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How Likely is a Space Arms Race?

The Pentagon's recent shoot down of a malfunctioning spy satellite and China's destruction of one of its own ailing satellites last year have raised concerns among some experts about a possible arms race in space.

Historically, space activities have been limited to scientific exploration, commercial and military communications and navigation as well as intelligence gathering and arms control verification. But many experts say space has become an integral part of military operations, particularly in the West. And with the recent destruction of ailing satellites by the United States and China, many observers worry that other nations might develop similar anti-satellite capabilities and use space for military purposes.

Theresa Hitchens, Director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, worries that this might be the beginning of a space arms race. "It is clear that both China and the United States, and quite likely several other countries, have been researching technologies that could be used for either ground-based anti-satellite weapons or space-based weapons of some sort. That's not to say anyone's necessarily on the verge of deploying something, but there certainly is research in both countries on things like lasers. Lasers can be used for tracking satellites, but they could also be used to hurt satellites," says Hitchens. "So there has been an up-tick in interest in this technology. What is not clear is whether the drivers will be strong enough to force nations to go all the way down that path [of developing anti-satellite capabilities]."

A New Kind of Space Race

The United States and the Soviet Union tested anti-satellite weapons in the 1980s. Hitchens says neither country pursued its program further due to high costs, technological difficulties and uncertainty about the drawbacks, particularly the possibility of accidentally starting a conflict. The importance of space has grown in recent years, with much of the world's communications now dependent on satellites.

Speaking at a recent forum at the Independent Institute in Washington, Peter Hays, a senior analyst with the U.S. National Security Space Office, noted that military targeting and navigation have become increasingly dependent on space since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "In Iraq and Afghanistan, during those operations, we have almost a complete flip-flop between unguided and guided munitions. In 1991, only seven percent of the munitions expended from the air were from precision-guided kits," says Hays. "In 1999, we had the NATO air campaign over Kosovo and Serbia. In this case, there was a pretty large increase in the amount of precision-guided munitions used by the NATO forces in this conflict. We saw the first use of the Joint Direct Attack Munition, which is a GPS-guided kit that fits onto conventional bombs. By 2003, the percentage was 70 percent."

The integration of space-based capabilities with traditional warfare enables long-range precision bombing, often reducing the number of troops needed on the ground.

Also speaking at the Independent Institute was Jeff Kueter, President of the Washington-based George C. Marshal Institute, a science and public policy research group. He says this kind of integration is a new phenomenon in the way space is utilized. "The use of space [assets such as satellites] in the Cold War period was for crisis stability purposes [i.e., for arms control verification, for example]. But for today," says Kueter, "they are targets because those capabilities, if they are targeted, if they are destroyed, could gain an attacker a real advantage, whether in the short-term or the long-term, depending on the size of the operation. That's fundamentally a different environment that we are operating in. And that recognition has to guide our discussions about arms control."

A Ripple Effect

Many analysts argue that the stakes are higher in a nuclear arms race because of its potential to lead to a nuclear war. Nancy Gallagher of the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies says many people assume the effects of an attack on a satellite would be limited to space. But she says satellites can be easily disabled through jamming and attacks on ground stations, which can devastate global navigation and communications.

"There's another level of attack, where if you have the capability to launch a short-range ballistic missile, you could, at least in theory, put junk up in lower orbit. You wouldn't be able to target a specific satellite necessarily. But you would still interfere with the use of space," says Gallagher. "If you start thinking about how dependent people around the world are on satellites and especially what would happen if you started having destructive anti-satellite attacks generating a lot of debris that made the lower orbit of space unusable, that could have extremely far-reaching consequences."

China's destruction of its ailing weather satellite last year left a huge amount of debris orbiting the earth. Given that debris could easily destroy other satellites, many analysts worry that, in the absence of regulation governing the use of space, a new arms race could render space unusable.

"When the Chinese blew up their satellite - - it was a small satellite, a one-ton satellite - - they created two-thousand-six-hundred pieces of space debris that we know about, bigger than the size of a baseball. The estimates are that they created 150-thousand pieces of space debris down to the size of a marble that we can't see," says Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information. "Most communications satellites and military satellites are ten tons and more. And if one of those were smashed, it would create an enormous amount of space debris. And so in a shooting war in space, you can very quickly get to the place where you would actually make it impossible for satellites to be in that orbit. And that would be really a horrible thing for mankind."

What worries Hitchens is regional competition. She says China's anti-satellite capability, for example, could spur a nation like India to develop a similar program. Pakistan, in turn, might feel compelled to emulate India and that, says Hitchens, could lead Iran and possibly other countries, to do the same.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.