Limits of the Chinese Antisatellite Threat to the United States

Publication Date: 
December 2014
Strategic Studies Quarterly, Vol. 8, No.4
Re-evaluating Space Security
The Reconsidering the Rules for Space Project
The argument that US armed forces are critically dependent on satellites and therefore extremely vulnerable to disruption from Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) attacks is not rooted in evidence. It rests on untested assumptions—primarily, that China would find attacking US military satellites operationally feasible and desirable. This article rejects those assumptions by critically examining the challenges involved in executing an ASAT attack versus the limited potential benefits such action would yield for China. While some US satellites are vulnerable, the limited reach of China’s ballistic missiles and inadequate infrastructure make it infeasible for China to mount extensive ASAT operations necessary to substantially affect US capabilities. Even if China could execute a very complex, difficult ASAT operation, the benefits do not confer decisive military advantage. To dissuade China and demonstrate US resilience against ASAT attacks, the United States must employ technical innovations including space situational awareness, shielding, avoidance, and redundancies. Any coherent plan to dissuade and deter China from employing an ASAT attack must also include negotiations and arms control agreements. While it may not be politically possible to address all Chinese concerns, engaging and addressing some of them is the sensible way to build a stable and cooperative regime in space.