Cold Wars, Star Wars: Watch This Space

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As US space programs are winding down their operational capabilities, China seems to be heading in the opposite direction. What exactly are the Chinese doing with their rockets?ISN Insights: Not long after the launch of Sputnik III in May 1958, John F Kennedy voiced dire warnings: “If the Soviets control space,” he argued, “they can control the earth, as in past centuries the nation that controlled the seas dominated the continents.” Equally keen to capitalize on the prevalent hysteria, the Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson described space as “high ground” which must not be surrendered to the Soviets: “Control of space means control of the world,” he added, “far more certainly, far more totally than any control that has ever or could ever be achieved by weapons, or troops of occupation. Whoever gains that ultimate position gains control, total control, over the earth.”

Neither Kennedy nor Johnson ever explained how space could be “controlled.” It is, after all, rather big. Their warnings were typical of the post-Sputnik panic – in other words, high on histrionics and low on logic. Looking back on those years, the space dialogue seems terribly old fashioned – a weird mix of anti-Communist hysteria and Buck Rogers fantasies. But before we start praising present day common sense, it is worth pointing out that the “high ground” notion still dominates strategic thinking, as demonstrated by current Chinese activity and the US’ reaction.

The Big Space Secret

In a few weeks, the Chinese will dock their Tiangong-1 module with a Shenzhou spacecraft. This by itself is hardly alarming, given that it’s a maneuver the Americans perfected 45 years ago. But what is perhaps disturbing is the underlying purpose. The docking is the first step toward the building of a Chinese space station, due to be operational in 2020. In other words, around the time that the International Space Station (ISS) will be decommissioned, the Chinese will be unveiling their own version. Since the ISS has been an extremely costly white elephant, one wonders why the Chinese want one. Do they have a military purpose in mind?

The Chinese have so far behaved like the Americans and Soviets did during the Cold War, with a conspicuous lack of candor. Since they haven’t explained their plans for space, it’s understandable that some observers have started to panic. Clues to Chinese intentions have had to be gleaned from a number of rather opaque communiqués, none of which are very reassuring. Whispers emanating from Beijing sound a lot like what Kennedy and Johnson argued a half century ago, including reference to the need for “space dominance”. Such a goal is indeed suggested by a Chinese test, run in January 2007, which demonstrated a capacity to shoot down satellites.

In response to the outcry inspired by that test, a spokesman maintained that China “has consistently advocated the peaceful development of outer space and it opposes the arming of space and military competition in space”. Recent behavior, however, suggests otherwise. The Chinese are, for instance, known to be experimenting with lasers as anti-satellite weapons. In addition, one Chinese paper recently argued that “the foundation of space deterrence must be preparation for real war.” While it is not clear what precisely that means, it is known that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted military maneuvers in the “dark” – in other words, without reliance upon existing satellite communication networks.

Time to Panic?

Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation finds this behavior worrying. As he points out in a recent article, PLA documents referring to space weaponry suggest an emphasis upon ‘compellence’, instead of simply deterrence. This means that “to deter an opponent successfully, the PLA must not only dissuade, but also be able to coerce an opponent into undertaking actions that the deterred power would prefer not to do.” Cheng thinks that Chinese plans in space are geared toward the development of a “compellence” capacity.

Cheng is especially alarmed by the apparent connection between Chinese plans for space and the development of their nuclear strategy. “PLA space writers,” he argues, “suggest that space systems offer the potential to neutralize an opponent’s nuclear deterrent, while expanding one’s own integrated deterrent capability. … One PLA article suggests that pairing space defense with nuclear forces enables one to attack or defend at will, retaining the initiative while confronting an opponent with an unpalatable set of choices.”

This is nonsense. As Joan Johnson-Freese cogently points out in Space as a Strategic Asset , the case against space weapons is based on a simple fact: Star Wars-type weapons, even if they could be made to work – a huge if – are far more expensive than the earth-based missiles they are designed to counter. That means that the simple response to any space-based system is to overload it with cheaper earth-based missiles. The result would be a new arms race which would threaten to bankrupt the initiator of the space arsenal.

Dependency Equals Vulnerability

Cheng seems oblivious to that logic, falling into the same trap that once ensnared Ronald Reagan when he proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative. Cheng advocates a more ‘robust’ American military space capability in order to counter the Chinese threat. “The US government needs to take steps to ensure that it maintains the ability to secure space superiority.” In other words, in response to a phantom threat, the US should pour money into space weaponry. That brings to mind the way the great powers behaved during the Cold War.

As Johnson-Freese argues, space is indeed a strategic asset. Modern society is dependent upon satellites in ways most people cannot remotely imagine. However, dependency spells vulnerability, when the viability of our lives rests on a relatively small number of flimsy satellites. Their destruction would cripple communications, imperil our safety and send stock markets into freefall. Protecting the system militarily is not, however, remotely feasible: Putting weapons into space would merely initiate a new arms race without making the world safer.

Satellite dependency needs to be turned into an asset. The advanced nations, given their mutual reliance on fragile satellites, must learn to swim together, or risk sinking as one. That means using space to cultivate trust; this kind of trust has unfortunately been conspicuously absent from American policy. American exceptionalism has encouraged a belief that while they can be trusted in space, other nations cannot. In the interests of protecting their strategic space assets, the US has imposed strict embargoes on the export of technologies, even to acknowledged allies. This policy has been based on the egotistical assumption that “if we don’t tell them how to make it, they won’t be able to figure it out.” In fact, as recent Chinese accomplishments demonstrate, any technology deemed essential to an advanced nation’s development will eventually be developed by that nation.

Perhaps it’s not the Chinese who are being inscrutable, but rather the Americans. The Chinese are justifiably worried about how the US will react when economic dominance shifts eastward. With an election looming, they fear what a President Palin might do to restore American prestige. In other words, given uncertainty in Washington, planning for war in space makes sense to them. These irrational fears need to be addressed, since the sleep of reason produces monsters. If the Chinese seem to be behaving rather too much like Kennedy and Johnson did during the heyday of Cold War paranoia, perhaps it’s time to reassure them that space is not, in fact, the high ground.