Jeffrey LewisASATs and Crisis Instability

This is a slide from an August 2005 presentation by Colonel Rick Patenaude, chief of the deterrence and strike division within Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), entitled, Prompt Global Strike Update.

I’ve posted the slide, becuase Patenaude reveals something very profound and dangerous about China’s recent anti-satellite test.

A few weeks ago, when asked about China’s antisatellite test, General Cartwright made clear that the United States did not need to respond “in space” by developing its own ASATS. When asked what capability he would like, Cartwright responded with one phrase “global strike.”

Colonel Patenaude’s slide and General Cartwright response suggest that the United States is unlikely, in response to the spread of ASAT technologies, to invest in either defensive measures or our own antisatellite systems. Instead, U.S. military planners will place ever more emphasis on preemption—acting before the Chinese or someone else starts zapping and plunking the satellites upon which we’ve become extremely dependent.

The point of posting Col. Patenaude’s slide is to show that Pentagon interest in pre-emption isn’t some convenient bureaucratic defense of the Conventional Trident Modification. Rather, I would argue, the emphasis on pre-emption reflects a fundamental reality about about the balance between offense and defense in orbit.

I tried to make this point to my colleagues in China during the PIIC meeting last September in Xiamen—that the development of anti-satellite weapons (and a few other things) will decrease China’s security, in part by operationally entangling China’s strategic forces with those of the US—The Guns of August scenario at the center of modern conception of crisis instability.

I’ve been worried about this scenario since press reports leaked about the Global 2000 wargame sponsored by the Naval War College in August 2000.* During that game, a large Asian nation with over a billion people (Red) was conducting large-scale military exercises that Blue (the United States) believed were a prelude to an attack on Red’s tiny island neighbor (three guesses).

Anyway, during these exercises, the commander of Blue Forces became concerned that Red might use ground-based lasers against U.S. satellites. Fearing the loss of his space assets, he ordered a “limited” preemptive strike against suspected ground-based laser sites inside Red. At the same time, he refrained from striking other targets “rationalizing that the preemptive strike was only protecting high-value space assets, not initiating hostilities.”

The Blue commander was a little shocked to learn that Red viewed the strike on targets deep inside its territory as an act of war and retaliated – causing a general war. One participant apparently told Aviation Week, “We thought these preemptive strikes might very well have stopped the crisis situation. But there were some who had a different point of view – that the strikes may have been provocative.”

What we do about this, of course, is somewhat tricky. I remain a big fan of reaching an agreement—or at least coming to an understanding—that would restrict the testing and deployment of ASATs, precisely because I’d rather not be forced into an early choice between striking targets throughout China or letting the PLA waste our satellites during a crisis over Taiwan.

* Accounts of the wargame are available from Kenneth Watman, “Global 2000,” Naval War College Review 54:2, Spring 2001, pp.75-88 and William B. Scott, “Wargames Zero In on Knotty Milspace Issues,” Aviation Week & Space Technology 154:5, Jan. 29, 2001, p.52


  1. Arthur Fitzgerald

    Jeffrey can’t you see that you have stated the very reason why the Chinese want to have an ASAT system? The reason is that they want the US to be “forced into an early choice… during a crisis over Taiwan”.

  2. Sean Meade (History)

    hmm. i’d like to see that NWC paper, but the link isn’t working for me. is there a mistake?

  3. Carl (History)

    Anyone who thinks China would not retaliate if attacked, in any form, clearly does not have a grasp on history or, more importantly, the scope of Chinese nationalism.

  4. Mark Gubrud (History)

    You make a good theoretical point about entanglement and crisis instability. But I doubt that a direct attack on Chinese homeland facilities, particularly by Trident ballistic missiles with conventional or any warheads, is a step that would be taken lightly or preemptively by military commanders without presidential approval. I think it would be recognized as a dangerous escalation of a conflict that the US probably would not have engaged in if it could not be contained.

    Note that even a powerful laser ASAT, as hypothesized in the Patenaude slide, would take enough time to disable the NAVSTAR constellation, let alone a significant fraction of other US military satellites, that the US could afford to wait until an attack were confirmed. Use of the laser could easily be detected, and if the necessary means to do so are not already in place, they could be provided very easily and quickly if the existence of such a weapon were suspected.

    Destroying multiple ASAT rockets on the ground would be a more difficult task, and if China deploys such weapons there are other countermeasures which the US could take rather than setting up a hairtrigger for an ICBM exchange with China. For example, we could reduce our reliance on NAVSTAR by supplementing satellite-based GPS sources with ground- and UAV-based sources. It might be hard to do this for coverage deep within the Chinese mainland, but Taiwan is a perfect case for such a strategy.

    I read Cartwright’s statement as a last-stand pitch for the idea of conventional Trident, which otherwise seems to be DOA in Congress. The Chinese ASAT is in the news, therefore it makes a convenient target for a weapon that otherwise does not have an obvious reason to be born.

  5. Smith (History)

    The great risk is China in turn, adopts a preemptive strategy.

    What if they placed their nuclear arsenal on “launch on warning”?

    Their calculation will be, “use it or lose it”, and out of 1.1 billion Chinese, maybe 300 million will survive—- more than enough to defeat a subsequent US invasion.

    In the mean time, China would have destroyed a handful of the US’s largest cities, crippling the nation.

    Preemption is a dangerous game that everyone can play.

  6. Amyfw (History)

    Jeffrey, you have to be careful in determining cause and effect in the Air Force slides. The fact that the Air Force links the the Chinese ASAT capability with the desire for a PGS capability does not mean that this is the only, or even preferred, U.S. response. The Air Force began trying to sell conventional warheads for ballistic missiles years before the CTM appeared on the radar, and part of that salesmanship was the need to identify a scenario where the target would “pop up” on short notice in an area where the U.S. did not have forces on the coast that could reach into the target, and where the U.S. would need to strike quickly. The interior of China, and an ASAT base, fits that bill. The fact that the Air Force uses that scenario to sell PGS ICBMs does not mean that the Pentagon, at large, has married up that problem and solution as the only way to go.

  7. Allen Thomson (History)

    > What if they placed their nuclear arsenal on “launch on warning”?

    How would they obtain that warning? AFAIK, China has one BMEWS radar, and that’s pointed toward Russia.

  8. Alex (History)

    This is the most stupid thing I’ve seen all day. The original “global strike” scenario (Hey! We’ve (insert handwave here) positively identified terrorists in the Mato Grosso and we can’t keep an eye on them for three hours! We must launch an ICBM!) was bad enough – right out of 24.

    That involved firing ICBMs past nuclear powers’ radar envelopes and hoping they didn’t freak out.

    Now this one involves firing actual real ICBMs at a nuclear power whilst hoping they will understand you don’t mean it. That’s not stupid, that’s insane.

  9. Geoff Forden (History)

    I simply dont believe the assertion the slide shown (that a laser China is now capable of fielding) coudl “destroy” 12 GPS/Navstar satellties in two hours! What is the “kill” mechanism? GPS satellites are at 20,000 km altitude and have no fancy optics to destroy. The laser cannot “melt” a satellite and the most likely mechanism is to heat the solar cells up sufficiently so that they loose efficiency and the satellite goes dark. See my appendix to the FAS study on “Ensuring America’s Space Security” at

    As usual, the Defense Department is referencing a study by some Beltway Bandit to justify a major change in policy. That study needs to be scrutinized and its results subjected to review before anybody even starts to consider the policy options mentioned.

  10. Eamon Doyle (History)

    Dr Lewis, Jeffrey, if you don’t mind,

    Your thoughtful posting raises four interesting points:

    1. The U.S. and its allies “have become extremely dependent” on satellite-derived services. (In military parlance, this is to say that a small number of satellites have become a combined economic and military centre of gravity. Note: When the term “small number” and “centre of gravity” appear in the same sentence, military strategists and planners naturally add these two terms together to derive the sum term “targets.” They would be remiss in their duties if they did not, regardless of legal or treaty constraints whose affect is considered later.)

    2. Offense is the stronger form of warfare in space. An effective defence of satellites might be impossible given the wide range of threats that can be posed against them and the fragile state of satellite technology.

    3. Other nations are demonstrating the ability to negate satellites in many different ways.

    4. Based on the three preceding points, the U.S. and its allies are so pessimistic about being able to defend satellites from ground-based attacks that their strategy is to resort to preemptive strikes (global strikes) into adversary homelands.

    I do not wish to engage in a debate about the wisdom of preemptive attacks. That has been debated well enough by others.

    I simply want to point out that there are two viable strategies that potential adversaries are likely to pursue given the hegemony of the U.S. and its allies, and in reaction to a stated policy of preemption:

    1. Avoid being struck preemptively in your homeland by assembling your weapons covertly inside someone else’s homeland and strike from there. This will simply transfer the blame to someone else. It would be even better if you do this from inside some other nation-state that you dislike or can exploit. Iran used this strategy when its forces went to Cuba to jam U.S. satellites last year. (It can be argued this was also the strategy employed by the al Qa’ida when they executed the 9/11 attacks from inside the U.S. and then denied any involvement in the immediate aftermath.)

    2. Place your anti-satellite weapons covertly in space. This is best done if you launch your weapons secretly aboard the same rocket that lifts a satellite for a foreign customer. There is no evidence that I am aware of that suggests this has happened.

    My question that I pose for discussion is this; if a nation-state intends to use either (or both) of the two strategies above to counter the U.S. and its allies in space, what types of treaties or legal regimes will those nation-states pursue or support?

    Is it likely that their diplomatic corps would be kept ignorant of the covert nature of their counter-space strategy and anti-satellite weapons programs?

    Would their government press for total bans on space weapons to further constrain the U.S. and its allies while distracting the world from their actual strategy and enhancing their world image at the same time?

    It is not my intention to unfairly point a finger at any nation-state today and accuse them of such duplicity. I have no evidence whatsoever to warrant such claim, and I do not intend to use the “because it is possible it is therefore probable” fallacy to lure people into this discussion.

    I simply would value a few thoughts from others on what legal regimes states using the two strategies above might pursue or support.

    Thank you, Jeffrey, for your work on this unique and provocative site!

    Eamon Doyle

  11. Theresa Hitchens (History)

    Perhaps I am missing something, but it seems to me in either the case of a laser or a direct ascent ASAT vs. GPS, there would be ample time between the recognition that we were being “shot at” and mustering “shoot back” capabilities without any conventional ICBM capabilities. One would assume in a crisis or conflict situation with China, we’d be monitoring our space assets closely for signs of attack. If a laser would take two hours to hit 12 satellites, wouldn’t we have time to get air strikes together? And given GPS’s orbit, I would assume it would be impossible for China to use mobile IRBMs—that it would required fixed-site ICBM type launches (which of course we also would be monitoring)? Wouldn’t that again provide scope for traditional bombing strikes? I’m trying to figure out whether the conops for C-ICBM or Trident make any sense at all?

  12. DC Loser

    Since the recent Chinese ASAT test came from most probably a mobile launch platform (a TEL?), how is the conventional Trident supposed to find the needle in the haystack?

  13. KMB

    Maybe the idea of preemption in this case is so dangerous, the Air Force is pushing it knowing it will get rejected resulting in a surge in UAV funding and use.

  14. Muskrat (History)

    The article link doesn’t work for me, either, but it looks like it can be found at

    The narrative in that article, though, seems not to match the one cited. The article talks about a “border dispute” (not an island neighbor), and suggests Red shoots first, attacking Blue’s sensor net, after which the Blue NCA authorizes attacks to prevent a Red invasion of Brown, which sounds more like Korea than Taiwan.

    Am I looking at the wrong article?

  15. yathrib

    Sean: A Google search for + “Global 2000” should let you access the cache.

  16. Dan
  17. Allen Thomson (History)

    > What if they placed their nuclear arsenal on “launch on warning”?

    A BMEWS capability would be needed for that and the PRC, as far as anyone knows, doesn’t have one. (Except for one Russia-pointing radar.)

    Or have missed a significant development?

  18. Alex (History)

    Iran used this strategy when its forces went to Cuba to jam U.S. satellites last year.

    Mmm, crack…nice.

  19. Andy (History)


    Generating airstrikes would likely take at least 12-24 hours, particularly if the target is in the Chinese interior. Flight time alone for a long-range bomber would be several hours. Depending on the location, a cruise missile might be able to hit it, but they fly at subsonic speeds, require route programming (which takes time), and must be launched from a platform near the coast. The best-case scenario would have bombers in the air 24/7 near China in anticipation of an attack, but there is still the issue of flight time, penetrating an active and alerted air defense, and many other factors. If this notional laser ASAT system is mobile, then airstrikes are even more difficult because by the time the aircraft arrive over the target, the laser would likely be gone. For all these reasons, the Global Strike option is very appealing to military planners – a precision weapon able to strike a target anywhere on the globe in around 30 minutes that cannot be interdicted and does not put pilots at risk.

    There is a real focus in the military lately on what are called TST’s, or Time-Sensitive-Targets. They are targets that, for whatever reason, have a limited window of opportunity to attack. Global Strike can meet TST requirements better than traditional systems in most cases. Additionally, our adversaries, having closely examined the US methods of warfare, are realizing the value of mobility. Fixed targets allow us to destroy them on our initiative and timetable – mobile targets give the initiative to the adversary and greatly reduce opportunities to interdict them. As more adversaries learn the value of mobility, TST’s increase and options to destroy those targets decrease. It’s not my intention to advocate for Global Strike, which does have significant downsides, but to lay out some of the reasons why military planners want the capability it provides. In short, it fills a capability gap that adversaries are increasingly moving to exploit.

    Finally, one should consider whether or not the Chinese, or any other country, would attack GPS satellites. GPS is critically important for many of our weapons’ systems, but each year it becomes more critically important for civilian safety and navigation systems. Since the GPS system is global, attacks on it have global effects and the political fallout to a nation that chooses to destroy them could be severe. In that respect, the importance and ubiquity of GPS-based navigation and services worldwide is a deterrent – one that is probably more effective than any defenses on the satellites themselves. Countries capable of targeting them will have to carefully weigh the benefits and risks of taking them out.

  20. Allen Thomson (History)

    Theresa asked: “And given GPS’s orbit, I would assume it would be impossible for China to use mobile IRBMs—that it would required fixed-site ICBM type launches (which of course we also would be monitoring)?”

    This needs to be studied in a bit more detail, but it isn’t obvious that an ASAT based on the potentially mobile KT-1/ DF-31 (both of which are kind of in limbo, it’s true) couldn’t reach GPS or perhaps GEO altitudes with an appropriate upper stage.

    Speaking of which, is there any more definite information on what rocket was used for the Chinese ASAT? DF-21 seems to be the leading guess, but it would be useful to pin it down.

  21. Smith

    “Warning” can come in many forms, not just a BMEWS which will not warn of many other kinds of strike—- like by cruise missiles, etc.

    Take the definition of “warning” broadly and it can include “threats” like a diplomatic ultimatum, like the ultimatum given to Germany by Britain that started WWI for Britain.

    The point is, we know little about how PRC thinkers calculate costs/benefits in their strategic analysis and little about their thought process.

    What is unthinkable to us (e.g. losing 80% of our population by striking ‘first’) may be an acceptable calculation to them compared with being defeated.

  22. Eamon Doyle (History)


    Last year the U.S. accused Cuba of jamming Telstar-12, which carried Farsi broadcasts into the Middle East. After investigating, Cuba discovered the source of the jamming came from the Iranian embassy in Havana. They realized they were being set up to take the fall.

    As a result, Cuba shut down the Iranian facility. This remains a serious point of derision between those two countries. Take a look at the articles below for more detail.

    See “Cuba Blows the Whistle on Iranian Jamming” by Safa Haeri at

    See also Jamming of Telstar-12 by Iran / Cuba at