The U.K. Telegraph has an alarming–if slightly inaccurate–report on China’s efforts to disable U.S. spy satellites. According to the paper, China has test-fired powerful lasers which could blind our electro-optical surveillance satellites, operating in low earth orbit (LEO). The paper seems to insinuate that Beijing has actually fired lasers at our EO satellites, which would be considered an act of war. Telegraph reporter Francis Harris also claims the Bush Administration has kept the attacks secret, to keep China engaged on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Perhaps I’m being overly skeptical, but I don’t think that any administration would tolerate attacks against key intelligence platforms, regardless of over-arching diplomatic concerns. Beyond that, it’s difficult to believe that any regime–particularly one that carefully calibrates major diplomatic and military moves–would approve such a provocative step, particularly in peacetime.
Make no mistake; China has a very active counter-space program that has grown dramatically over the past decade, and much of that effort is aimed at the United States. Beijing understands that we rely on space for a number of military and commercial functions; simply stated, without access to the “high frontier,” our armed forces and economy would suffer almost irreparable harm. In a regional or global conflict, Beijing would make a serious effort to deny our access to space and space-based platforms. But short of war, there are other vehicles for demonstrating counter-space capabilities, without launching an actual attack. That would be a more sensible option, and the most likely one that Beijing would follow.
Still, the Telegraph article outlines a serious and growing threat to U.S. interests. Defense of space must become a higher priority for this administration (and the one that follows). Otherwise, we may (in a few short years), find ourselves with a true “peer competitor” in the space arena–an adversary with the potential to disrupt an deny our use of that realm, and few options for preventing it.
P.S.–These developments underscore the absolute folly of the decision to cancel our successful ASAT program in the mid-1980s. That effort was built around a three-stage missile, launched by a USAF F-15 in a steep climb. The missile was successfully tested in 1985, but the program was later abandoned following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and before the advent of China’s counter-space efforts.