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Avoiding a Nuclear War in Space

Aug 28 , 2020

U.S., Chinese, and other government officials have expressed alarm about the risk of a conflict in the cosmos. Their concerns have been echoed by prominent non-governmental organizations, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Secure World Foundation. China could help reduce these threats by joining Russian-U.S. strategic arms control agreements, which typically ban attacks against satellites helping to verify compliance with the accords. 

Recent U.S. documents and speeches have warned that, in the words of Stephen L. Kitay, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, “Outer space has emerged as a key arena of potential conflict in an era of great power competition.” Kitay blamed Beijing and Moscow for this development, asserting that, “China and Russia have weaponized space and turned it into a warfighting domain.” The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, State Department officials, and recent NGO space threat assessments have all detailed how China and Russia have been boosting their counterspace capabilities. These weapons include Earth-based anti-satellite (ASAT) interceptors launched on ballistic missiles that ram into space objects; co-orbital satellites that maneuver close to another satellite and then damage or destroy it with microwaves, chemical sprays, or kinetic means; and terrestrial-based ASATs that disable or destroy space satellites with directed energy blasts or electronic warfare jamming systems. 

For example, on April 15, Russia conducted another test of its PL-19 Nudol direct-ascent ASAT. Though Moscow has tested direct-ascent ASATs many times before, of greater concern have been the menacing maneuvers of Russia’s so-called “inspector satellites,” which have shadowed other satellites and seemingly simulated attacks against them. The U.S. Government and NGO experts also assess that China has also continued to develop direct-ascent ASATs, co-orbital maneuvering killer satellites, and ground-based laser and electronic satellite jammers. The PLA demonstrated its ASAT abilities by destroying an obsolete PRC weather satellite in 2007. 

Meanwhile, both Chinese and Russian officials have been accusing the United States and its allies of “militarizing space” by preparing to place weapons in orbit. For example, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the Trump administration’s establishment of a U.S. Space Force showed that Washington was "hatching plans for putting weapons in space with a view to the possibility of conducting combat operations there." Zakharova warned that, "A military buildup in space, in particular, after the deployment of weapons there, would have destabilizing effects on strategic stability and international security.” Similarly, the Director and Spokesperson of the Information Bureau of the PRC Ministry of National Defense, Wu Qian, accused Washington of exploiting “so-called military threats from other countries as an excuse” to create its new Space Force and pursue “absolute military superiority in space,” which “severely threatens space security and global strategic stability.” 

These growing tensions in outer space are occurring in the context of a tense confrontation between the United States with China and Russia in other domains. Looking at Asia. U.S. national security experts Kurt M. Campbell and Ali Wyne recently warned about “The Growing Risk of Inadvertent Escalation Between Washington and Beijing.” PRC experts have expressed similar concerns about escalating tensions between China and the United States. 

One identifiable danger is that a country might think they could attack another’s satellites without risk of war. As in the cyber domain, an aggressor might believe that it could escape retaliation since an attack might not directly kill anyone, or because it is temporary and reversible (such as blinding a satellite with lasers only as long as it overflies a sensitive location), or due to the difficulty of attributing a satellite problem to a specific action of one potential foreign aggressor over another (and ruling out a technical mishap or other accident). After all, when Iran last year overtly shot down an expensive U.S high-tech UAV Iranian activities in international airspace, President Donald Trump ruled out a military response since no American had been killed by the drone’s downing. 

Yet, Christopher Ford, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, recently noted that the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, reserved the U.S. right to use nuclear weapons in retaliation for “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against U.S. critical infrastructure, including its space-based components. In its “Fundamentals of Russian State Nuclear Deterrence Policy” released earlier this year, Moscow similarly affirmed that it might use nuclear weapons to defend against non-nuclear attacks that could inflict as much harm on Russia’s critical military or civilian infrastructure as a nuclear strike. Both the U.S. and the Russian nuclear command, control, and communications systems rely on satellites, such as for distinguishing civil or commercial space launches from threatening ballistic missile strikes. Additionally, scholars have worried that China’s co-mingling of its nuclear and conventional command-and-control systems also raises the risk that any strike on the PLA’s infrastructure could raise the danger of inadvertent nuclear war through this entanglement

In this regard, Russian experts have justified their government’s decision to assist China’s developing a national missile early warning system as helping to enhance strategic stability and decrease the risks of inadvertent or deliberate nuclear war. Specifically, they argued that with this capacity, the PRC leadership could better assess the nature of any attack, have time to react with defensive measures, and most importantly know when it was not being attacked, thereby more confidently dismissing false warnings. 

This logic would also apply to space security. Besides eschewing attacks against Russian and U.S. satellites or other critical infrastructure, the Chinese government could also help lower the risks of nuclear war by joining Russian-U.S. strategic arms control agreements. These accords legally ban interference with either party’s “National Technical Means” (i.e., spy satellites) of verifying compliance with these treaties. In return for Beijing’s accepting legally binding constraints on its nuclear forces and making them more transparent, the United States and Russia would pledge not to jam, ram, or otherwise interfere with China’s national security satellites devoted to treaty verification and their ground-based infrastructure. This trilateral protection could in turn provide a foundation for further Russian-Chinese-U.S. space and nuclear arms control and other mutual security agreements, to the benefit of all three countries. 

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