Report - American Academy of Arts & Sciences

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

| March 2008

A Report of the Reconsidering the Rules of Space Project

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 space weapons programs laid out in its military 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 Pavel Podvig (Stanford University) and Hui Zhang (Harvard University) to elucidate answers to these questions and to discuss the consequences of U.S. military plans for space. 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 suggests that Russia does not have many options for the development of its own weapon systems in space but is likely to react to U.S. development of space weapons through other countermeasures, such as extending the life of its ballistic missiles. Podvig describes such measures as "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. military plans for space will negatively affect peaceful uses of outer space, disrupting civilian and commercial initiatives, but he focuses his discussion 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, a U.S. decision to introduce 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."

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Podvig, Pavel and Hui Zhang. “Russian and Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Plans in Space.” American Academy of Arts & Sciences, March 2008.