China's recent test of an anti-satellite system has ignited debate in Washington about how the United States should respond. The U.S. government has already indicated that it is reconsidering future civil space cooperation with China. Beijing's actions also have revived arguments about how far the U.S. military should be allowed to go in its use of space.
A driver plots a route through the streets of Washington, D.C., guided by the constellation of satellites in the Global Positioning System. It is just one illustration of America's growing dependence on space-based hardware.
At the administrative headquarters of the world's largest commercial satellite operator, Intelsat, there is concern about the space debris created by China's deliberate destruction of one of its own satellites.
Richard DalBello is Intelsat's vice president for government relations. "The space environment is a principal concern of ours,” he says. “It is a precious commodity. It is an irreplaceable commodity. It is where we have done business successfully for over 40 years and we hope to do it for many more multiples of that."
With the United States heavily reliant on satellites for civilian and military uses, there is wide concern in the U.S. about China's test.
Despite repeated Chinese statements to the contrary, some U.S. defense analysts say the test reflects China's determination to develop space weapons as a way to challenge U.S. military superiority.
Michael Pillsbury is a consultant to the Pentagon and the author of a recent report on China's intentions in space. "The Chinese have been writing for 10 years now about how, if they could blind another country in a crisis, they can win a war which otherwise their forces. their ships, tanks and planes, would be unable to win," says Pillsbury.
Another school of thought, while still condemning China, argues that the White House's refusal to negotiate a treaty banning space weapons is partly to blame.
Arms control advocates, such as Theresa Hitchens at the independent Center for Defense Information, are calling on the U.S. government to reconsider and to start talking. "At least at a minimum we ought to be discussing with other nations, including China, outlining what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are unacceptable in space. Certainly the deliberate creation of space debris, through weapons testing, is unacceptable behavior,” says Hitchens. “It threatens everyone."
President Bush updated U.S. policy last year by authorizing a new National Space Policy document. It says that the United States is "committed to the use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of all humanity." It also asserts America's right to use space for "defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests."
U.S. officials now want to get a clearer sense of Beijing's space plans. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called for greater openness from the Chinese.
"The bottom line is we encourage them to be more forthcoming and transparent with respect to not only this test but also their space programs,” he said from the State Department. “It has been a continuing topic for us, as well as others in the region, to encourage the Chinese to become more transparent in terms of their military spending and their military programs."
Without clarity from Beijing, U.S. government officials have briefed American lawmakers about the Chinese test in a closed-door session.
One senior senator believes that China's actions bolster his argument that the U.S. should pursue military capabilities in space. Jon Kyl of Arizona addressed the issue during a speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "If targeting an adversary's satellites allows our military to achieve victory more quickly or at a lower cost in blood, such attacks must be considered. The Chinese seem to understand this point much better than we do."
Since the Chinese test, that sort of hawkish argument is widely expected to receive increased attention on Capitol Hill and beyond.