An X-37B in its launch canister. Boeing photo

Did America Start a Robot Space War?

Mysterious orbital craft alarms U.S. rivals

It was a space launch to change the world. On January 11, 2007, a solid-fuel rocket lifted off from Xichang Space Center in central China, a non-explosive ‘kill vehicle’ fitted to its tip. Five hundred miles above the earth, the now-separated kill vehicle struck an eight-year-old Chinese weather satellite, pulverizing it and leaving behind a cloud of some 1,000 large pieces of debris.

The unannounced Chinese launch was the first full-scale test of an anti-satellite system since the U.S. Air Force’s 1985 demonstration of a satellite-killing missile launched by an F-15 fighter. And the global response to China’s move was swift and vociferous, with Australia, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States condemning the intercept.

“China’s development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area,” said Gordon Johndroe from the U.S. National Security Council at the time.

A year later, the launch reverberated in the most important U.S. election in a generation, when presidential candidate Barack Obama made opposition to such weaponry part of his platform. “Obama opposes the stationing of weapons in space and the development of anti-satellite weapons,” his campaign asserted. “He believes the United States must show leadership by engaging other nations in discussions of how best to stop the slow slide towards a new battlefield.”

Yet just two years into the Obama presidency it was clear that these noble sentiments weren’t being matched by U.S. deeds.

On April 22, 2010, the U.S. Air Force launched into orbit the world’s most sophisticated robotic spacecraft, one whose design counters China’s anti-satellite capability — and goes a step further. The X-37B, built by Boeing, could also be used to spy on and even disable other nations’ satellites, all without them necessarily knowing that it’s even happening.

By the summer of 2013 the two X-37s have boosted into orbit on a total of three occasions. The first flight lasted 224 days — the second, 469 days. As of mid-June, the third flight is ongoing. With the X-37, the U.S. has raised the stakes in the phase of the space race that China began in 2007.

The second X-37B returns from orbit. Air Force photo

Space inspector

The multibillion-dollar X-37, in development since the mid-1990s, is a re-usable, unmanned spacecraft that enters orbit atop a standard Air Force heavy rocket and re-enters the atmosphere as a glider. The new craft is similar in layout to the (now-retired) manned Space Shuttle but only quarter the size — just 30 feet from tip to tail.

“The primary objectives of the X-37 is [testing] a new batch of re-usable technologies for America’s future, plus learning and demonstrating the concept of operations for re-usable experimental payloads,” Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, told the media in April 2010. “Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit. They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works, then bring it all back home and inspect it to see what was really going on in space. So this is a new way for the Air Force to conduct experiments and we’re really excited about that.”

But what those payloads and experiments might be, the Air Force isn’t saying. It’s possible that the X-37 represents a powerful military capability. It’s equally possible that the new spacecraft’s missions are strictly peaceful in nature. Either way, the ambiguity itself could pose a strategic risk.

“The smoke probably exceeds the fire,” says Eric Sterner, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Marshall Institute, adding that the X-37 is mostly likely intended to test ways of placing satellites into orbit more quickly and cheaply than is possible with the current generation of rockets and, until its 2011 retirement, the Space Shuttle.

This goal of an “operationally responsive space” capability is mostly a reaction to the rising cost of satellites and rockets. In other words — strictly peaceful. But it could also represent a countermeasure to China’s new anti-satellite system. For every U.S. satellite Beijing might destroy in a future conflict, Washington could quickly loft a replacement into orbit.

What’s more, the X-37 could, in theory, be “weaponized.” “You open the payload bay, you can have in it anything you want, like a hard-point on an aircraft,” Sterner says. “You can put sensors in there, satellites in there. You could stick munitions in there, provided they exist.”

The Pentagon has studied techniques for dropping non-nuclear bombs from space, but has never admitted to formally developing such orbital weaponry. The United States is a founding member of the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and is a signatory to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty banning orbital nuclear weapons.

With current technology, the X-37 “has near zero feasibility as an orbital weapons system for attacking targets on the ground,” Brian Weeden, technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation, wrote in a briefing on the subject. The craft’s payload bay is too small for carrying a useful space-launched weapon, and the vehicle moves too slowly to perform bombing runs while re-entering the atmosphere, Weeden claimed.

But the X-37 could be used to sneak up on and probe — or even capture or destroy — satellites belonging to other countries. This “inspection” capability, more than any potential weaponization, worries nations such as India, China and Russia. Beijing, in particular, has urged the U.S. not to field vehicles capable of satellite inspection. With the X-37, the U.S. defied those requests.

“The U.S. previously said that it would slow down the pace of developing the space plane project,” said Zhai Dequan, an official from China’s Arms Control and Disarmament Association. “But now with the [X-37] launch, it shows the U.S. has never really slowed down.”

Thirty years ago, the debut of the Space Shuttle stoked similar concerns in the Soviet Union. “When the Shuttle went up, the Soviets thought it could be a platform to go up and capture Soviet satellites,” says Weeden. “That was a serious thing. They [the Soviets] developed their own version of the Shuttle, the Buran, to go and do that.”

The Buran shuttle program ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. And as it turned out, the Space Shuttle — a so-called dual-use vehicle with military and civilian applications — spent most of its time on apparently peaceful missions.

Today, though, tensions are exacerbated by the world’s limited ability to monitor U.S. space activities. While the United States has extensive technology for tracking foreign spacecraft, other countries are mostly blind, despite China’s dramatic anti-satellite test. “When another state, say Russia or China, uses their dual-use technology, the U.S. has the ability to determine that that was not a hostile act,” Weeden says. “But when the U.S. does it, in most cases no one else has information to independently verify what’s going on. That creates a problem.”

The X-37B. Air Force photo

Semantic cover

Regardless of the Air Force’s intentions regarding the X-37, the fact remains that its capabilities represent an escalation of the space race with China. The Obama campaign platform ironically described the operationally-responsive space system as a stabilizing influence. ‘Recognizing their vulnerability, Obama will work to protect our assets in space by pursuing new technologies and capabilities that allow us to avoid attacks and recover from them quickly.’

“The United States is committed to addressing the challenges of responsible behavior in space,” the platform continued, “and commits further to a pledge of cooperation, in the belief that with strengthened international cooperation and reinvigorated U.S. leadership, all nations will find their horizons broadened, their knowledge enhanced, and their lives greatly improved.”

The X-37 protects U.S. space architecture, thus preserving American leadership in space to the benefit of the whole world — or so the Obama administration’s reasoning seems to go. That might be true, were the X-37 only capable of replacing lost satellites. But in the absence of greater transparency on Washington’s part, the X-37's ability to also compromise other nations’ orbital systems actually undermines U.S. leadership. “If I’m Russia, China and less so India, I see the U.S. moving into a next-generation space capability,” Sterner says. “I’m going to be a little bit worried about the relative balance of power changing.”

To prevent the X-37 from further escalating the space race, the U.S. should share monitoring technology with the world — and China in particular, Weeden says. “That’s something that could help with this. You increase the amount of information about what’s going on in space. The tricky part, of course, is doing that while still protecting the pieces of that data that are essential to national security. It can be done, but it takes a fine balance.”

Such “balanced” collaboration would amount to a reversal of the current U.S. policy of deliberate ambiguity regarding the X-37. Realistically, this might require a commensurate show of faith on China’s part. After all, the Chinese anti-satellite test preceded the X-37’s launch and underscored the military utility of the new U.S. craft.

For Washington to commit to keeping its hands off other countries’ satellites and keeping weapons out of space, Beijing just might have to do the same.

Originally published by The Diplomat.