SPACE WARFARE may be a staple of science fiction, but almost no one in the real world thinks it's a good idea. That's why China's destruction this month of a moribund weather satellite is so alarming: It was the first time in more than 20 years that a ground-fired missile was used against a satellite.
Yet a ban on all weapons in space that could be enforced, while desirable, may be as utopian as some science fiction scenarios. Official U.S. space policy instructs the Pentagon "to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries." The Chinese test, as well as other technological developments, suggest that a rethinking of this position is in order.
Some of the issues are easy. Space junk of the sort generated by the Chinese test now poses a danger to satellites from many nations. Whole orbital zones may become unusable in a decade -- at great cost to science and commerce. The world should make more of an effort to reduce space debris. This could be done by amending the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans weapons of mass destruction from space and which most nations, including China and the United States, have joined. Like other anti-litter laws, such a rule might be flouted, but it would at least set a standard for the need for good orbital hygiene. The space treaty's weak provisions against damaging others' satellites should be toughened with the addition of real enforcement mechanisms.
More thorny is whether new ways can be found to prohibit testing and development of anti-satellite systems without fatally compromising the ability to use anti-ballistic missile systems, which operate at altitudes of a few hundred miles. In the 1980s, arms control discussions foundered on disagreements about whether to ban only space-based weapons and ignore ground-based ones that could knock out objects in space. Because the United States had a technological advantage, it could afford to refuse to negotiate.
Now, U.S. government and commercial interests own 53% of the 845 satellites circling the Earth. Many more nations have or soon may have the technology to help put up such satellites or to knock them down. It is in the U.S. interest to work to keep space clean and safe. It will be difficult to design, negotiate, verify and enforce international agreements that both protect U.S. and global security concerns and prevent the weaponization of space. But the Chinese test demonstrates the futility -- and danger -- of refusing to try.