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Escalating U.S.-Sino Military Space Rhetoric

Jul 21 , 2015

Words matter. William Shakespeare knew it. In Hamlet, for example, one of the key images is that of the ear being poisoned.  Literally, Hamlet’s father is murdered by having poison inserted directly into his ear. Metaphorically, as the play progresses Shakespeare makes it clear that words and language can be used to manipulate and destroy. That truism from seventeenth century is exacerbated exponentially by the mass media. Joseph Goebbels ran the Ministry of Propaganda for Adolph Hitler specifically to spew anti-Semitism. Subsequently, George Orwell published his masterpiece 1984 in 1949, in which the Ministry of Truth translates politically unacceptable Oldspeak into politically acceptable Newspeak. Orwell would likely not be surprised that Florida Governor Rick Scott’s administration tacitly barred any official mention of “climate change” or “global warming,”[1] by state officials, given the potentially dire consequences of those issues for the state.

The United States’ government has dabbled into the art of words as well. In 2002, the Pentagon created an Office of Strategic Influence intended to provide news items, including potentially false ones, to sway public opinion abroad in the wake of terrorist attacks against the United States.[2] The effort was short-lived not because the concept was deemed unacceptable, but due to an intra-organization turf battle with the more-powerful Pentagon Public Affairs Office. It has also studied, reported on, instituted and then dropped an initiative toward improved “strategic communication”[3] because it took on a bureaucratic life of its own rather than coordinating and streamlining government communications. That doesn’t mean, however, that the U.S. government does not have a way with words. At least in the area military space competition with China, government rhetoric does Shakespeare and Orwell proud. Not only has it pronounced an environment of competition, it has also creatively crafted a carefully worded, politically appropriate response.

The 2011 U.S. National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) refers to the space environment as increasingly congested, contested and competitive.[4] Simply by virtue of the increased number of spacecraft in orbit certain space orbits are becoming more crowded, or congested. The United States, however, has more spacecraft creating that crowded situation than any other nation. As of January 31, 2015, the United States has 528 satellites in orbit, compared to China’s 132, Russia’s 131 and all other nations combined 434. Unless, however, it is the U.S. expectation that other countries would consider the unfettered use of space as a U.S. entitlement, it is perhaps neither unexpected nor unreasonable that space is increasing congested, and perhaps then by extrapolation contested and competitive.

The contested and competitive aspect of the NSSS, especially with regard to China, also flows from rapid and expansive Chinese efforts to modernize its military to include space assets and counter clear U.S. military advantages by asymmetric means. This is where word play becomes especially dicey. Given that most space technology is dual-use, meaning of value to both military and civilian communities and difficult to determine whether the military technology is for offensive or defensive use, almost anything China does in space can be ascribed as threatening to the United States.


Missile defense technology exemplifies the dilemma, and how words can shape perceptions. Whereas, for example, the United States has not officially tested anti-satellite technology (ASAT) since the 1980’s, the technical capabilities required for a successful ASAT program are very similar to those of a missile defense program, and the U.S. regularly conducts missile defense tests. In 2007, China conducted a high-altitude, kinetic-hit ASAT test against one of its own defunct satellites, and de facto labeled it as such, a test which created massive amount of space debris and for which it rightfully received considerable international condemnation. Subsequently, in 2008 the United States then destroyed one of its own malfunctioning satellites, ostensibly due to public safety concerns, using modified missile defense technology. The international lesson learned: Missile defense tests are politically acceptable while ASAT tests are not. Consequently, China has conducted “missile defense” tests  – not ASAT tests — in 2010, 2013 and 2014. Similarly India, also known to have an interest in ASATs, has also initiated a missile defense program and Russia has raised the possibility of reinvigorating its missile defense program as well. Missile defense is defensive, and therefore acceptable, whereas ASATs are offensive and therefore indicative of space being contested and competitive.

Given the accepted narrative of the space environment as congested, contested and competitive, the U.S. must have a response. In keeping with the apparent appeal of three-word catchphrases, the NSSS states that the United States must be prepared to deter, defend and defeat challenges in space. That provides the opportunity for the most Orwellian aspect to the space dialogue, a U.S. push for “offensive counterspace” (OCS). First articulated in 2004, Air Force counterspace doctrine details the planning and execution of operations against space systems and satellites, for both defensive and offensive purposes.[5] Offensive counterspace infers the potential inclusion of preemptive operations. Again, however, words are important, with the terms preemption and prevention inappropriately used as synonymous, as with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as a preemptive action.[6]

Since a 19th century formulation known as the Caroline test, preemptive self-defense has been upheld as within the bounds of customary international law if the necessity is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Prevention, however, are actions taken in the short term to fend off a longer-term, potential threat. As with Iraq, preventive actions are frequently referred to as preemptive, for political and legal justification. Given the ambiguous, dual-use nature of space technology and the difficulties that come into play with determining accountability for actions taking place hundreds, maybe thousands of miles in space, the potential for error in determining, anticipating and reacting to the activities of others is significant.

Chinese space hawks are doing their share to up to provocative and bombastic rhetoric as well. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Chief General Xu Qiliang stated in 2009 that competition between military forces in space is “a historical inevitability.”[7] Though quickly contradicted by then Chinese President Hu Jintao, Qiliang continued to advance through the military ranks to the vice-chairmanship of the Central Military Committee, the first air force officer to do so.

Overall, and in keeping with the government proclivity for tri-part descriptors, the space environment between the U.S. and China is one where misunderstanding, misinterpretation and mistrust prevail.

China’s space program is rapidly expanding, but starting from a very low on the learning curve. Even though the United States military space budget is approximately $25 billion annually, ten times what China spends, that is seemingly not enough to adequately meet the challenge, and based on “revelations” in an April 2015 60 Minutes television broadcast the United States is in a Chicken-little, the-sky-is-falling position.  Air Force General Jon Hyten stated that the 2007 Chinese ASAT test was a “significant wakeup call to our entire military. Until that singular event, I don’t think the broader military realized that that is something we’re going to have to worry about.”[8] Given that the 2001 Space Commission (chaired by soon-to-be Secretary of Defense Donald Rumseld) characterized space as becoming a battlefield along with land, air and the seas, and warned of a “space Pearl Harbor;” the 2002 Joint Doctrine for Space stated “The United States must be able to protect its space assets and deny the use of space assets by its adversaries;” and the 2004 Air Force Counterspace Doctrine stated that, “U.S. Air Force counterspace operations are the ways and means by which the Air Force achieves and maintains spacesuperiority,” it’s hard to reconcile the apparent military surprise with the 2007 Chinese event. Further, it has been almost eight years since that event and the current policy shift.

The policy shift appears to coincide with the 2014 Chinese missile defense/ASAT test. Rhetoric since then, as space analyst Victoria Samson at the Secure World Foundation phrased it, has been part of an effort to “prime the pump”[9] to a policy heavily skewed toward military operations.  Specifically, “space control,” a term with a historically military, offensive connotation, has become the buzzword in national security space discussion.  That term had been widely used by the George W. Bush administration, but put aside by the Obama Administration in favor of “strategic restraint,” a policy that included a full spectrum of policy options, including counterspace operations as well as diplomatic, multilateral approaches to shape the space environment. The latter now seem to have been deemphasized at best, or simply left in the dust.

It is likely that the tone of space rhetoric will continue on its current course, focusing on military answers to challenges and threats. While those solutions are a necessary part of maintaining the space environment so it is available for all responsible space faring nations to use, they are necessary but not sufficient answers. Rhetoric and accompanying action must also include earnest efforts to shape the space environment.

Professor of Global Diplomacy John Stoessinger, writing about Vietnam, considered the word “tragedy.” He asked whether “…it was an example of Greek tragedy, the tragedy of necessity, in which the feeling aroused in the spectator is ‘What a pity it had to be this way’ or of Christian tragedy, the tragedy of possibility, in which the feeling aroused is ‘What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.’”[10]  Space war needn’t be inevitable. It is not a Greek tragedy.

[1] David Graham, “Politics and the Floridian Language,” The Atlantic, March 9, 2015.; Tristram Korten, “Gov. Rick Scott’s ban on climate change term extended to other state agencies,” Miami Herald, March 11, 2015.

[2] James Dao and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon Readies Efforts to Sway Sentiment Abroad,” New York Times, February 19, 2002.

[3] “Pentagon Drops Strategic Communication,” USA Today, December 3, 2012,

[4] National Security Space Strategy, p. i.

[5] Theresa Hitchens, “US Air Force Counterspace Operation Doctrine: Questions Answered, Questions Raised,” Center for Defense Information, October 3, 2004.

[6] Nathan Gonzalez, “Iraq Was Not A Preemptive War,” Huffington Post, April 10, 2008.

[7] Peter Foster, “Space Arms Race Inevitable Says Chinese Commander,” The Telegraph (UK), November 2, 2009.

[8] Bill Gertz, “General: China Space Threat Drives U.S. Space Warfare Buildup,” April 24, 2015.

[9] Colin Clark, DepSecDef Work Invokes ‘Space Control;” Analysts Fear Space War Escalation, April 15, 2015.

[10] Why Nations Go To War, 11th edition, Wadsworth, 2011, p. 104.

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