Russian and Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Plans in Space


Back to table of contents
Pavel Podvig and Hui Zhang
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

In recent years, Russia and China have urged the negotiation of an international treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space. The United States has responded by insisting that existing treaties and rules governing the use of space are sufficient. The standoff has produced a six-year deadlock in Geneva at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, but the parties have not been inactive. Russia and China have much to lose if the United States were to pursue the programs laid out in its planning documents. This makes probable the eventual formulation of responses that are adverse to a broad range of U.S. interests in space. The Chinese anti-satellite test in January 2007 was prelude to an unfolding drama in which the main act is still subject to revision. If the United States continues to pursue the weaponization of space, how will China and Russia respond, and what will the broader implications for international security be?

The American Academy called upon two scholars to further elucidate answers to these questions and to discuss the consequences of U.S. military plans for space. Pavel Podvig, a research associate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and former researcher at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, discusses possible Russian responses, given their current capabilities and strategic outlook. Hui Zhang, a research associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, considers Chinese responses.

Each scholar suggests that introducing weapons into space will have negative consequences for nuclear proliferation and international security. As Podvig points out, Russia’s main concern is likely to be maintaining strategic parity with the United States. This parity will be destroyed by the deployment of weapons in space, making a response from Russia likely. Podvig writes, “Russia does not have many options for the development of its own weapon systems in space or for its reaction to the development of this capability by other countries. . . . However, this does not mean that there will be no reaction.” He suggests that Russia will be more likely to undertake other countermeasures such as extending the life of its ballistic missiles, measures that are “the most significant and dangerous global effects of new military developments, whether missile defense or space-based weapons.”

Zhang arrives at similar conclusions. He describes how U.S. plans will negatively affect peaceful uses of outer space, disrupting current civilian and commercial initiatives, but focuses on a much greater concern among Chinese officials—that actions by the United States in space will result in a loss of strategic nuclear parity. China’s options for response, as detailed by Zhang, include building more ICBMs, adopting countermeasures against missile defense, developing ASAT weapons, and reconsidering China’s commitments on arms control. Thus introducing weapons into space would destabilize the already vulnerable international nonproliferation regime. Zhang concludes, “U.S. space weaponization plans would have potentially disastrous effects on international security and the peaceful use of outer space. This would not benefit any country’s security interests.”

These papers are part of the American Academy’s “Reconsidering the Rules of Space” project. The project examines the implications of U.S. policy in space from a variety of perspectives, and considers the international rules and principles needed for protecting a long-term balance of commercial, military, and scientific activities in space. The project is producing a series of papers, intended to inform public discussion of legitimate uses of space, and induce a further examination of U.S. official plans and policies in space. Other papers consider the physical laws governing the pursuit of security in space (spring 2005), challenges posed to the United States space program by current policies (spring 2005), and the possible elements of a more comprehensive space security system (forthcoming).

In May 2002, the American Academy convened a workshop on Chinese Perceptions of U.S. Space Plans to support Hui Zhang’s work on his essay. Pavel Podvig’s essay was reviewed at a workshop at the University of Maryland in January 2005. We join the authors in thanking the participants in these workshops for their participation and insights.

We also thank five anonymous reviewers for their comments on the papers. We acknowledge the excellent work of Helen Curry, Phyllis Bendell, and Anne Read in producing this report. We are, most of all, grateful to the authors for applying their knowledge and experience to these important issues.

The Rules of Space project is supported by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. We thank the Carnegie Corporation for its support and Patricia Nicholas for her assistance.

John Steinbruner
University of Maryland

Carl Kaysen
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Martin Malin
American Academy of Arts and Sciences