According to a report from the Associated Press, “Russia said Saturday that U.S. military plans to shoot down a damaged spy satellite may be a veiled test of America’s missile defense system. The Pentagon failed to provide ‘enough arguments’ to back its plan to smash the satellite next week with a missile, Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement. ‘There is an impression that the United States is trying to use the accident with its satellite to test its national anti-missile defense system’s capability to destroy other countries’ satellites’, the ministry said”.
The AP story also reported that “The Bush administration says the operation is not a test of a program to kill other nations’ orbiting communications and intelligence capabilities. U.S. diplomats around the world have been instructed to inform governments that it is meant to protect people from 1,000 pounds of toxic fuel on the bus-sized satellite hurtling toward Earth. The diplomats were told to distinguish the upcoming attempt from last year’s test by China of a missile specifically designed to take out satellites, which was criticized by the United States and other countries … Left alone, the satellite would likely hit Earth during the first week of March …The operation to shoot down the dead satellite could happen as soon as next week”. This AP report is posted here.
Later, China expressed concern, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said on Sunday, according to a Reuters report from Beijing, that the government “is considering what ‘preventative measures’ to take … ‘The Chinese government is paying close attention to how the situation develops and demands the U.S. side fulfill its international obligations and avoids causing damage to security in outer space and of other countries … Relevant departments in China are closely watching the situation and studying preventive measures,” Liu said in a brief statement posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site (www.fmprc.gov.cn)”.
Reuters added that “It will be the first time the United States has conducted an anti-satellite operation since the 1980s. Russia also has not conducted anti-satellite activities in 20 years. China launched a ground-based missile into an obsolete weather satellite in January 2007, drawing international criticism and worries inside the Pentagon that Beijing has the ability to target critical military assets in space”. This AP report from Beijing is posted here.
At the time, the U.S. characterized China’s action as “a matter of concern,” since it indicates a possible threat to America’s own satellites, as well as those of other countries. And the Center for Defense Information (CDI), a Washington-based think tank, condemned the Chinese test as “provocative and irresponsible,” saying it “should be roundly condemned” and adding that “the deliberate creation of persistent space-debris in a highly-used orbit is simply unacceptable behavior in space.” The CDI also noted that “some observers have suggested that the ASAT [anti-satellite] test could have been a strategic move by the Chinese to bully the United States into actually discussing such a [Chinese-desired outer space disarmament] treaty.” The CDI went on to warn that: “The United States and the international community need to take the time to finally have the difficult discussion about what actions are acceptable in space, and, more importantly, which ones are absolutely unacceptable.” If no country took China to task, the think tank said, “space will become the new Wild West; a situation … guaranteed to put everyone’s space assets even more at risk.”
Shortly after China’s action was reported last year, China confirmed to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva that it had indeed conducted an anti-satellite test in outer space. China’s disarmament ambassador to the CD, Cheng Jingye told diplomats that, “as everybody was aware,” China had long been advocating for the launch of talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Ambassador Cheng, who was speaking at the 2007 CD session’s second meeting, also noted that China and the Russian Federation had already submitted to the Conference some suggested points to be included in a draft treaty that they want to begin to negotiate. Such a treaty would be aimed at banning the deployment of weapons in outer space, as well as preventing the use, or threat of use, of weapons against space objects.
The U.S. is the chief objector — and it has the usual support from its friends.
China in particular has been very put out that the U.S. will not agree — the U.S. says, among other things, that the 1972 Outer Space Treaty is perfectly adequate, and that there is no arms race in outer space. China believes that the U.S. does indeed have a space weaponization program, which grew out of the Reagan Star Wars semi-bluff, and which involves the use of satellites in at least targetting and guiding missiles and other weapons.
In January 2007 China shocked the world by successfully shooting down one of its own weather satellites with a ground-launched missile, in a not-too-subtle demonstration of the clear need to negotiate some new rules.
Russia has surprised everybody by sticking with China on this, and Russia now has its own issues with the U.S., related to the stated U.S. intention to deploy part of its “missile shield” in eastern European countries bordering Russia. The two countries have recently submitted a slightly revised proposal that they hope will permit the launch of negotiations.
One way out of this antagonism would be for the U.S. to agree to the start of PAROS talks in Geneva — what is the harm in talking??? China does not want just talks, of course, it wants an eventual treaty — but what’s the harm of another treaty??? China says it has been willing to make concessions, and to accept the start of talks on a Fissile Material cut-off (at least, of production — no one is talking yet about eliminating stockpiles), which is the U.S. top disarmament priority, so long as the U.S. will also recognize and move on China’s top priority, which is PAROS.
Russia and China would view the U.S. as less controlling (and deceptive) and more open and cooperative, if only it would agree to the space talks.
The problems related to this falling U.S. satellite offer the U.S. a way to make this concession that they have fought for years — which will unblock the disarmament stalemate, and defuse the tensions between the world’s major nuclear powers.