- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

Preoccupied with the war in Iraq and beleaguered by the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, the Bush administration has been seeking good relations with China. Last week Beijing’s rulers answered with the back of their hand — shooting down a satellite in the first destruction of an object in space in more than 20 years.

But it is no surprise. China has long been working on antisatellite (ASAT) technologies, including ground-based lasers, which Beijing tested against a U.S. satellite last year, parasite satellite-killers, and direct ascent rockets of the type just used. This follows decades of Soviet and American ASAT activity.

When Sputnik went into orbit in 1957, it was obvious satellites could spy anywhere on Earth and could be designed to carry and de-orbit atomic bombs. In the event of war, it would be essential to prevent enemy satellites from orbiting overhead.

In the early 1960s, the U.S. deployed a direct ascent ASAT consisting of Thor missiles with nuclear warheads on Johnston Island in the Pacific. That program was terminated in 1975. In 1963, the Soviets began work on a co-orbital ASAT, eventually completing 23 flight tests and destroying seven satellites in space.

The Soviet ASAT was itself a satellite launched into orbit, where it maneuvered close to its target and fired a burst of shrapnel to destroy it. The Soviet ASAT became operational in 1971 and remained part of Moscow’s strategic forces until after the Soviet Union collapsed.

In 1975, the U.S. Air Force began developing an air-launched ASAT. It was a miniature, unarmed warhead launched from an F-15 fighter at high altitude to strike and destroy a satellite by kinetic energy. One satellite was destroyed in a 1985 test, but the Democratic majority in Congress blocked further flight tests. In 1988 the Air Force canceled the program.

The Russians kept working on new ASAT concepts. In 1987, they tried but failed to orbit a giant spacecraft called Polyus that carried an experimental laser and an aerial cannon, and they copied the F-15 air-launched ASAT with a MIG-31 version.

The U.S. needed an ASAT as a deterrent. So in 1989 the Army began developing a kinetic energy ASAT that could be launched on a rocket into space and then fired at a satellite. But the growing number of critical military and civilian satellites on orbit, and the increasing danger to them from thousands of pieces of space debris, made impractical an ASAT that might create more debris, as the Chinese test has done.

Even a tiny piece of debris can cause catastrophic damage to a satellite, the space station, or any object in space. So in the late 1990s the program was changed to develop a way to interfere with a satellite’s operations without destroying it and creating debris. That program continues today as Applied Counterspace Technologies (ACT). But the Defense Department has shown little interest in it and it survives only because of congressional support.

The destruction of a satellite by a Chinese rocket shows the need for the capability to hold China’s satellites at risk.

China’s test was conducted the day Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph was explaining the president’s new National Space Policy at a forum in Colorado Springs. Mr. Joseph presciently predicted, “Others will take advantage of our dependence on and vulnerability in space to seek asymmetrical advantages.”

He added that even as our opponents develop such weapons they propose a ban on “space weapons” that would impede our ability to defend ourselves. This is nothing new. For years Moscow and Beijing have called for an ASAT ban, which is echoed in the United Nations, by the arms control lobby and by liberal Democrats. Arms control activists already are screaming we must negotiate a ban on ASATs.

Mr. Joseph answered that by noting that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 already prohibits the parties from interfering with the peaceful activities of others in space. Besides, past administrations have found it impossible to define space weapons or ASATs in a way that does not severely restrict our freedom to operate in space and defend our interests.

Because satellites today are crucial to the effective functioning of our society, we need weapons that will deter others from threatening them. The administration’s space policy is exactly right and deserves support. And the Defense Department should get behind programs like the ACT.

James Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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