Scientific analysis is crucial to the future of arms control and particularly to discussions about the militarization of space. While the dual-use nature of space technology has long received attention, understanding of its technical parameters merits further attention for its policy implications. The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy hosted Liu Bintao, a graduate student at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Cui Maodong, a research assistant at the Center for Strategic Studies, China Academy of Engineering Physics; and Carnegie’s Lora Saalman for a discussion on space debris, ballistic missile defense, and the impact of U.S. space pursuits on China and Russia, in the second of its series entitled Arms Control’s Future (ACF).

The History of Militarization and Space Debris

Liu called for new international regulations that—while recognizing the long-standing use of space for military purposes—would discourage an arms race in space and decrease space debris. Space debris includes the upper stages of launch vehicles, satellite waste, failed satellites, operational fragments, and debris generated from accidents, Liu explained. This debris can be dangerous in its own right, particularly to shuttles and orbiting satellites. 

  • Militarization’s History: Liu examined the lengthy history of the use of space for military pursuits, including Germany’s early ballistic missile development during the Second World War and U.S.-Soviet space-related activities during the Cold War. He noted military satellites are currently used for reconnaissance, communications, guidance, and positioning.
  • Potential Impact: Military conflict in space would hurt a number of civilian applications and systems, including resource, oceanic, and meteorological satellites, Liu warned. The extremely slow disintegration or re-entry of space debris from such military conflict could prolong the damage of such incidents for tens to hundreds of years, he added.
  • Arms Control in Space: Several treaties, committees, and organizations have attempted, in an ad-hoc manner, to address the militarization of space. Liu cited the 1967 Treaty on Outer Space, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), as well as efforts at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). However, the stalemate at the CD demonstrates the inability of the current framework to meet the longer-term challenges posed by space weaponization and increased space debris.
  • Regulating Use of Space: To meet these challenges, Liu advocated international recognition of the ways in which military use of space already occurs and limits on such militarization to certain activities, such as navigation, positioning, intelligence gathering, communication links, and even the transit of ballistic missiles through space. To limit expansion beyond such activities, Liu advocated establishing the "Limited Military Action in Space and Arms Control Regulations,” which would restrict the deployment of offensive weapons in space, particularly those weapons that produce large amounts of space debris.
  • Cooperation: While Saalman suggested that China and the United States could cooperate on eradicating space debris as a confidence building measure, one of the Chinese attendees noted that U.S. refusal to engage in high-technology trade and cooperation with China would be a major impediment to such an endeavor.

Ballistic Missile Defense

Cui offered a scientific evaluation of the debate in the United States over the effectiveness of ballistic missile defense.

  • Scientific Flaws: In the U.S. 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report, the U.S. Navy’s Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) was assessed as having an 84% probability of being able to intercept an incoming warhead. Cui noted, however, research conducted by scientists George Lewis and Theodore Postol revealed that the system hit the target warhead in only a few of the ten trials. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) refuted these findings, but Cui cited this discrepancy as demonstrating, at best, disagreement over what constitutes successful intercept standards and, at worst, a deliberate exaggeration of missile defense capabilities.
  • Dangers of Missile Defense: Saalman asked Cui if Lewis and Postol’s findings would affect China’s response to U.S. ballistic missile defense. He responded that China must be prepared for the potential success of the U.S. system. They discussed the dangers of both the missile defense system itself, which remains technologically flawed, as well as the potential danger resulting from the risk that the United States might engage in more provocative behavior in the international arena, based on its belief in the missile defense’s protection.

U.S. Space Technology, China, and Russia

Saalman explored both the political and technical feasibility of creating areas of cooperation and mutually agreed-upon restrictions to enhance confidence-building measures between the United States, China, and Russia on space technology.

  • New START Limits: The New START treaty between the United States and Russia would not limit U.S. pursuits of Prompt Global Strike and ballistic missile defense, according to the U.S. Department of State. Yet the document contains provisions that prevent runaway development of launchers and transporters for both conventional and strategic weapons. Saalman suggested such a cooperative framework could potentially serve as a model for similar confidence-building measures between China and the United States.
  • Missile Defense and ASAT: Saalman noted the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) detailed in the Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) is seen by a number of Chinese experts as a way to pursue the missile defense without ends, threatening the ability of other countries to deter the United States. The technological crossover among missiles, missile defense, and anti-satellite systems, including the difficulty of distinguishing between anti-satellite and ballistic missile defense capabilities also makes negotiating the technological clauses in outer space treaties more difficult.
  • Unilateral U.S. Limits: The United States has undertaken steps to reorient its own missile defense development, Saalman said, citing the decision not to deploy a radar station in the Czech Republic or ten ground-based interceptors in Poland. These self-imposed constraints on missile defense mean the United States poses less of a direct threat to Russia’s strategic arsenal. They also demonstrate that the United States is capable of undertaking the adjustments necessary to meet the concerns of other countries to build greater confidence.
  • U.S.-Russian Cooperation: The United States and Russia have already begun discussing a “framework,” under which both sides can engage in cooperative measures on future ballistic missile defense planning. This could include data sharing, and a joint radar system, among other measures, Saalman argued. Following a similar logic, Saalman stated that America can take steps to advance cooperation with China, such as issuing pledges not to target China, limiting missile defense cooperation with Japan, placing technical restrictions on the scope of regional missile defense, prohibiting the transfer of missile defense capabilities to Taiwan, and constraining U.S. intercept capabilities vis-à-vis China’s nuclear deterrent.
  • Bilateral U.S.-China Limits: Noting differences in the foundation for strategic relations between U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia, Saalman suggested several arenas for potential limits that could compliment the above cooperation between China and America. These include bilateral declarations and commitments on prohibiting the deployment or testing of space-based weapons, restrictions on the conversion of ballistic missile defense into anti-satellite systems, and a bilateral pledge behind closed doors on no-first-use. She suggested both countries can also participate in multilateral cooperation on eliminating space debris, pre-launch warnings, space traffic safety and management procedures, and the demarcation of “prohibited” regions within space.
  • U.S.-China Cooperation: Serious discussion between the United States and China on high-technology cooperation in space and constraints on ballistic missile defense is not yet politically accepted, Saalman admitted. Still, she argued that some of the breakthroughs in Russian-U.S. cooperation could nonetheless serve as potential avenues for future Sino-U.S. confidence building. She suggested cooperation on information sharing, space debris removal, space-based solar power, space navigation, and safe traffic management procedures as starting points. Noting the importance of Track 1.5 and Track 2 discussions and joint studies, Saalman also argued that until material cooperation and limits are feasible, a joint space policy dialogue and joint studies on the above areas could facilitate the process of mutual confidence building.