Jeffrey LewisWhy Bush Didn't Try to Stop The ASAT Test

Michael Gordon in the New York Times—disclaimer: I am quoted—details the Bush Administration’s decision to say nothing to Chinese to discourage their January 2007 ASAT test:

What administration officials did not say is that as the Chinese were preparing to launch their antisatellite weapon, American intelligence agencies had issued reports about the preparations being made at the Songlin test facility. In high-level discussions, senior Bush administration officials debated how to respond and even began to draft a protest, but ultimately decided to say nothing to Beijing until after the test.


Officials concluded that China was unlikely to cancel the test and that there were few good options to punish China if they ignored an American warning to hold off. American intelligence agencies were loath to let the Chinese know they were aware of the state of their preparations.

Meeting Chinese demands for a negotiation on space-based weapons was not considered an option for the administration. The United States last tested an antisatellite weapon — a missile that was fired into space from an F-15 warplane — in 1985, and has no current program to develop a new antisatellite system.

With an eye on missile defense, however, the administration has sought to maintain maximum flexibility for American military operations in space. So the administration’s decision was to monitor China’s preparations and draft a protest that could be delivered after the test.

[Emphasis Mine]

Gordon also provides the dates of the previous tests—July 7, 2005, and Feb. 6, 2006 (Boy, those dates are different. Interesting.)

The excuse about protecting sources and methods is bullshit—the Chinese conducted two flybys that were obviously tracked by unclassified US assets and then left the launcher on the pad for over a month, where it was perfectly visible to overhead imaging. We knew that they knew that we knew.

The real argument is that the Bush Administration wanted to “maintain maximum flexibility.” The hoary appeal to “keeping our options open” drives me nuts—keeping some options open requires closing others. Adults recognize that they can never keep all the options open. Policy-making is about making choices.

After all, Chinese anti-satellite weapons will restrict US freedom of action in space, too, just as would a ban on certain military missions. That we chose not to pursue a ban—either because we thought it might fail to prevent China from acquiring ASATs, because we’d rather have certain military systems or for any other reason—is not keeping our options open, it’s choosing some options at the expense of others.

The United States, including this Bush Administration, has used treaties to increase our freedom of action—take, for example, the Navy’s support of the Law of the Sea. CNO Vern Clark argued:

The Law of the Sea Convention helps assure access to the largest maneuver space on the planet – the sea – under authority of widely recognized and accepted law and not the threat of force. The Convention protects military mobility by codifying favorable transit rights that support our ability to operate around the globe, anytime, anywhere, allowing the Navy to project power where and when needed.

I’ve asked before , but I will ask again: Why can’t law free the Air Force in space as it does the Navy at sea?


  1. JimO (History)

    NY Times: “Then they issued a National Space Policy that talked about freedom of action and denying adversaries access to space.””

    [assume Alec Baldwin persona] I’m gonna fly up there tomorrowand look you up and straighten your brain out, Jane you ignorant slut[oops, wrong skit… disregard].

    Seriously, will you STOP repeating the meme of ‘denying access to space’—the waythe WaPo initially misreported it and they way everybody else—who didn’t read theoriginal report—passed it on. Of course that notion is upsetting to other space powers—it’s also not theannounced policy. Do you really need to whip up Russian paranoia with bogusquotes in order to have a lively blog?

    I expect this kind of sloppiness from Helen Caldicott—but frankly, you disappoint me. Tsk tsk.

    Enjoy Japan… I envy you the trip.

    [Alec Baldwin mode—OFF]…

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Actually, the assetion of the right to “deny” adversaries access to space appears twice in the National Space Policy:

    The United States considers space capabilities—including the ground and space segments and supporting links—vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests;

    To achieve the goals of this policy, the Secretary of Defense shall … Develop capabilities, plans, and options to ensure freedom of action in space, and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries;

    So, that ain’t a meme. I know, because I checked before I e-mailed the quote to Gordon.

    The appropriate argument is that the Clinton policy also included language about the ability to “deny such freedom of action to adversaries” — although with the important qualification of “consistent with treaty obligations” and the emphasis on “diplomatic, legal or military measures to preclude an adversary’s hostile use of space systems and services.”

  3. MTC (History)

    One part of the narrative does not scan.

    The NYT claims that the administration’s final decision was to monitor Chinese preparations and draft a diplomatic protest.

    The article also claims that in preparation, the U.S. Air Force was checking up on the Feng-Yun 1C six times a day instead of the usual two times.

    So how are we to explain the gap in time between the January 11 shoot down and January 17 murmurings around the community of a “very energetic event”?

    What ever happened to the prepared diplomatic statement? Was it delivered? When was it delivered? Why was its delivery not publicized?

    Forgive my ignorance, but would not propaganda strategy have mandated that the U.S. immediately and loudly denounce the test, as proof of China’s hypocrisy in its calls for a strong space treaty?

  4. abcd


    On another note, not that I have anything useful to add here, but I nearly disrupted the entire 5th floor at work today when I saw the caption in the above picture. Priceless.

  5. JimO (History)

    “Denying access to space” in general means a whole lot more to me than “denying certain actions and uses OF space”. And the criticism of the NSP, mainly in Russia and (typically) most of the London press, enters on physical access, as in, ‘The US declaring ownership of space’ (as opposed to self-defense of its own assets). Are these concepts that easy to misperceive as interchangeable? If so—you’d think at least SOME of the criticism would correctly phrase it (“deny use that is hostile”), but that’s really rare. Maybe we all need to drop back into a local junior college for a repeat of a “Reading for Comprehension” class….

    Advise me—is it correct to say that NSP as written allows any spacefaring nationto carry out any activity in space that the US is carrying out, including preparation for self defense if needed?

  6. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    I think that is a fair reading. A USG lawyer strongly defended China’s ASAT test as legal at an international meeting, which was kind of surreal.

    In terms of denial — I always read “access” to mean “access to the benefits …” rather than just merely physical access.

    I don’t mind, by the way, reserving the right to deny, but I do think that we benefit when we have rules about when it is and is not appropriate to deny. Otherwise, it is too easy for states to assume you intend the broadest, most hostile interpretation of an ambiguous document.

  7. ht (History)

    > Policy-making is about making choices.

    This white house doesn`t make policy, it just makes choices.

  8. Mark Gubrud

    “The United States last tested an antisatellite weapon — a missile that was fired into space from an F-15 warplane — in 1985, and has no current program to develop a new antisatellite system.”

    Bullshit. Big Lie. Saddam’s WMD connection for bin Laden. 175 degrees opposite to the truth.

    Between DART, XSS-10, XSS-11, Mitex, Orbital Express, Angels, and other micro/nanosat programs, the United States is the world’s leader in the most important antisatellite weapons technology today.

    Plus, of course, the GBI, which one can argue might need a little upgrade before it would have LEO ASAT capability but in reality probably does not need any such upgrade and in any case certainly needs none of any significance. We may also mention the legacy of HOE, MHV, etc. China has done this exactly once, the US many times. But again, hit-to-kill is not the hot technology today.

    Plus ABL, Starfire adaptive optics, and a few big lasers. But again, these are dinosaurs. Lasers ain’t it. Microsats are it.

    Plus that obnoxious policy.

    We’re Number One in this game.

    Now, Jeffrey says the Chinese are blocking the CD; he probably means FMCT, not PAROS. But I won’t be a bit surprised if the Chinese say a blunt “No” to the proposals of American arms controllers to ban (or test-ban) only hit-to-kill ASATs, ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the huge US microsatellite program, and incidentally also ignoring the interchangeablility of KE ASATs and KE missile defense, and maybe also ignoring lasers.

    So, why didn’t the Bushies try to stop the Chinese test? Ask for consultations under Article 9 of the OST? Pretty obvious. They don’t want to invite accusations of hypocrisy or scrutiny of US programs, and they don’t want arms control, period. They want space weapons, lots of them, lots of fat contracts for LockMart and Boeing, lots more zoomie adventures, and a new “peer competitor” worthy of a new Cold War. Space weaponization has always been at the top of the Bush agenda. That’s what they wanted, not this infernal “GWOT”, Iraq, and the rest of the disaster.

    They must have reckoned a Chinese ASAT test would be the closest thing they would get to Rumsfeld’s “Space Pearl Harbor.” Would you expect them to turn down such an opportunity?

  9. JimO (History)

    Thanks, Mr. Gubrud, for reminding us that so many of our colleagues substitute ‘certainty’, passion, and gutter language for sound research, analysis, and interpretation. It does seem to provide so much more emotional validation.

    The herds of elephants, mammoths, and mastodons in the room that you choose to ignore involve automated rendezvous/docking systems already tested or in work by a dozen different spacefaring teams around the world (dual use is a genuine concern—but there are so MANY good non-weapons applications for such capabilities, as the wide interest suggests), and – DANG!—that inconvenient truth about the Russian ABM system (and its ASAT capabilities) that’s been around a long time, without any heartburn to ‘no-space-weapons’ enthusiasts. If I’d ever seen anyone expressing a condemnation from it on those grounds, I’d grant them a lot more even-handedness on my scorecard. So far—goose egg.

    Got any facts? You wrote, “Plus, of course, the GBI, which one can argue might need a little upgrade before it would have LEO ASAT capability but in reality probably does not need any such upgrade and in any case certainly needs none of any significance.” [Ain’t certainty WUN-derf-ful?] “China has done this exactly once, the US many times.”

    My records show one US hit-to-kill test. If these records are incomplete, I would be grateful to be corrected or updated.

    PS—What do you want to do about the sidearm the Russians are allowed to have at the International Space Station?

  10. Mark Gubrud

    Thanks, Mr. Oberg, for the invitation to harpoon a whale like yourself in this small pond. I’ll say this, in response to your general attack: What fraction of your post consists of facts, arguments, or even assertions? You ridicule my assertions without having the guts to contradict them. If I’ve got something wrong, why don’t you set me straight?

    I am aware that teams in several nations are working on what you call “automated rendezvous/docking systems,” but do you deny that the US is the world’s leader in developing and testing such vehicles, particularly those that would make good weapons platforms, i.e. highly maneuverable, large delta-V, small but not too small, using the most advanced technologies? Which other country can boast of a testing program like the one I (partially) listed?

    And sure, there is wide interest, and the non-weapons applications are at least conceptually coherent, but might some of the interest not be due to the military implications? How much scrutiny are the projects receiving to determine if their ostensible non-weapons applications really make technical and economic sense? Most of the claims are for cost-cutting missions: repair and refueling, but will the cost really be lower than replacement and maybe adding some more fuel capacity the next time? Are the vehicles being tested optimized for economy, or for power and flexibility?

    I would like to see such questions asked, and answered. I am not saying ban maneuvering microsats and space robotics, I am saying it is a potentially dangerous technology that needs to be watched, investigated and regulated, and this is just as feasible as it is to run something like the IAEA.

    As for the Russian ABM, I recently read your claim that the nuclear interceptors had been replaced by HTKs. First time I ever heard that. When did the Russians test the HTKs? Were they exoatmospheric? How well did they work? If you are correct, maybe the Russians, too, have an ASAT. They can’t have spent as much on it as we have on our GBI, and it can’t possibly be as good. But it would be a concern. OTOH, if their ABM is still nuclear, as Laura Grego assures us, its use as an ASAT would not be credible. The US could do the same with any ICBM, but wouldn’t, for the same reasons the Russians wouldn’t.

    The GBI is capable as an ASAT interceptor because its booster can reach LEO, and it has been tested at high closing speed (11 km/s, according to Geoff Forden). In another post you wrote that “there could be significant envelope violations in angle rate, time of flight, cross-range” and the naive might have to agree that there could be, but actually there is no reason to think that there would be in general. Even if the GBI is not capable of all possible intercept geometries, it is certainly capable of a broad range of them. Otherwise it would not be a good GBI for missile defense, even if we could somehow magically solve the discrimination problem.

    Really, though, I don’t think either American or Russian ABM is intended for use as an ASAT. That’s a legitimate concern, but really, the important ASAT technology is maneuvering microsats.

    In counting just one US hit-to-kill test, you are either being inconsistent about ABMs as ASATs or else your records are woefully incomplete. I did mention HOE, and of course you have dozens of HTK tests over 3 decades, ranging from short range missile interceptors to the GBI. These tests span a wide range of geometries and closing speeds, but so do possible orbital intercepts, and collectively these programs and tests add up to the largest body of knowledge and experience in this technology, by far, possessed by any nation.

    As for the Russian sidearm, so what? You meant that as a joke, but I’m not amused. The prospect of an armed confrontation in space developing over the next one or two decades due to American refusal to change course even now, when the Chinese have thrown down the gauntlet, is really serious.

  11. JimO (History)

    Maybe we could have discussed this face to face on Thursday, if you had walked over. Sorry to lose the opportunity.

    I’ll get back to your specific points shortly.

    I have been seeing indications of HTK ABM development in the recent Russian press, I’ll look up the citations.

    Maneuverable microsats have defensive applications such as stand-off self-inspection that fill in the classic ‘situational awareness’ mission.

    Other preliminary flight tests have occurred. The Japanese and the Brit/Chinese tests come to mind, as well as the Chinese announcement that they will have a stand-off observation platform during their Shenzhou EVA next year—a confident prediction that suggests they have already flight tested that hardware. Then there is the German-Russian TECSAS project.

    Re the Russian pistol at the ISS, it is indeed amusing to see the plastic-man posturings of folks who want to ban all weapons in space, when they have to explain the barely-legible asterisk and small print, “except current Russian weapons”. Wasn’t that spelled out in the Russian draft to COPUOS?

    I did indeed refer only to ASAT tests as that seemed to be the clear subject of the conversation, and I do indeed know of only one successful U.S. HTK ASAT flight. My knowledge is always subject to improvement.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond in detail, it is always helpful to dispute verbally, it improves everybody’s understanding.

  12. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Um, I missed the “whale” comment.

    Mark, I think you need to take a time out for the next week.

  13. Mark Gubrud

    Mr. Oberg accused me of substituting emotion for sound research and analysis. I took that personally, because I have nothing to stand on but the quality and accuracy of my own thought and expression. Mr. Oberg, in contrast, has quite a platform. He’s a big man, in more than one way. It did not occur to me until later that calling him a “whale in this small pond” might be taken as a personal insult referenced to his physical size. That wasn’t my intention, but I do apologize.

    Mr. Oberg, since we were in the same room on Thursday, I would have approached you and tried to engage in more respectful discussion if I had seen your reply to my first post, but I had not seen it then.

  14. JimO (History)

    No offense taken, Jeff, actually it occurred to me it might have been meant as a positive remark on “TV personalities” visiting blogs in general—although I get a lot of my space historical research done by “Oberg’s irregulars”, friends over at various space newsgroups, where I have been hanging out—and contribute my own responses to requests for aid— for years, before I even heard of blogs.

    I thought I had seen Mark’s name tag at the National Defense University event on ‘Space Power’ on Thursday, a lot of movers and shakers were there, along with some very valuable Russian and Chinese contributors who cannot be named.

  15. Mark Gubrud

    Jeffrey: Mr. Oberg accused me of substituting emotion for sound research and analysis. I took that personally, because, first of all, I do believe in emotional commitment, taking a moral stand and speaking truth clearly, and secondly because I am not well-known and have nothing to stand on but the quality and accuracy of my own thought and expression. Mr. Oberg, in contrast, is a big man, in more ways than one. It did occur to me, later, that calling him a “whale” might be taken as a schoolyard insult. The comment was not intended that way, but it was insensitive and unnecessary.

    Jim: I do apologize for not confining my response to substantive comments on relevant issues. Since we were in the same room Thursday, I would have approached you if I had seen your reply to my first post, but I had not seen it then. I hope that we will have the opportunity to engage in more respectful discussion on some future occasion.

  16. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Okay, two comments.

    First, in light of the “elephants, mammoths, and mastodons” reference, I see how the whale comment is witty. So, apologies to Mark.

    Second, I apologize for singling out Mark. Online debates seems to slowly spiral out of control, with the point at which one says “enough” being quite arbitrary.

    Participants in these debates often make consequential decisions without access to the cues in typical face-to-face human interaction.

    That includes moderators, who aren’t closely reading the comments.

    Gentlemen, please resume.

  17. Mark Gubrud

    Thanks, Jeffrey, and thanks, Jim.

    I do want to clarify a couple of things.

    First, the key point here is the equivalence of KE weapons whether they are called ASATs or missile defense. This is an area in which the US has by far the greatest experience, many tests, and the most advanced technology.

    From the point of view of weapons technology, there is no boundary between KE ASAT intercepts and exoatmospheric intercontinental missile defense intercepts. Rather, in either case there is a range of closing speed, cross-range, vertical and horizontal angles, illumination, visibility and predictability of the target, which overlap for the two cases. In general, satellites are easier targets. Any interceptor that can hit an ICBM warhead in a head-on collision at apogee, with closing velocity of 11 km/s, can hit a satellite at the same altitude. In practice, the American GMD interceptor needs to be even more versatile than this suggests, so that it can carry out intercept as needed on either side of the target warhead’s apogee.

    The distinction between hitting a target in orbit – ASAT – and hitting a “suborbital” target – MD – is technically meaningful only from the point of view of persistent debris creation. It may also be politically meaningful as a declaration of intent or capability. However, it should not be used to try to obscure the fact that weapons tested as MD interceptors may be considered proven as ASAT interceptors.

    That said, it is certainly true that a dedicated ASAT might be optimized differently than a dedicated missile defense. For example, target acquisition, discrimination and tracking capability might be sacrificed in favor of greater altitude and cross-range. “Tailchase” intercepts at lower closing speed might be favored to reduce overall performance requirements.

    I really don’t think the American GMD is intended to be used as an ASAT. OTOH, we know that simple countermeasures well within the capability of anyone who can build an ICBM will negate the GMD’s effectiveness as a missile defense. So if the US is concerned about KE ASAT threats to its space assets, a rational calculus would suggest trading midcourse missile defense for a verifiable KE ASAT ban, in order to make the latter more technically and militarily meaningful.

    Second, the Russian sidearm. A classic argument of arms control opponents is that hammers and screwdrivers can be used as weapons, so what are you going to do, ban hand tools? The answer is generally No.

    Arms control does not generally seek to ban all weapons, it seeks to ban, limit or control the weapons that pose the greatest threat of destabilization and harm. You ban the ones that you can easily and verifiably ban, and you control or limit those which pose more complicated technical issues or which either play some desirable role in maintaining security or else are too similar to desirable non-weapons technology for an airtight ban hold.

    That said, it is obviously needless for Russians to carry sidearms into space, except as a traditional flourish. I don’t care if you ban them or not, and I doubt this would be the final sticking point if the US were prepared to agree to a comprehensive space arms control regime.

    I don’t hope for a regime which prevents anything that looks like or could be or is a weapon of any type from being launched into space. I do hope we take steps to avoid a situation in which highly adapted, increasingly lethal space weapons are being developed and deployed in large numbers, creating an unstable, hairtrigger confrontation in space.

  18. yale (History)

    A minor digression from this interesting discussion…

    Dr J wrote:

    That includes moderators, who aren’t closely reading the comments.

    Of that exact point, I have been long been curious.

    Do you approach this blog as essentially a uni-directional platform of fact and opinion, with the comments a minor and rather optional addition (or annoyance) to be generally ignored, oras a multi-input discussion, with the original post as fuel, more on the lines of a typical message forum? (or some hybrid?)

  19. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Depends how busy I am.

    Also, the bulk of “comments” are mailed to me directly by friends and colleagues. So, the unidirectionality might be an artifact of the what is visible.