Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Sunday, January 21, 2007

China anti-satellite capability and nuclear deterrence

There seems to be quite a bit of confusion over the recent demonstration of Chinese anti-satellite capability using medium range ballistic missiles. It's certainly true that this capability raises tremendous headaches for US military planners, who have become reliant on GPS and satellite intel for precision strikes and use of advanced weaponry. In any conflict over Taiwan, the US now has to factor in what might happen to its satellites. Certainly, it would have been in US interests to negotiate a treaty on anti-satellite weapons before the Chinese had a chance to test their capabilities.

But there's another aspect to this issue which I've not seen discussed. Because China's arsenal of ICBMs is quite limited (their longest range missiles are still liquid fueled, perhaps numbering less than 20, and their submarine-launch capabilities remain limited), any US missile defense system is a potential threat to Chinese nuclear deterrence. The US has continued to spend billions on a Star Wars program, ostensibly motivated by N. Korea, but such a system impacts the Chinese as well. The planning scenario for PLA strategists goes like this: (1) US first strike against Chinese ICBMs causes significant losses, (2) US missile defense system may be sufficient to stop a second strike consisting of only a handful of ICBMs. The Chinese anti-satellite capability helps guarantee their second-strike capability. They certainly have enough medium range missiles to do serious damage to the US spy satellite infrastructure, perhaps enough to disable any missile defense system.

Most scientists will tell you that the current US system is far from capable of (2), and that the whole thing is essentially military welfare for defense contractors and the aerospace industry, but nevertheless foreign strategists have to take the system seriously -- just as the Soviets took Reagan's original Star Wars efforts seriously. So, Chinese planners need to make sure they have a counter-counter measure against our missile defense system.

Incidentally, those credulous folk who believe the proponents of the current anti-missile system might want to ask themselves how credible the Livermore/Star Warrior/Reaganites were 25 years ago when they claimed they could actually build something to defend against the entire Soviet arsenal. The current system is much more limited in scope -- meant to stop one or a handful of incoming missiles -- but still hasn't been convincingly tested. If the Star Warriors were exaggerating then, they're quite likely exaggerating now.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I didn't know China had developed anti-satellite weapons. And I was only peripherally aware that Star Wars was still going on -- they've kept it pretty quiet in recent years (then again, we've had plenty else going on to distract us).

The problem I have with the PLA scenario you outlined is that it includes the U.S. striking first, and in a big enough way to cause significant losses. I don't even want to think about what kind of situation we'd have to be in in order for a large U.S. first strike to be our best option.


steve said...

The US doesn't have to strike first -- just be in a position to *threaten* to strike first and be willing to deal with the consequences.

Ugly brinksmanship and bargaining over nuclear terror were a major motivation for game theory research in the 1950's...

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