A means of modern warfare the world had complacently come to see as at least informally off the table is now very firmly back on it – or, rather, scattered as metallic debris across miles of outer space.
China, in an alarming exhibition of its military muscle, has fired a ground-based ballistic missile into space to destroy one of its own weather satellites, hitting a 4 sq ft box at 530 miles and bringing to a dramatic end a two decades-long moratorium on the testing of weapons in space. Good shooting, yes, but is it good politics?
This experiment has drawn widespread condemnation. The US clearly sees it as part of an effort by China to develop anti-satellite capability that could threaten its extensive space assets. The Chinese test may or may not lead to a new arms race in space. But it will certainly strengthen the hand of hawks in Washington who regard Chinese power as a strategic threat to the US. Yet there is a long history behind this incident – and the leadership in Beijing is not known for foolhardy or precipitate action.
The last extensive use of anti-satellite weapons was by the US and former Soviet Union in the 1980s. The cold war slowly raged, heated up in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan with his Strategic Defence Initiative – the infamous Star Wars speech in which he announced plans to develop the capability to destroy missiles from space. Continued...