A daily bulletin of news & opinion

13 November 2009

Earth-orbiting weapons that promise to make space the battlefield of the future. A top-secret military base in the mountains where Chinese technicians are building laser beams designed to render western satellites ineffective.

It might sound like an early draft of Moonraker, but the reality is less appealing even than that. The militarisation of space – something long feared by governments the world over – has just come a step closer following the assertion of General Xu Qiliang, one of the Chinese air force’s most senior commanders, that space weapons are now an “inevitability”. Speaking to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) own news outlet last week, General Xu said that China “must build an outer space force that conforms with the needs of our nation’s development”. A new Great Wall hundreds of miles up is apparently becoming one of those needs.

Beijing has previously opposed this garrisoning of space and, along with Russia, recently proposed a new international accord on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space in a bid to peg back the once-pioneering Americans. Since then the Chinese leadership has clearly had a rethink. With the US left so ill by last year’s spillage of toxic debt as to make any ambitious new space programme politically, if not financially, unthinkable, China may have calculated that the military space race might now be one that it can actually win.

The idea of Chinese space battalions patrolling Earth’s upper atmosphere may be truly bizarre but, as Beijing knows, the prize is an invaluable and increasingly contested environment on which the 21st-century world wholly depends. Nowadays, we all rely on satellites to communicate, and while our armies might be able to land a bomb between an Afghan militant’s eyes, the technology has an Achilles heel: chances are, it needs a satellite for guidance. As such, developing the means to threaten other nations’ satellites while protecting your own could soon be warfare’s next top attraction.

China already has the ability to destroy satellites using ground-based missiles, as do other countries – and it made sure we all knew this in 2007 when it blew up one of its own, defunct satellites (the material legacy of this geopolitical show-and-tell being the millions of tiny bits of metal littering our ionosphere).

The Chinese also have other ways of neutralising western space assets – one of which may just have been identified, neatly enough, by satellite imagery. A PLA base in Xinjiang’s Tianshan mountains is host – according to some analysts who have seen the images – to a high-powered anti-sat laser, which would be used to “unsight” enemy surveillance systems (this is the cutting-edge military equivalent of blinding your teacher with a watch on a sunny day). Whether or not the Xinjiang base houses such a weapon, China is widely believed to have several of these sites from which it can potentially zap satellites trying to peer down on its territory.

China’s growing interest in space weapons cannot but fill the rest of us with dread – not only because it could threaten our security but also because, if the Chinese do go there, we will be forced to hop onto our end of the military seesaw to keep things in balance. The net result will be two armies of war-satellites, which, having sucked up billions of development dollars, will stare at one another across space’s noiseless no-man’s-land – and almost certainly never be used.

We can only hope that when it comes down to it General Xu and his air force have better things to spend their money on.


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