300 N. Washington St.
Suite B-100
Alexandria, VA 22314

GlobalSecurity.org In the News

South China Morning Post October 13, 2003

US wary of a 'space Pearl Harbour'

Hawks see China's programme as a security nightmare that must be contained

By Ray Cheung

One cold January morning on the high plains of Colorado two years ago, officers of the US Space Warfare Centre at Schriever Air Force Base swung into action, mobilising military satellites.

They were responding to enemy nation "Red", which was massing forces to attack an island neighbour, "Brown", a state the US had sworn to protect. Within hours, Red had countered the US move by launching a series of cyber-attacks on American computers.

For five days, both sides slugged it out in space, using their arsenals of micro-satellites, lasers, manned space vehicles, ballistic missiles and missile defences.

But not a single shot was actually fired. This was just a drill, supposedly set in 2017. However, the nation and its neighbour were real. Red was China, while Brown was Taiwan.

With China conducting its first manned space flight this week, many US military planners believe the two sides are heading towards a clash. "While one of the strongest immediate motivations for this programme appears to be political prestige, China's manned space efforts almost certainly will contribute to improved military space systems in the 2010-2020 timeframe," the Pentagon's recently released 2003 report on the PLA says.

Some observers believe China's space programme is not about weather forecasting, scientific exploration or commercial communication, but aimed at preparing it for battle with the US.

The reason behind this logic is clear. Space is the Achilles heel of America's awesome firepower. Hundreds of US satellites orbiting Earth comprise the critical elements of the US military - command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or "C4ISR" in defence speak.

If China is to have a chance of defeating the vastly superior US military, space would be the ideal battleground.

"The Chinese believe the US is vulnerable because of our dependence on space systems," said Paul Godwin, a long-time PLA expert formerly with the National War College. "They believe if they can degrade our satellites, they can really hurt us."

The Pentagon report says China has sought or is seeking a massive arsenal of space weapons, including spy satellites, high-energy anti-satellite lasers and sophisticated radars which can track and jam satellite signals.

This projection has Washington's anti-China hawks up in arms. They see China's space programme as a security nightmare that must be confronted and contained.

Before his appointment as US defence secretary in January 2001, the hawkish Donald Rumsfeld warned the US could face "a space Pearl Harbour" attack and urged further development of space defences.

He did not mention the nation by name, but in previous reports China was identified as a potential instigator of such an attack.

Some US officials have been pushing for more advanced weapons and calling for economic and political measures to hold China's space development back.

That means no space-related co-operation between the US and China, including projects such as the International Space Station. The mainland has been left out of the 16-nation initiative as a result of US pressure.

Gary Schmitt, of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative Washington think-tank, said any US co-operation with China over space would lead to technology being transferred to the PLA.

"We should not give the Chinese a boost under the guise of peaceful co -operation," Mr Schmitt said. "It would be playing a fool's game."

US hawks also say Washington should not sign any deals on peace in space with Beijing. Along with Russia, the mainland has urged the US to sign up to a ban on space weapons. Larry Wortzel, vice-president of The Heritage Foundation, another conservative Washington think-tank, said any treaty banning weapons in space would merely slow down American progress on missile defence programmes and allow Chinese scientists to develop effective countermeasures.

"So long as communist China is a threat to the United States, American friends and allies, the US should do nothing that will assist China in becoming a more powerful military nation," he said. Those who favour engagement with the mainland see the militarisation of space as inevitable, regardless of what the US does.

"Perceiving the United States as a potential military threat, it will have no choice but to counter our strategy," PLA expert Paul Godwin said.

Others accuse the US hawks of overstating the threat that China poses to secure more funds for military space projects, which have been a declining priority since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

They pointed out that the Pentagon report was full of words such as "may" ,"believed to be" and "could".

"The US space hawks are using this communist China threat to get more money for their programmes. They believe you can never have too much superiority," said John Pike, a space analyst and director of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington-based think-tank.

Copyright 2003, South China Morning Post Ltd.