WASHINGTON – Experts addressed the growing risks to U.S. military operations posed by weapons designed to destroy satellites during a roundtable at the Atlantic Council on Monday.
Three leading researchers discussed emerging space issues, including how space should be governed and how conflicts can be avoided. The panel convened at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, on the ninth anniversary of China’s first anti-satellite test, which created one-sixth of space debris that can be tracked by radar, according to Mallory Stewart of the State Department.
“Space is a commons in the sense that the high seas is a commons. It’s this environment that everyone wants to be able to use, but there are all sorts of threats and dangers out there,” said Nancy Gallagher, senior research scholar at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.
So far, no country has permanently deployed space weapons, according to Theresa Hitchens, also a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. Hitchens said, though, that, “offense is easier than defense in space,” making countries more likely to launch weapons in a conflict.
“There aren’t a lot of levers for de–escalation,” she said.
U.S. military satellites – there are 152, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists – supplement ground operations with functions such as surveillance and early detection of missile launches. If an adversary were to hit one of these with a ballistic missile or other technology, some experts worry that the U.S. response could lead to a nuclear exchange.
Although Gallagher acknowledges the threat of escalation, she said that no country would ever see a benefit in destroying U.S. satellites, especially in the small numbers allowed by current technologies.
“Just because countries have capabilities to do things, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to do them,” she said.
In addition, Guarav Kampani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said that the loss of one or two satellites would not necessarily prompt military action by U.S. leaders, as they could be supplemented by ground radar.
Kampani focused on Chinese anti–satellite tests, calling them “part of a broader strategy to contest U.S. command of the commons.”
According to a 2013 report from the Stimson Center, China conducted six anti-satellite tests between 2005 and 2013, while the United States only performed one. In addition, the Defense Department’s2015 Annual Report to Congress stated, “China continues to develop a variety of capabilities designed to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict, including the development of directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers.”
However, Kampani questioned the peril of China’s efforts, saying that country poses less of a threat today than did the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.
“I don’t see the link to inadvertent nuclear escalation,” he said.