Michael KreponAvoiding Scrapes with China

Congressmen Randy Forbes of Virginia and Mike Rogers of Alabama convened a hearing on January 28th of their House Armed Services Subcommittees to raise awareness of China’s counter-space capabilities. Members asked thoughtful questions about a genuine strategic dilemma: US satellites are becoming more essential and more vulnerable. What will this mean for US-China relations?

My testimony tried to apply some historical perspective. The United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid a “space Pearl Harbor” despite an intense ideological and geopolitical competition, severe crises and proxy wars, not to mention a nuclear arms race and a space race.

So how did we avoid scrapes in space? Washington and Moscow understood the escalatory potential of hostile actions in space, acknowledged satellite vulnerability, and retained significant capabilities to wage warfare in space, if the need arose. The last two conditions now apply to Washington and Beijing – but this won’t help unless the first does, as well.

What wavelength are China’s leaders on? We don’t know. Nor do we know whether Chinese leaders and the PLA are on the same wavelength. Civilian and military leaders in the United States and the Soviet Union were definitely not on the same page in preparing to negotiate on strategic arms and missile defenses. Eventually, there were many communication channels to discuss nuclear and space issues with the Soviet Union. Over time, veteran observers were able to figure out stratagems, habits, and red lines. Patterns of cooperation were hammered out despite competitive practices.

In space, the United States and the Soviet Union tested anti-satellite capabilities over sixty times. ASAT talks in the Carter administration went nowhere. And yet, Washington and Moscow agreed in 1975 to a docking of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft. We cooperate every day on the International Space Station.

U.S. and Soviet nuclear laboratory officials got to know each other during the Cold War. These working relationships helped to lock down nuclear weapons and fissile material when the Soviet Union imploded. After several scrapes at sea that could have escalated into severe crises, Washington and Moscow signed the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement that established a channel of communication between naval officers. As the Cold War was ending, Washington and Moscow signed another code of conduct for ground and air forces operating in close proximity. These agreements didn’t stop competitive practices or the potential for crises, but they provided mechanisms to prevent incidents from spiraling out of control.

Comparable channels barely exist between the United States and China. There are no bilateral negotiations on nuclear and space issues. There’s a US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, but nuclear and space issues barely figure in these discussions. Congress has disallowed NASA from any bilateral engagement with Chinese colleagues. Nuclear laboratory exchanges have been limited ever since the Congressionally-mandated Cox Commission raised concerns about Chinese nuclear espionage in 1999. (Yes, the same guy who was asleep at the switch as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission prior to the 2008 economic meltdown.)

It’s hard to know what Beijing is thinking or the state of civil-military relations in China without channels of communication. Have Chinese leaders familiarized themselves with their military’s plans or understand the ramifications of the People’s Liberation Army military doctrine, test practices, and exercises? What are China’s intentions in space? How far will Beijing go to press its territorial claims? All good questions that outsiders are poorly positioned to answer.

If the United States and China have scrapes, they will likely be at sea or in space. China’s leaders have no experience in dealing with incidents at sea, and no one has experience in managing the escalatory potential of incidents in space. A US-China Incidents at Sea agreement or a broader regional compact would be helpful. The Obama administration hasn’t championed one. If it did, China’s leadership might not be willing to engage.

The Obama administration has been somewhat more proactive in space. It can endorse an international Code of Conduct drafted by the European Union that would, among other things, create a new channel for consultation and establish a norm against ASAT tests that cause lethal debris fields, like the one carried out in 2007 by the PLA. Dead zones in heavily trafficked orbits in space caused by debris pollution could become as prevalent as dead fishery zones.

Beijing has endorsed the general principle of an international Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations, but hasn’t yet signed up to the European draft. As long as this isn’t a priority for Washington or Beijing, the likelihood of unintended incidents and accidents grows.

Bottom line: Lines of communication, consultation, and agreements can help avoid scrapes between China and the United States. At present, these mechanisms are either nonexistent or insufficient.

Read a related post: Apollo-Soyuz Redux?, January 13, 2003. -Ed.


  1. Michael Listner (History)

    Cooperation with Europe worked well for China on Galileo.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say that during the Cold War the US and USSR “retained significant capabilities to wage warfare in space, if the need arose.” Only the USSR undertook an extensive program of non-nuclear ASAT testing and neither side ever deployed more than a few nuclear or any other type of interceptor. That is, both investigated and developed the technology and retained significant capabilities to develop, produce and field ASAT arsenals but neither side ever really produced one.

    Today the US is in the process of deploying ASAT-capable “BMD” interceptors in truly significant numbers, and other nations are likely to follow suit. This will create a completely unprecedented situation in which the potential exists (wholly or in substantial fraction) for a major strategic space strike aimed at weakening an opponent’s warmaking potential and narrowing its options at the outset of conflict. Since an actual strike – the opening shot or major escalation point in a major war between nuclear powers – is unlikely, the most damaging effect will be destabilization and the stimulation of further rounds of an increasingly dangerous space arms buildup.

    • j_kies (History)

      Mark; you make emphatic points as to the ‘dual use’ nature of BMD interceptors; I question the basic thesis. Why do you believe that BMD interceptors constrained by the same physical principles as any other space access means can actually threaten satellites except in carefully scripted / constrained scenarios? Given existing geometry of GBI emplacements; few satellite orbits are accessible even if the systems were capable of optimal use of the Vbo. The naval interceptors have far less Vbo and you might question how much higher they could have flown than the “Burnt Frost” event. THAAD is even less capable (re Vbo) and the Patriot family doesn’t play at all. Lookinig at what has been built and what has been publicized; its an astounding weak ASAT if that was an intent.

    • Laura Grego (History)

      j_kies, since most low-earth orbiting satellites are in polar or near-polar orbits, the physical locations of the Ground Based Interceptors are not very constraining; satellites will pass over them repeatedly.

      You’re right that the current versions of the SM-3 don’t reach all that high, though they can still reach about 20% of LEO satellites. And they are mobile, so they can be placed optimally. The next phases of the PAA system start to generate numbers which would provide quite substantial (and, of course, demonstrated) ASAT capability.

      Here are a couple of technical resources that discuss ASAT capabilities the GMD and PAA have.


    • j_kies (History)

      Laura – thanks for pointing me to those items; a word or two regarding the expected Vbo values in the papers referenced: “they wish” The Burnt Frost event in the public domain is a workable constraint as to demonstrated Vbo with atmospheric drag and non-optimal stacking effects. Calculate as the minimum demonstrated Vbo the direct loft associated with BF. When using O’Rourke’s comment for the 2a, multiply that BF Vbo value by 1.5 for a ‘hope’ of SM3-2a.

      I believe you and David were excessively generous for the GBI stack Vbo, the peak altitude reachable has zero ‘cross-range stick’ and thus no useable coverage at that height. A more assured / less ‘advocacy’ feel to your assessment might have looked at the altitude-range flyout fans and talked to the coverage volumes accessible.

      As to the distinctly ‘military spin’ of the paper’s comment of EPAA enabling the US “”to stage a “sweep” attack on a set of satellites nearly at once.”” Engagement capabilities are dominated by sensor / track capabilities; the existing Aegis sensors are grossly incapable of autonomous detection / track of LEO satellites in time to support ‘own ship’ engagements.

      I reiterate “what dual use capabilities”? As you point out the US has more than twice the number of satellites in the vulnerable volume than other space faring nations combined so the inevitable debris fans will harm us far more. We have simpler and less expensive means to shoot ourselves in the head.

  3. Anjaan (History)

    Indian scientist have recently confirmed that India too has the technological capability to develop anti-satellite weapons …

    • Juuso (History)

      Indians say lot of things, but a lot of let’s if compared to China. For example look at their nuclear weapons program, and their claims about yields, etc.

  4. Arend Meerburg (History)

    In the interesting article nothing is said about other possible channels to talk about space. China proposed already many years ago to talk about preventing an arms race in outer space in the multilateral Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. Certainly during the Bush years the USA absolutely refused to discuss the issues. I do not know what the situation is now, but probably not much better.

    Arend Meerburg, former member of the Netherlands delegation to the CD.

  5. Captain_Canuck (History)

    > and no one has experience in managing the escalatory potential of incidents in space.

    Well, I think the 2007 PLA ASAT incident at least qualifies as a minor scrape, no? I would have thought that the interaction between the US and China following that test, would have highlighted the need to open avenues for communication.

    • krepon (History)

      The 2007 test did prompt a limited form of cooperation: the State Department has provided notices of possible conjunctions, say, when a piece of debris for the 2007 test (or other debris) may be headed for a Chinese satellite. Has been done for Russia, too.
      I had in mind escalation management for crises related to actions in space.

  6. krepon (History)


    My initial post said that the Obama administration “has” endorsed the EU’s draft ICoC. This has been corrected to read that it “can” endorse the current text of the Code.

    Beijing is still keeping the space Code at arms length, and Moscow wants to link the Code to things it can’t get and knows it will not get. But this gambit will play well to certain galleries.

    The great irony here is that if the Bush administration wanted a space Code, Beijing and Moscow would hurry up and sign quickly. But the Bush administration disliked the Code. The Obama administration likes the Code, but Beijing and Moscow remain in no hurry to sign up.