The U.S. Starting Asia Space War? Please…

Posted: August 6, 2010 in China, David Axe, EU, National Space Policy, Russia, Space Policy, Space Surveillance, The Diplomat, U.S. Space Policy, X-37
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A groan-inducing article at The Diplomat asks the intentionally provocative question ‘Is the U.S. Starting an Asian Space Race?”

The answer, although you would never gather it from the article’s tone and presentation, is a resounding ‘no.’

The article uses the X-37, the re-usable space platform that looks like a quarter-scale space shuttle and launched earlier in the year, as a springboard to ominously suggest that such “ambiguous” U.S. space activities may “pose a strategic risk.”

Err…strategic risk of what?  Why of “an escalation of the space race with China,” of course.

At this point, it would have been useful to define what a space race is (since the author asserts we’re already in one) and to tell us what specific events are characterizing this space race.  Such clarification is conspicuously missing and as it takes two to tango, it takes two (or more) to race.  The U.S. may have been space-racing with the USSR in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, but the United States is f-a-r from participating in a space race today.  Want evidence?  We’re using the Russian’s to get rides to the space station.

Because the Air Force hasn’t clearly commented on exactly what the X-37 is doing in space (other than the typical stuff about ‘no offensive capabilities, testing, experiments, and demonstrating new technologies’), some people’s imaginations have run wild about what it might do, even as the vehicle’s limitations are significant.  For example, its payload bay is about the size of a pickup truck bed.

There’s also an assertion that “tensions are exacerbated by the world’s limited ability to monitor US space activities.”  Well, let’s unpack that as well.

Not only is it unclear what tensions we’re talking about, but you can’t help but be a bit wobbly about who ‘the world’ is (China and Russia?  Australia and New Zealand?  NATO?  The EU?  Japan and South Korea?).  Along the way, the article manages to ignore the fact that all it takes to build such monitoring capabilities is time and money.  So, ‘world,’ are you going to invest in space monitoring yourself to reduce such tensions…or not?

If space monitoring was that important to ‘the world,’ you would expect to see lots of movement towards building such a capability.  Instead, we have seen China, the EU, and Russia working expensive space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems in the form of Compass, Galileo, and Glonass respectively.  How about the same actors and remote sensing?  Yup.  Communications?  Check.  Spy satellites?  Tally ho (except the EU).  Space monitoring?  Very little.

The article proposes the X-37 could “be used to spy on and even disable other nations’ satellites, all without them necessarily knowing that it’s even happening.”

Well, spying on someone without them knowing about it is…kind of the whole point of spying isn’t it (or is it me?).

Even if the X-37 is spying on other satellites–we really call it space surveillance and do it from the ground 24/7–such use of space is completely consistent with the just released national space policy.  The national space policy reaffirms fifty years of precedence that says information gathering from outer space is always in play.  Additionally, the ‘peaceful purpose’ principle of space use specifically allows space to be used for national security activities.

Dissimilarly, the idea that the X-37 might be used to disable another nation’s satellites is totally inconsistent with what the Air Force has declared.  Also, the national space policy states that purposeful interference with others’ space systems will be considered an infringement of a nation’s rights.  Ergo, one would expect that the X-37 will not (and almost certainly cannot, save for a really unlikely space Kamikaze mission) be used to disable other nations’ satellites.

Finally, it’s unclear why The Diplomat would run this article at this point in time.  After all, it missed the X-37’s launch (April), the new space policy (June), and the fact there is no ‘space race’ (ongoing).

  1. James Brinton says:

    This is typical of a lot of stuff coming out of Asia, mostly the PRC. If you read only English, you miss almost all of it. There is so much, and the arguments are so similar, that it is hard not to wonder whether this is a response orchestrated by the PRC. But why?

  2. David says:

    James – This magazine appears to be based in Japan so I don’t think that there’s anything being orchestrated by China there. It may surprise you to learn that Asia isn’t one single mass of anti-U.S. agreement.

    I’ve also just taken a look at this website and there are a number of articles from U.S. commentators that take quite a tough line on China, so they’re not doing a very good job of propaganda if that’s what it is.

  3. […] For example, how about this from a recent article written (which was on addressed in this post): […]

  4. […] The X-37 space plane, formerly funded by NASA and now funded by the Air Force.  The X-37 is has also been accused of starting a space arms race. […]

  5. […] Is the X-37 a weapon?  No. Will it start a space war?  Get serious. […]

  6. […] Check it out the pap smack-down here. […]

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