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Analysis: The Final Frontier for Weapons

Council on Foreign Relations

February 22, 2007
Prepared by: Carin Zissis

China’s decision in January to blast one of its own aging weather satellites out of orbit using a ballistic missile drew global criticism. The explosion left large amounts of dangerous debris in orbit (Defense News) that could damage any of more than three hundred other satellites in orbit, and raised doubts over China’s claims that it plans a “peaceful rise” (Times of London). But the chief concern was that the blast could lead to a space arms race.

Several nations already use space for military purposes, including satellites for intelligence gathering and positioning military attacks. But experts say a difference exists between militarization and weaponization, as defined in this essay from the journal Astropolitics. While militarization is a fact of life in space, weaponization, involving major deployment of weapon systems designed for space warfare, has not. More than two decades before China’s anti-satellite test, the United States and the Soviet Union proved they had the same capabilities with their own tests, but none of the three has deployed weapons for large scale anti-satellite attacks.

Though Beijing remains years behind the Washington in terms of space technology, the January test showed Beijing could strike at the fragile surveillance infrastructure of America’s military might by attacking the satellites the United States depends on for surveillance and precision-guided weaponry. In a recent talk at the Heritage Foundation, Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) called China’s anti-satellite test “a wake-up call” and warned against “a flagging enthusiasm for space security” in the United States.

The White House has long shown interest in a more aggressive space policy, even well before the January test.

Read the rest of this article on the cfr.org website.

Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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