measures for transparency and confidence-building could also help reduce risk somewhat. For example, improving the space situational awareness of all space actors would lessen the risk that nations will blame the wrong party for damage to their satellites or mistakenly conclude that their satellites have been attacked when they have malfunctioned for other reasons. Only a few major spacefaring powers have capabilities for space object detection, tracking, and cataloging—that is, identifying a space object as either debris or a satellite, and also identifying a satellite's owner and function. These nations' capabilities are widely asymmetrical. Only the United States, which has the most sophisticated capabilities, shares space situational data with other space actors. But it does so in a limited manner. Today's lack of transparency regarding space operations exacerbates mistrust among spacefaring nations. More extensive and more inclusive arrangements for data sharing could help reduce mistrust.

But nuclear risks associated with the increased military use of space can only be significantly reduced through transparency and confidence-building measures if the countries that promote such measures prioritize credible reassurance as much as they emphasize deterrence and defense when they decide how much space-related information to share, or what capabilities to acquire and how to use them. Such nations also must rethink the aspects of their nuclear postures that increase the overall risk of inadvertent deterrence failure. In the end, if all nuclear-armed nations espoused unequivocal no-first-use policies, and maintained very tight managerial control over small arsenals optimized for retaliatory deterrence, it would be much harder to envision the proliferation of antisatellite capabilities leading to a nuclear war that nobody wanted.


The antisatellite smoke screen

Is it correct to argue that antisatellite weapons increase the risk of nuclear war? No.

No nation would launch a nuclear attack because an adversary possessed antisatellite weapons. Rather, it would launch an attack because an adversary evidently intended to stage a massive, strategic attack of its own. In the early stages of a nuclear attack, of course, antisatellite weapons might be used to destroy the other side's systems for command, control, communications, and intelligence. Even so, antisatellite weapons would be tools in a nuclear exchange—not the "reason" for the exchange. (The same is true of nuclear weapons themselves.) The most that can be said about antisatellite weapons and the risk of nuclear war is that, in a crisis, these weapons could complicate the calculations of nuclear weapon states, or figure into a nation's decision to take preemptive nuclear action. But again, antisatellite weapons would not be the "reason" for preemptive action.

For nuclear weapon states that maintain a no-first-use policy—including China—antisatellite weapons could not, by definition, provoke a nuclear attack. If antisatellite weapons were actually used in a crisis, but all countries involved were committed to a no-first-use policy, conflict could still be contained within the conventional arena, without escalation to nuclear war. Nuclear risk increases only if states that contemplate the first use of nuclear weapons are involved. Therefore, what is really dangerous in a crisis is a policy that allows the first use of nuclear weapons—not the existence (or non-existence) of antisatellite weapons.

Furthermore, antisatellite weapons are not even a key element in countries' decisions to adopt policies allowing the first use of nuclear weapons. My point may be clearer if I express it this way: In a world without antisatellite weapons, could all nuclear weapon states be expected to adopt no-first-use policies? The probable answer is no. Whether a nuclear weapon state takes preemptive action in a crisis is determined by the country’s political willingness to use nuclear weapons and its overall military doctrine—not by antisatellite weapons. Thus, to focus on antisatellite weapons is to misunderstand the fundamental problem endangering the world in the nuclear age.

Alert and suspicious. In January 2007, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that China had conducted an outer space experiment—but some foreign officials and media outlets rejected China's explanation of the event and instead described the experiment as an antisatellite test. No matter what Beijing said, these characterizations continued unaltered. At the same time, arguments emerged that antisatellite weapons could increase the risk of nuclear war.

In 2010, China announced it had conducted a land-based midcourse missile interception technology test. But again, some foreign countries refused to accept China's explanation, and intentionally blurred the lines between missile interception and antisatellite technology. Misconceptions in the international imagination about China's so-called antisatellite weapon program were strengthened.

For China it is thus quite natural to remain alert to, and suspicious of, arguments about antisatellite weapons and the risk of nuclear war. Indeed, China suspects that such arguments are intended only to stigmatize and disrupt China’s outer space program.

From China's perspective, the key factor in space issues is building (or rebuilding) East-West trust. China may be a newcomer to outer space, but it has legitimate rights there, which Western countries must recognize. Otherwise, they hinder their relations with China and other newcomers to outer space. They cause interactions between old and new members of the outer space club to be marred by tension and suspicion. For the United States and China, acknowledging one another's interests in outer space is a necessary foundation for effective communication regarding outer space and other strategic issues.

China is open to dialogue with the United States, and exhibits a positive attitude about engagement with Washington, but the United States doesn't seem to regard strategic engagement with China very positively. Three aspects of US attitudes deserve attention.

First, the United States is in the habit of classifying countries—as allies, as enemies, and so forth. Clearly, China does not fall into the category of US allies. In 2009, after many years of effort, China was able to break through the limitations that Washington's classifications imposed, and the two countries established the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue—a mechanism allowing high-ranking officials from both sides to discuss matters of political, economic, and strategic importance. For many years, high-level dialogue between China and the United States was referred to as "senior dialogue" because the United States reserved the term "strategic dialogue" for interactions with allies. But it seems that US attitudes toward the Strategic and Economic Dialogue are still influenced by China's "country classification." Washington appears more sensitive to the negatives than the positives in the bilateral relationship.

Second, the US side severely restricts strategic exchanges with China in fields such as military-to-military relations, outer space cooperation, and high-technology exports. These restrictions attract a lot of criticism within Chinese society and inhibit Beijing's ability to trust the United States.

Third, the United States continues to develop and work toward deployment of a strategic missile defense system within the United States and in countries along China's periphery—though China has repeatedly expressed its concerns about the system's strategic implications for China's nuclear deterrent. Bearing Washington's plans for missile defense in mind, arguments about the destabilizing nature of China's outer space program seem even less convincing.

If one wishes to moderate the risk of nuclear war, antisatellite weapons should not be a primary focus. An exchange of viewpoints on a host of other issues could do more to reduce strategic suspicions and moderate nuclear risk. From China's perspective, linking nuclear war with antisatellite weapons only indicates that Western countries want to limit China's program in outer space. This does nothing to reduce nuclear risk. Perhaps exchanges such as this roundtable, in which parties from various sides explain, clarify, and elaborate their positions on strategic issues, can help reduce misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and miscalculations.

Much ado about nothing

China's 2007 antisatellite test sparked considerable debate among policy planners in the United States regarding the potential vulnerability of US space assets. Many scholars and analysts believe that, over the last decade, China has slowly but steadily invested in a wide range of counterspace capabilities that are in fact capable of posing threats to the United States and its allies. Concern focuses on two issues.

First, Chinese counterspace abilities might someday challenge US command of the commons, particularly in the area of space. This is a crucial consideration vis-à-vis Washington's conventional military operations because space assets provide the United States enormous advantages in military surveillance and other areas. Second, certain counterspace capabilities could endanger assets that are critical to Washington's launch-on-warning nuclear posture. An attack on such assets could lead to an inadvertent nuclear war. Relatedly, some worry that Beijing’s investments in counterspace technologies might trigger a regional arms race—in particular, Delhi might invest in such capabilities as well, heightening the risk of an inadvertent nuclear exchange between India and China.

Postures and motivations. The US military enjoys significant qualitative advantages over potential rivals because of support provided by space platforms. A vast array of imaging satellites, for example, significantly improves US surveillance capabilities. Global positioning satellites help US forces guide their weapons with unparalleled accuracy. Communication satellites help control flows of information. As a result, US military forces are able to project power in an expeditionary manner. They can operate in distant theaters, employing both doctrines and sophisticated equipment that rely on satellites for advanced surveillance, reconnaissance, communication, navigation, and timing data.

But US space assets also represent potential vulnerabilities—mainly to Chinese counterspace capabilities. Several assessments based on publicly available information suggest that, despite China’s increased investments in counterspace technologies, Washington still enjoys a huge advantage in conventional operations conducted with the support of space assets. Still, China is reluctant to engage fully in the rules-based world order that Washington built after World War II, and this is a key concern to US policy makers. They worry that China might exhibit unpredictable behavior—and indeed, unpredictability was manifested in the antisatellite weapon test that China carried out in 2007, and in its other tests in outer space since then.

A second key concern for US policy makers is that counterspace capabilities might inadvertently trigger a nuclear exchange—say, between the United States and China, or between China and India. Several US policy planners worry that China could employ counterspace capabilities to destroy Washington's critical space assets, such as early warning satellites. In some scenarios, this could lead to incorrect conclusions that China had engaged in a preemptive nuclear strike. Similarly, Chinese or Indian investments in these capabilities might lead to miscalculations in Beijing or Delhi, escalating a conflict into a nuclear exchange. But to understand the probability of such a situation, it is important to understand China and India's motivations for acquiring counterspace capabilities—and also to understand the two countries' nuclear postures.

Unfortunately, China's motivations regarding its counterspace capabilities remain unclear. Does China contemplate degrading US command of the commons in order to hinder the operational capability of US forces in the Western Pacific? Does Beijing envision eliminating US nuclear surveillance capabilities? These critical questions remain unanswered. Even more confusing to policy makers is whether China will approach these issues in the same way that Moscow did during the Cold War—in that era, the Soviet Union and the United States diminished pressure and reassured themselves by establishing treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty. One thing is certain: China’s current counterspace capabilities are sufficient to deny the United States access to space—but only temporarily.

When it comes to nuclear posture, the situation is clearer: China does not believe in conducting a nuclear first strike. From 1964, when China conducted its first nuclear test, until the mid-1990s, when negotiations for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty began, the modernization of the Chinese arsenal moved at a snail’s pace. In the late 1970s, China developed long-range ballistic missiles capable of targeting the continental United States, but Beijing possessed barely a dozen such missiles. For the Chinese, even a warhead ratio such as 125:1 in Washington's favor seemed sufficient to provide nuclear deterrence. And unlike the United States, which developed an arsenal that included several thousand warheads and delivery systems, diverse nuclear warfighting capabilities, and baroque redundancies, China kept its arsenal simple. Beijing forsook the technical for the political.

Today, all available evidence suggests that China, though its nuclear arsenal has grown, has not fundamentally rethought its posture. Hence it is very unlikely that China conceives of antisatellite weapons as a means for disabling nuclear surveillance satellites. And even if China did not espouse a no-first-use policy, Beijing's nuclear delivery systems are not particularly accurate. They are incapable of executing the sort of "splendid first strike" that might eliminate US land-based nuclear forces.

Despite tensions between China and India, Delhi's nuclear posture vis-à-vis Beijing is rather relaxed—it is based on minimum deterrence and a strict no-first-use policy. Indian national security managers, like their Chinese counterparts, see nuclear weapons as political tools, and they have resisted efforts by military planners to jettison no-first-use. India possesses approximately 100 nuclear warheads, but none are mated with missiles under normal conditions. Indian policy planners, because of their country's strong commitment to no-first-use, have little incentive to develop an operational antisatellite weapon to help execute a first strike against China. Such ideas hardly figure in any Indian public forum about space security. Rather, most debates center around defending India’s growing space assets in low Earth orbit.

To be sure, China’s successful demonstration of an antisatellite weapon galvanized a debate in India, and prompted the Defense Research and Development Organisation to begin exploratory efforts toward developing retaliatory capabilities and an Indian antisatellite weapon. But India’s antisatellite research efforts, unlike China's, have emerged from a national missile defense program, which suggests it is largely an offshoot of that program. Many kinetic energy antisatellite technologies overlap with the ballistic missile defense system currently under development in India, especially in the areas of radar tracking and target acquisition. The little publicly available evidence suggests that the Indian authorities have not instituted an antisatellite program. Even if Delhi did so, India’s antisatellite weapon technology is largely unproven; not a single test has been conducted. In contrast, the United States conducted almost three dozen tests, and the former Soviet Union about two dozen, before declaring their antisatellite weapons operational.

If the United States is worried that Chinese advances will erode its primacy in space, evidence suggests that Chinese systems are at least capable of challenging US primacy. But concerns that Chinese or Indian advances in counterspace technologies will trigger an inadvertent nuclear exchange are overstated. Chinese and Indian counterspace capabilities have not advanced far enough to destroy US early warning satellites—and, on a more fundamental level, India and China's nuclear postures remain oriented toward deterrence.


Round 2

Little cause for alarm

In Round Two, Nancy Gallagher encouraged "all sides [to] admit that some of their outer space experiments, missile defense projects, and efforts to control space as a global commons make other states feel extremely insecure." I question how insecure the United States has a right to feel regarding other nations' space activities. But the most important question in this roundtable remains whether antisatellite weapons are likely to trigger an inadvertent nuclear exchange. Wu Chunsi and I agree that antisatellite weapons do not increase the risk of nuclear war. Gallagher sees things differently.

Today, space assets provide the US military unparalleled asymmetric advantages in conventional warfare. Still, US security managers worry that China's increasing counterspace capabilities will increase the costs of a conventional military conflict in the Western Pacific. To be sure, China is threatening to close the gap in space. But available evidence suggests that the United States will maintain its commanding lead for some time—in part because Washington enjoys redundancy between its space and terrestrial assets, which should be sufficient to neutralize China's counterspace advances. But will China's increased counterspace capabilities, and an erosion of US dominance, result in aggressive Chinese behavior and greater instability? If so, China's advances in space are indeed threatening. If not, they are rather a moot point. But in any event, as Wu and I have argued, countries (such as China and India) that pledge not to carry out nuclear first strikes have no incentive to develop antisatellite weapons in order to help execute first strikes.

India's no-first-use policy, incidentally, has not changed much over the past 15 years, and it appears unlikely to change any time soon. Nor does any evidence indicate that India is pursuing antisatellite weapons. But in Round Two, Gallagher wrote that India is "conducting antisatellite research in the context of a ballistic missile defense program." She presents no evidence to support her claim. Admittedly, technologies that underlie antisatellite weapons and ballistic missile defense share some synergies. But nothing—other than a few statements by officials under the former United Progressive Alliance government—indicates that India is pursuing antisatellite weapons. To the contrary, Indian policy managers seem highly cognizant of the hazards surrounding hard-kill weapons in space.

Finally, I share both Wu and Gallagher's desire for strategic dialogue on space issues to address all sides' concerns and forestall potential misunderstandings. But I would emphasize, along with Wu, that nations such as India and China will welcome dialogue only if the rules and framework underpinning it are fair. Indian policy managers in particular are likely to engage in space dialogue only if it seems likely to genuinely reflect their security concerns—and they will agree to measures that inhibit India's options in space only insofar as India is not prevented from achieving technological parity with other countries.

Admitting when you’re scary

I agree with my roundtable colleagues Wu Chunsi and Bharath Gopalaswamy on important points—possessing antisatellite weapons doesn't make it rational for any country to launch a nuclear war, and universal implementation of credible no-first-use policies would reduce nuclear risk more directly than would limiting space weapons. But I dispute my colleagues' underlying premise that when Americans warn about the dangers posed to international security by the spread of antisatellite capabilities, they are only trying—in order to preserve US military, technological, and economic dominance—to prevent potential competitors from acquiring capabilities that Washington developed decades ago.

No matter what officials in various nations say they are doing in space, the spread of antisatellite capability is real. China, with its 2007 “outer space experiment,” demonstrated it could destroy one of its own satellites with hit-to-kill technology—much as the United States showed in 2008 it could adapt an Aegis missile defense interceptor to break up one of its satellites (the USA-193, whose fuel tank putatively could have threatened “public safety”). Likewise, though India is conducting antisatellite research in the context of a ballistic missile defense program rather than through a stand-alone antisatellite development program, there is nothing militarily significant about this distinction.

The potential negative effects of antisatellite weapons on deterrence stability, crisis stability, and arms race stability have been debated for decades. Concerns about such issues were not invented to delegitimize China’s space program. Indeed, they were a central part of the arms control logic that produced the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—and also produced a tacit regime for antisatellite restraint that persists, in part, today. By the late 1950s, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles gave both the Soviet Union and the United States a latent antisatellite capability. In the late 1960s, the Soviets experimented with a rudimentary non-nuclear antisatellite weapon. But neither Moscow nor Washington pursued a dedicated antisatellite program as quickly as it could have. Neither conducted an antisatellite attack. Both sides calculated that whatever short-term advantage might accrue from shooting down an adversary's satellite during a crisis did not outweigh the risk of conflict escalation.

To be sure, US antisatellite policy has not remained consistent over the years. The Carter administration unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate legal constraints on the development and use of antisatellite weapons. The Reagan administration—which considered the Soviet Union even less predictable, transparent, and restrained than China is considered today by the most hawkish US military and political leaders—rejected this approach. The George W. Bush administration pursued antisatellite weapons (and missile defense) at least as enthusiastically as the Reagan administration had, though its rationale was to prevent weaker countries from conducting asymmetrical attacks against the United States and its allies, not to deter massive attacks by roughly equal military powers.

Today, the US military remains number one in space by far, but it doesn’t exercise the complete offensive and defensive control called for in the US Space Command’s Vision for 2020—a level of primacy that would provide Washington free access to and use of space for its own purposes; an ability to protect all its space assets; and a capacity to deny other countries access to space for hostile purposes. Nor has the international community asked the US military to “command the commons” of space as a global public service. Other countries would in any case resist US efforts to command the commons, so fulfilling such a mission would be difficult, expensive, and risky.

Going forward, the United States, China, India, and other nations will likely develop increasingly sophisticated space capabilities, whether dual-use or strictly military, along with elaborate scenarios for how these capabilities might be used to gain or offset advantage in a crisis or low-level war. Mistrust will mount. Money will be diverted from other uses. Secrecy regarding space budgets, acquisition programs, and operations will be tightened. A wide range of security risks will grow more severe.

Strategic dialogue will only ameliorate the situation if all sides admit that some of their outer space experiments, missile defense projects, and efforts to control space as a global commons make other states feel extremely insecure. Certainly, insecurity can be reduced as it was for decades—through a mix of formal rules, informal reciprocal restraint, and reassurance. But as Wu has alluded to, insecurity will more likely be reduced if efforts to strengthen the rule-based order in space are pursued in a mutually beneficial, equitable, and inclusive way. Such efforts cannot be narrowly focused on one type of threat, such as destructive antisatellite weapons, or one type of risk, such as nuclear war.

Accommodating the newcomers

In Round One, my roundtable colleague Nancy Gallagher expressed concern that antisatellite weapons might increase the risk of nuclear war. Her concern stems from the desire both to prevent catastrophic war and to maintain security in outer space. I share those desires—but I still believe, as I expressed in Round One, that policies allowing the first use of nuclear weapons are the greatest contributor to the risk of nuclear exchanges.

Two participants in this roundtable devoted significant attention in the first round to no-first-use policies. Both authors, interestingly, represent nations that are newcomers to outer space—India in Bharath Gopalaswamy's case and China in mine. (Gallagher also advocated for "nuclear-armed nations [to espouse] unequivocal no-first-use policies," but it was not a primary focus of her first-round essay.) Gopalaswamy and I share another point of similarity: He wrote extensively in Round One about concerns in Washington that Beijing might challenge US space supremacy, while I wrote about the necessity of ensuring newcomers' rights in space (that is, ensuring that the dominant space power does not infringe on others' rights). Is it a coincidence that authors representing China and India perceive first-use policies and US dominance in space as integral to a discussion of antisatellite weapons? Not at all—newcomers to space will naturally share concerns and policy preferences that differ from those of the dominant power.

Accommodating the concerns of space newcomers is thus a key issue for the United States and the broader international community. Two issues are critical if nations are to build healthy, stable, and cooperative space relationships. First, space must be kept open. As Gallagher noted in Round One, space is seen as "free for all states to use in accordance with international law"—and it must remain so. Any attempt to monopolize space for one nation's interests would be counterproductive. Second, laws and regulations must be established that guarantee nations' proper behavior in outer space.

China is willing to follow international laws and regulations—as long as they are fair and just. But Beijing regards as unfair the pressure that is being exerted on China regarding antisatellite weapons. From China's perspective, antisatellite weapons are just one variety of space weapon. In fact, China (along with other nations) has long proposed a treaty banning all weapons in space. The United States has exhibited no willingness to engage in dialogue on such proposals. But why exactly should China accept the idea that antisatellite weapons are more dangerous than other space weapons?

Common ground. In space—as my two roundtable colleagues agree—the United States enjoys obvious advantages. China, meanwhile, is a rising power, but this does not necessarily mean that Beijing will attempt to compete with Washington in space. China has multiple reasons to engage in space activities—to spur economic development, to stimulate advances in science and technology, and of course to enhance national security. But none of these implies that China must attempt to become the number one nation in space. And even if China could better the United States in such a competition, what would the point be? If "winning" did not deliver peace, security, and development to the Chinese people, there would be no point at all. Therefore, viewing China’s space program only in security and military terms is to take too narrow a perspective. Exaggerating the dangers associated with China’s space program only creates problems. The international community should instead seek common ground and opportunities for collaboration in space.

A final note—Round One suggests that China must do a better job of elaborating to the world its space, nuclear, and defense strategies. The Chinese government has tried hard to prove that its intentions are peaceful and cooperative, but these efforts seem not to have been very successful so far. So China must display greater transparency to help dispel the international community's concerns.


Round 3

The logic for space arms control

In Round Three, Wu Chunsi argued that arms control proposals should fit current security circumstances and that ideas based on Cold War logic are not appropriate today. I agree that an important objective of strategic dialogue should be finding forms of cooperation that address whatever risks and opportunities each nation believes may come from developing, testing, and using space technologies that have both legitimate and potentially threatening applications. But must such a discussion start from scratch? The circumstances and concerns that shaped Cold War arms control remain more relevant than most people realize, and can be incorporated into a logic for space arms control in the 21st century.

Wu oversimplified the circumstances shaping Cold War arms control: Two roughly equal powers, enjoying easy communication and possessing accurate information about each other's preferences, struck bilateral bargains. But many negotiations, including those for the Outer Space Treaty and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, were multilateral. Mistrust, miscommunication, secrecy, and diplomatic discretion kept the superpowers guessing about each other’s intentions. And long after the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear "parity" with the United States, policy makers still debated the importance of real or imagined asymmetries between their current or future capabilities.

Same risk. Bharath Gopalaswamy, meanwhile, to support his claim that antisatellite weapons do not increase the risk of nuclear war—and that antisatellite arms control is unnecessary—assessed in Round Two a security scenario that sounds like a recycled version of a scenario used by arms control opponents in the 1970s. Back then, groups such as the Committee on the Present Danger portrayed the Soviet Union as increasingly powerful, aggressive, and likely to launch a nuclear first strike if it had any chance of avoiding devastating retaliation. In Gopalaswamy's scenario, China replaces the Soviet Union. Though Gopalaswamy ultimately argued that China’s increased counterspace capabilities may well present little cause for alarm, he missed this point: that Chinese leaders today—with or without antisatellite weapons or a no-first use policy—are no more likely than were Soviet leaders to believe that a deliberate nuclear attack on the United States or its allies is rational.

Indeed, the main cause for concern about space and strategic stability today is the same risk that the Outer Space Treaty tried to address: When war seems imminent, and if the parties possess the technical capability to place weapons in space or destroy satellites used for early warning, reconnaissance, or communication, then incentives for preemptive attack on space assets increase. Using antisatellite weapons in the opening round of a conflict could produce a war that neither side wanted, while also reducing the effectiveness of command, control, communication, and intelligence assets needed for skillful crisis management, escalation control, and war termination.

Give and take. Wu and Gopalaswamy have both emphasized that rules for space security must be fair to space newcomers. Indeed, the Outer Space Treaty and related space security agreements were not negotiated solely to enhance bilateral strategic stability—they were also explicitly designed to help states and non-state actors use space for a wide array of peaceful purposes without facing discrimination or inadvertently interfering with others’ use of space.

A clear need exists for in-depth discussion about the threats and opportunities that nations perceive in space, and about cooperative arrangements they would consider equitable and mutually beneficial. For example, when Gopalaswamy writes that "Indian policy managers seem highly cognizant of the hazards surrounding hard-kill weapons in space," is he referring only to the debris generated by testing (or using) dedicated hard-kill antisatellite weapons? Or does he also recognize the dangers in developing missile defense components that could be adapted for antisatellite use? Chinese experts, meanwhile, often argue that the way to reduce nuclear risk is for nuclear-armed countries to maintain no-first-use policies. But in return for a US declaration that the sole purpose of Washington's nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack, how might Beijing address US concerns about Chinese use of antisatellite weapons?

Such discussions should differ in important ways from those that led to the Outer Space Treaty. As drafters of the treaty anticipated, technology has advanced and the number of state and non-state actors using space for various purposes has grown. The objectives of space cooperation should also be broader now than then, focusing not only on enhancing deterrence stability but also on preventing new challenges, such as space debris and global warming, from becoming more serious problems. Rather than using straw-man arguments to reject the relevance of earlier arms control theory and practice, we should combine old and new ideas to find the best fit for today.


New circumstances, new approaches

In the second round, Nancy Gallagher delved into Cold War history with a discussion of US-Soviet interactions regarding antisatellite weapons and arms control logic that prevailed at that time. Gallagher hinted strongly that similar arms control measures should be pursued today—that nations should moderate their interest in developing (and certainly using) antisatellite capabilities and should instead follow the path that Washington and Moscow followed decades ago.

It is understandable that Gallagher and others feel a sense of urgency about reinvigorating international arms control and disarmament efforts, when these efforts have been stagnating for many years. I too generally support maintenance of strategic stability and advances in arms control—but at the same time, it's important to note that today's relations between the United States and newcomers to space differ from long-ago US-Soviet relations.

First—as Bharath Gopalaswamy discussed in his second essay—the United States today enjoys a great asymmetry of power in outer space. This asymmetry complicates arms control calculations. The United States, because of its supremacy, might have little interest in restraining its actions in space. Newcomers to space, because of their relative weakness, are likely to exercise great vigilance about protecting their right to further development. So asymmetry of power polarizes national positions and makes reconciliation difficult.

Second, many newcomers to outer space, notably China and India, are very different from the United States in cultural terms. The United States and Soviet Union differed sharply on ideological questions but could assume a reasonable degree of cultural familiarity—people on both sides, for example, are usually comfortable expressing their preferences in very direct terms. In Asian countries this is less often the case. So the United States is sometimes left guessing at China's true intentions, assuming the worst, and reaching incorrect conclusions. One situation in which this dynamic comes into play is when China greets US proposals with silence. Silence may mean that, though China disagrees with the proposal, it nonetheless wishes to leave open the possibility of cooperation (while avoiding public opposition). But the United States can easily interpret Chinese silence as a simple unwillingness to cooperate—the opposite of what China intends. Cultural issues such as these must be kept in mind when arms control arrangements are designed. Simply following the model of US-Soviet engagement will probably not achieve desired results.

Third, the landscape in outer space has changed a great deal over the decades. Space has become more crowded. Many more countries today have the technological wherewithal to engage in space activities, and it seems inevitable that new actors will master antisatellite capabilities. Amid this changed reality, bilateral arrangements such as those pursued by the United States and the Soviet Union may not be appropriate. A better approach is to pursue multilateral agreements or to work through international institutions.

China understands why some in the international community are calling for a revival of arms control processes surrounding antisatellite weapons and other outer space issues. And China is generally supportive of arms control in outer space. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The real question is not whether individual countries support arms control efforts and desire strategic stability—but rather, how these goals will be pursued, according to which principles, and in pursuit of what priorities. As circumstances change in space, the nature of nations' arms control engagements must change as well. But if the major players fail to reach a clear, common understanding of new realities in space, it will be difficult to establish constructive dialogue.




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