Jeffrey LewisFollow Up on the ASAT Talk

Greetings from Dubai. Were I ever involved in a clandestine proliferation network I’d have meetings here too.

The Carnegie Endowment has a nice summary of Gregory and my talk — which is pretty amazing since I ramble and neither of us saw it or provided a draft of the paper:

Lewis then turned to the two dominant narratives of China’s ASAT test that have been popularized in the US. The first is that the ASAT test was part of an effort to optimize Chinese defense capabilities vis-à-vis the U.S. by “hitting the US where it hurts,” he said. But Lewis and Kulacki said that the people they’ve talked to have not discussed the test in those terms. Kulacki noted that the so-called “soft ribs” arguments rely on many of the same low-quality sources, published by graduate students in fringe journals. Others have speculated that the ASAT test was intended to force the U.S. into negotiations over the military use of space. Both of these explanations rely on the premise that China had accurately predicted the response of the US to the tests. The unpreparedness of Chinese officials in the aftermath of the ASAT test is not inconsistent with the statements of technocrats, who framed the development of the ASAT as part of a general drive to improve China’s military capabilities in space, not as an effort to provoke the U.S.

Also, Elaine Grossman wrote up the talk for Global Security Newswire.

Gregory and I are still finishing the paper, but you get the flavor of what we said. A few minor points of emphasis here or there are different — we didn’t put the Bush Administration at the center of the narrative at all, for example — but its close enough to start the discussion.


  1. mike

    offtopic – nice quotes today (11/16) in the FT.

  2. Yale Simkin (History)


    The ASAT test generated a severe debris storm. In the test’s aftermath, a major international poopstorm erupted, condemning the Chinese for dangerous orbital pollution.

    In your opinion, did the the Chinese view this concern as legit, or did they see the consternation as merely a cynical tool to beat them up?

    In any event, shouldn’t they have known that such pollution is frowned upon (heck, there are a long-time member of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee , or did they see national security as more important?

  3. Jian Feng (History)

    It is a risky business to predict intensions. So the Chinese decided, as the Americans had predicted, to build on their own capabilities, which are constrained only by money and talents. As China becomes more capable, it is in everyone’s best interests to talk, to let one’s intensions known, rather than to be predicted. One can argue that the American behaviors so far might suggest that the United States is watching to see if it is even worthwhile to talk to China. Thus, the Chinese would have to show their capabilities even more to have an open, and hopefully friendly, powwow with the Americans. Decision makers in the United States should read Mr. Nixon’s last book, Beyond Peace, in which he said that his decision to visit China had little to do with the Russians than with the Americans themselves. His assessment in the 1970s, which he reaffirmed in his book, was that it is far better to deal with the Chinese when they need us more than when we need them more. Unfortunately, Mr. Nixon did not tell us why he thought even in the 1970s that America may one day needs China more than China needs America. Perhaps he felt that predictions were cheap and the reality will give us the answer.

  4. Allen Thomson

    > U.S. officials registered no objections after Beijing performed two prior “fly-by” tests, one in July 2005 and another in February 2006.

    Not really pertinent to the arms control aspect of this, but I have wondered why news of those tests wasn’t leaked to Bill Gertz when they happened. Clearly there is a fair number of anti-China people in the defense establishment, and they haven’t minded providing ole Bill with TS/SCI copy in the past.

  5. Mark Gubrud

    I’ve accused you guys of triangulating; well, it seems to me that there ought to be a middle ground between xenophobic paranoia and pollyannaism.

    Ashley Tellis’s argument isn’t just that the ASAT is a valuable and logical weapon for China to use in a conflict with the US, it’s that there is no point in even talking to the Chinese about this because they are committed to this strategy and therefore they will never agree to anything that would impede their ability to use it. On the other hand, someone might (I don’t know that anyone does) claim that the Chinese military hasn’t even thought about using this against us or about the idea that US-China asymmetry means we have more to lose if the shooting starts in space – and that the only reason for this test is America’s own very aggressive space weapons programs, with China’s sole intent being to gently nudge us into negotiations.

    You guys come up with a third pole: It has nothing to do with us! The Chinese have been watching our space weaponization programs for decades, yet somehow this isn’t a response. They’ve been proposing space arms control negotiations for almost as long, but somehow US refusal to engage is not a factor in their decision process. And there is no evidence the Chinese have even thought about the asymmetry and possible usefulness of such a weapon against US military assets in a conflict with the US, since Chinese engineers and program managers didn’t talk about that when you met them.

    I understand that you would like to preserve the space for dialogue and calm the alarmist Pearl Harbor talk. I think what bothers me most about this is that what you say is the same thing the hardliners say: That China is pursuing its own interests and programs without regard to what the US is doing, and that no change in US policy will elicit any change in what China does. It seems to me that actually a bit of alarmism is well warranted here, because we are at the threshold of space weaponization and a ballooning space arms race. Without a major change in direction on our side, China will continue on its course, and within a very few years now we will have facts on the ground and in orbit that will be very hard to reverse.

  6. FOARP (History)

    “Were I ever involved in a clandestine proliferation network I’d have meetings here too.”

    You mean you’re not?

  7. Mark

    Grad students publishing in fringe journals = low-quality sources? Maybe so, but bloggers were in that same category not too long ago.

  8. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    One way to address the issue of Chinese intentions is to pose the question: What a real Chinese threat would look like? i.e. a program with the express intent to challenge the US or defend against the US using space based technologies? Or to turn the question around, if you are transported to China and going to build an anti-US capability in space, what would you build? These are some possibilities:

    a) Space Denial

    If the US is so far ahead, and China can’t beat them, then why not just deny the US and any other country the use of space —- e.g. flood most orbital paths with debris within the first hours of a conflict.

    This can be achieved in any number of ways, from destroying large satellites with conventional or nuclear warheads, to placing in orbit automated battle satellite that take pot shots at any satellite within range.

    The outcome is that space becomes so ‘polluted’ that serious space flight becomes very risky until someone develop a Star Trek style deflector shield. Since China is less dependent on space than most other developed countries, this may be an attractive option.

    b) Space Based Balance of Power

    China probably cannot field large quantities serious conventional (kinetic energy, explosive warhead, laser, etc.) for the foreseeable future. Thus, the option to surgically strike US space installations with any degree of precision is limited.

    What can be done is to nullify the advantage this sensor network gives the US. For example, a ‘trump card’ like deploying nuclear weapons in orbit with an explicit doctrine of automated launch if they are attacked would sharply limit the advantage the US gains from having a space based sensor network that can give early warning of a Chinese attack and also give the US anti-ballistic missile defenses time to respond.

    For example, the Chinese can launch a fleet of 100 satellites, only a handful of them actually contain live warheads, and then use some astute programming to ascertain if the ‘deterrence network’ is under general attack and then respond automatically unless an order to countermand is received from the ground. A dangerous game, but it can be played.

    This would mean walking away from the existing treaty commitments but it would provide China with a real balance of power counter that makes up for their weakness in ballistic missiles and ballistic missile defense.

    c) Traditional Arms Race

    Match US capability for capability, i.e. deploy sensors, hit-to-kill ASAT systems, space and ground based lasers, etc. In other words, whatever system the US, FSU develops / developed, China will build a ‘me too’ capability and then deploy it as it becomes available —- kind of like their Ballistic Missile Submarines.

    This is a competition that China would almost certainly lose. It is playing catch-up even as what they are catching up to is becoming or long obsolete.

    From the Chinese perspective, only option a stand any chance of success in the next 20 years or so. Much of the components for this strategy can be discretely tested and fielded on the ground but not actually deployed in space, so everyone is kept guessing as to what their intentions really are until it is too late. Option b would be a formally aggressive posture which would almost certainly trigger an arms race that China is not certain of winning. Option c can have a range of outcomes —- from lots of science projects that are for naught, to a miniature version of US capabilities without the breadth and depth (and hence, of limited threat) to the US.

    Looking at this ASAT test, there is no reason to believe their ASAT test is solely intended to challenge the US. There are simply far better asymmetric responses to achieve that goal with other means.

    It is more than likely a science project gone too far —- a bad decision that is not quite c, but have enough suspicious elements to an outside observer to have it appear as such.

    Political leaders tend to be distracted by lots of other things beside the consequence of a space weapon test, like impeachment proceedings, having a VP’s aid convicted and having to pardon him, and the daily drudge of keeping money / donations coming in, winning re-election, and what have you nots. It is amazing with all these issues, any work of substance get done by politicians at all. Even more amazing that a majority of decisions made by politicians don’t turn out to be disastrously bad ones.

    Politicians in China are not that much different. Just distracted by different things.

  9. SQ

    I’d previously been of the view that the ASAT test was undertaken with the U.S. strongly in mind, both to acquire military capabilities and to create pressure for negotiations. So I had a foot in each camp that Kulacki and Lewis are arguing against.

    Now I’ll have to grow a third leg. Any program started ~25 years ago would have emerged during a period of goodwill with the U.S. in the context of shared hostility to the USSR. And today, China has to contemplate Russia and India as potential future threats just as much as the U.S.

    On the other hand, if it was part of a post-Kosovo across-the-board plus-up — unless this decision was made in the most mechanical and arbitrary way — the program almost surely must have been regarded by someone as having potential to counteract U.S. advantage at some point.

    Undoubtedly, different people within the PRC system will have different views and different equities. If it is reasonable to extrapolate from the American experience, programs tend to take on a life of their own, not necessarily connected to any master logic.

    K&L seem to have had unique access to Chinese sources in this matter. Why don’t we all suppress our knee-jerks and wait for their final paper?

  10. Mark Gubrud

    According to Kulacki and Lewis, Chinese documents discussing ASAT issues date to the 1970s, and serious funding of the program that resulted in the 1/11/07 test came about following the Belgrade embassy bombing. Together these facts say absolutely nothing about whether the top decisionmakers who greenlighted this test were thinking about the very aggressive US space war posture, the need for China to demonstrate its capability to break the stalemate on space arms control, the idea that US dependence on space resources in warfighting represents a special vulnerability, or all of the above.

    It’s no surprise that the Chinese have followed the technology, and it is absurd to suggest that they have not thought about its implications. It’s no great surprise that they developed this weapon over the last few years, nor that the Bush gang chose to ignore it in order that a test would take place and provide a justification for further American space arms aggression.

    The argument that the test was conducted just because “the technology was mature” ignores the long history of mature technology programs which have been scrapped or kept in reserve, and tests or other provocative moves that have been canceled or delayed due to political or diplomatic considerations or a desire to preserve secrecy. This claim leaves entirely unanswered the question of why and how the final decision to conduct this test was made.

    I am not sure that this is even an interesting question. The reasons for the test are plain to see. We have easily identified them. The process by which these reasons led to a green light is of interest to China scholars but does not tell us much about how we should respond.

    One argument made by Jeffrey is that China’s initial silence and incoherent response to international protests shows the lack of a coherent policy. I think it does show that the decision was made quietly and in secrecy by people at or near the top, not as part of a broadly articulated policy. But it seems to me that China has not said more because it does not need to. As was said of 9/11, the act speaks for itself.

    Jeffrey argues that if China were trying to get us into negotiations, they would have followed up the test with a coordinated diplomatic push. But that would likely backfire; American hawks would balk at being threatened and then pressed to “make concessions” or address a “Chinese agenda.” Besides, what do the Chinese have to say that they haven’t said already? They have made it clear they will meet us at the table any time we want to talk. With this test, they have made it clear why we ought to want to talk. The ball is squarely in our court.

  11. Allen Thomson

    If the PRC had the US in mind when developing the direct-ascent ASAT, an obvious target set would be the NRO’s imaging satellites of which there is a total of eight in well-known low orbits, plus maybe one stealthy one. Replacing even one of those would take many months if not a couple of years; replacing the constellation most of a decade.

  12. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    NRO Satellites as a target set?

    Sure, but ‘let me make this perfectly clear’ [putting on my best Nixon imitation], an attack on this target set is a general attack, read all out war against the United States. Not even the biggest panda hugger will have the US stand idly by and do nothing.

    The deeper question is, what good does it do to take out the NRO satellites in and of themselves? There are many lesser, but more than capable birds that can fill in for them. Maybe not as detailed, maybe less ability to maneuver to get as good real time shots, maybe it takes a week to throw up a emergency replacement or two, but their functionality is substantially duplicated by other birds. For that matter, what about the Space Station? The Shuttle?

    Beyond satellites and other space craft, there is the Aurora reconnaissance aircraft, and numerous RPVs / drones that can penetrate the PRC’s air defenses at will.

    So the logical next step is to take out the rest of the satellites, including commercial ones, space craft, and those assets operated by ‘neutrals’. Then take out the bases from which reconnaissance aircraft and drones are launched from, like Japan, Taiwan, Hawaii…. hmmmm that is a big target set.

    I think before this goes too far, it means World War III.

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