China’s successful test of an anti-satellite weapon last week brought me back to a conference I keynoted at the United Nations in Geneva in 1999 on “The Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space.” I was followed by the first secretary of the Chinese delegation to the UN.
As a journalist who has written on this issue, I presented on a screen documents starting with the U.S. Space Command’s Vision For 2020, issued the year before, envisioning U.S. space-based laser weapons zapping targets on Earth by the year 2020. It spoke of the U.S. military “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment” and “integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.”
This “pushes us - all of us - toward war in the heavens,” I said, because “other nations will follow leading to a new arms race and ultimately war in space. This all must be stopped before it gets completely out of hand.”
The Chinese first secretary, Wang Xiaoyu, then declared: “Outer space is the common heritage of human beings. It should be used entirely for peaceful purposes and for the economic, scientific and cultural development of all countries as well as the well-being of mankind. It must not be weaponized and become another arena of the arms race.”
The next day, a vote was to be held on a bill advanced by China and Russia - and our neighbor, Canada -on “banning the test, deployment and use of any weapons, weapons system and their components in outer space.”
On my way to watch the vote, I came upon a high official of the U.S. delegation to the UN. He attended the earlier conference and wasn’t happy with my remarks. He welcomed providing me some “background.” With limits to U.S. power, he explained on the street outside the UN, the U.S. military believes “we can project power from space” and this is why the country is moving in this direction.
As to other nations responding in kind, he said the U.S. military had done analyses and determined China is “30 years behind” in competing with the U.S. militarily in space and Russia “doesn’t have the money” for it.
I recounted my travels in China, observing its technological strength, and noted China’s space prowess. And, I pointed to the enormous space capabilities and economic potential of Russia. A huge, potentially catastrophic miscalculation is being made, I said. We parted in disagreement.
A few hours later, a near-unanimous vote was held on the measure to ban weapons in space. The U.S. voted no and, because consensus was required, it failed.
This was during the Clinton administration. Under President George W. Bush the U.S. stance on space warfare has intensified. As the administration took office, a commission chaired by soon-to-be Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued a report proclaiming that “in the coming period the U.S. will conduct operations to, from, in, and through space to support its national interests.” Last October, the administration formally adopted a more aggressive U.S. position in a new U.S. National Space Policy that said the country will “develop and deploy space capabilities that sustain U.S. advantage.” It also said the U.S. “will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions” its “use of space.”
What, in this context, does the Chinese test signify?
Was it a demonstration showing that China never deserved to be trusted, its words mere rhetoric? Or, does it signify China, pushed by the U.S., indeed starting to respond in kind? Or does it mean, as China is maintaining in the face or international protests, that China is seeking to force the U.S. into negotiations on keeping weapons out of space?
Two things are certain: China is not, as I was told by that U.S. diplomat, “30 years behind” in the military use of space, and there is a very a narrow window available for an international agreement keeping space free of weapons.
The template is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, a visionary pact developed by the U.S., United Kingdom and Soviet Union to prevent what 40 years ago was already feared as the weaponization of space. It bans nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in space. What China, Russia - and our friends to our north, Canada - have been doing is trying to broaden that to all weapons.
It’s high time that be done and it must done be soon.
The U.S. has the technology to move into space with weapons. Believing it will end up the only nation up there with arms if it does so is a huge and tragic mistake. China and Russia - and who knows what country next - will follow us up. And, no nation will have an advantage. Meanwhile, vast amounts of financial resources will need to be expended for space weaponry by the people of these countriesmoney desperately needed for medical care, education, the environment and all the other great needs on Earth.
The U.S. must join with the nations of the world now on an agreement (that includes a system of verification) providing the heavens not become a place for war.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, is the author of Weapons In Space (Seven Stories Press) and The Wrong Stuff (Common Courage Press) and host of the video documentary Nukes In Space: The Nuclearizaton and Weaponization of the Heavens (EnviroVideo).