US Military Keeps Wary Eye On Asia's Space Race

In Asia's Space Race: National Motivations, Regional Rivalries, and International Risks, Naval Postgraduate School professor James Clay Moltz discusses the potential militarization of fast-growing space programs in China, India, and Japan—and why US military officials are keeping watch.

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JOE PALCA, HOST:

A couple of decades from now, if there's a party on the moon, it's not certain we'd be invited. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca. You might not - we might not even be able to get there. But China, India and Japan might be on the guest list because all three have sent missions to map the moon in recent years and have plans for lunar landers, rovers and bases, too.

South Korea and Malaysia aren't as far along, but they've put astronauts on the International Space Station. Why not just join up a sort of Asian space organization instead of sending three different rovers? It might be easier, not to mention cheaper, but that's not going to happen, according to my next guest, at least not for now, because regional rivalries are too strong, and so, too, is national pride.

Our space race with the Soviet Union ended peacefully, but can Asia's space-faring countries work together to avoid an escalation of the military use of space? Just one of the questions discussed in my guest's next - my next guest's book, "Asia's Space Race: National Motivations, Regional Rivalries, and International Risks." And let me introduce him. James Clay Moltz is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and he joins us today from the studios of KAZU in Monterey. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Moltz.

DR. JAMES CLAY MOLTZ: Thank you, glad to be here.

PALCA: So, I mean, I can kind of understand why countries want to go it alone. There is a lot of national pride to being, you know, the first someplace or having a base or getting into space. But why military? Why is that a concern?

MOLTZ: Well, it's certainly a concern, because these countries are ramping up their military budgets. In the past five years, we've seen an anti-satellite test by China. In 2007, we've seen India develop an integrated space cell to begin organizing its military to be active in space. And we've also seen Japan drop a restriction on military uses of space in 2008. Now they're allowed to use space for military purposes.

PALCA: Is there some reason that space is a more attractive place to carry out military excursions, if you want to say that?

MOLTZ: Well, certainly there are many benefits from conducting military space activities, particularly so-called military support activities. This, you know, the gathering of information from space, which we and the Russians and other countries have done for many years.

Obviously, we've also used the GPS system to help drive our ships, to locate troops, to navigate our missiles more effectively to their targets. All of these things have helped our military be more effective and also reduce casualties.

The other side of the equation, though, is the space weapons part, and this is where I think many are concerned that Asia is moving in a dangerous direction. Certainly Japan - or China's decision to destroy a satellite at 525 miles up created 3,000 pieces of large debris that now imperil all of our spacecraft and frankly all of their spacecraft, as well.

PALCA: We're talking with Clay Moltz, he's a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and if you want to join the discussion, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK.

So what I'm not clear about is why this military concern would be Asia versus Asia and not Asia versus the United States. I mean, Pakistan and India, of course, are quite - there's a lot of saber-rattling between those two. But otherwise, you don't seem to think of them, I guess South and North Korea, but I guess otherwise it doesn't seem like there's a military strategic need for this. Or is there?

MOLTZ: There's quite a bit of rivalry within Asia, and these are very deep-seated geopolitical rivalries. You know, think of China and India, China and Japan that still have lingering issues related to World War II, as you mentioned North and South Korea, Vietnam and China, even lesser rivalries such as Malaysia and Singapore.

These countries are competing with one another. They are watching one another, and frankly, many of them distrust one another. And what we're seeing in Asia today is in contrast to what has evolved in Europe over the past several decades, where the countries of Europe have decided to cooperate in the European Space Agency.

There's collaborative research. There's joint funding of projects. So they don't waste a lot of money duplicating scientific projects. They collaborate in sharing information, and they also have a view that security in space is best done collectively instead of through simple national military activities.

PALCA: So, I mean, what - are we at a turning point, so to speak? Is this a time when we need to - I mean, even if there's no global consensus on what to do about CO2 emissions, which we might hear about later today, why wouldn't - I mean, it seems sort of get nations to get together and agree that they don't want to use space for weapons? Or maybe I'm wrong about that, too.

MOLTZ: Sure, there I think has been a great reduction overall in tension in the last several decades, particularly since the end of the Cold War. I mean, you look at the relationship with Russia now in space. We collaborate very actively with Russia in human space flight. We also in fact use Russian RD-180 engines to launch our Atlas rockets that put some of our military payloads into orbit.

So we cooperate quite extensively. We see similar cooperation, as I mentioned, with Europe. In Asia, though, as these countries have accelerated their space programs, what we've seen is a lack of cooperation, particularly with one another. So we don't see the major powers in Asia cooperating with one another. They cooperated instead, with the major powers to acquire technology; and with lesser powers, to promote their own interests in exporting technologies.

PALCA: So is there - well, first of all, is there a military response that the U.S. is contemplating, that you know of, or - I mean, not a response in the sense of, you know, doing something proactive, but something that we can do to be prepared for this eventuality?

MOLTZ: Certainly the United States is watching these activities with concern, but as you've - if you've followed the U.S. national space policy, recently, in 2010, the emphasis on that space policy is on responsible behavior in space. So what the United States would like to see, I believe, is that these countries would begin to agree to norms of behavior such as debris mitigation, and they would begin to promote more transparency and in general to collaborate much more effectively on common problems in space such as traffic management, which is becoming increasingly difficult to do without countries sharing more information.

PALCA: So is there a non-military use of space that you think would be a valuable goal to try to get people to engage around?

MOLTZ: Well, certainly collaboration in a variety of areas, such as disaster monitoring, such as trying to manage the region's agriculture, prevent deforestation, all of these things are very valuable. In addition, each of the countries can provide more transparency. Where are its activities going on in space?

When it moves a satellite or a spacecraft, it could inform others of this activity so that it doesn't collide with other spacecraft. So these are some of the things. But we also I think are lacking some of the built-in areas of cooperation that existed even in the hostile years of the Cold War.

If you go back to the 1970s, for example, the U.S. and the Soviet militaries said that they would not interfere with each other's national technical means of verification. So in other words, we did not interfere with their military satellites, and they didn't interfere with ours. That kind of cooperation does not yet exist in Asia.

Similarly, we have not seen something like the Apollo-Soyuz Mission in 1975, where these two major space programs cooperated in an unprecedented joint docking and exchange of astronauts and cosmonauts. That sort of thing has not taken place in Asia.

PALCA: But would be, you think, a valuable softening of - a good gesture for this situation not to escalate into something not so pleasant?

MOLTZ: Absolutely. We have a lot of mistrust in Asia. We also are seeing the three sides in particular but also other countries in Asia competing in areas where it doesn't really make sense. We've seen, since 2007, three lunar mapping missions, by Japan, India and China. This is repetitive. It wastes national resources. It also foments distrust on the political side.

On the military side, again we saw a very clear action-reaction from China's action to destroy its satellite. India reacted. Japan has reacted. This could escalate over time. Now fortunately, it hasn't escalated yet, but we see the trends in terms of the spending in these countries. We see more military activities, and we also see debates.

India, for example, has said that it will match China's anti-satellite capability. We don't want to see a situation where these kinds of destructive tests are repeated, and all spacecraft are put at greater risk.

PALCA: OK, let's invite our listeners to join this conversation and go first to Patrick(ph) in Baltimore. Patrick, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, you're on the air.

PATRICK: Thank you so much for having me on. I've been reading a lot in a couple of different science magazines - I think my favorite is The Futurist magazine - about all of the interesting private initiatives that come out of mostly the United States to have a sort of commercial presence in space.

And most of those are focused on putting robotic or A.I. intelligence into space as opposed to putting human beings in space. And my understanding is that when you decide to put a human being into space, then, you know, the cost of your project increase just tremendously, and it becomes really inefficient. So I'm wondering if your guest can talk about some of these projects in terms of whether or not they're putting - they're geared towards putting people into space or they're more geared towards putting...

PALCA: Hardware.

PATRICK: ...A.I. entities in space...

PALCA: Yeah.

PATRICK: ...and which is more efficient?

PALCA: Good question. Thanks, Patrick. What do you think about that, Dr. Moltz?

MOLTZ: This is a very good question, and it emphasizes what is going on within Asia in terms of space competition. China launched its first taikonaut in 2003 on Shenzhou 5.

PALCA: Taikonaut is their word for...

MOLTZ: Is their astronaut.

PALCA: ...astronaut. OK.

MOLTZ: That's correct. Shortly after, India began a debate about whether it now needed a human spaceflight program, and it has now adopted plans to put its own astronauts into orbit by 2016. Japan has increased its commitment to the International Space Station. It already has had numerous astronauts on the International Space Station. But what we're seeing is a movement of these countries to compete in high-prestige activities like human spaceflight as well as space science.

As I noted before, India has - had not conducted these kinds of activities. It really had focused on space applications for its population. But as it's been stimulated by China, it's moving to spend much more money on things like human spaceflight because it believes the prestige is important. But I would agree with Patrick. In fact, many activities are much more beneficially conducted and more cheaply conducted through robotic activities. Sadly, we have not seen much cooperation either in the human spaceflight area or in joint space science activities to date among the major space powers in Asia.

PALCA: OK. Let's see what Ken in Lumberton, North Carolina, has to say. Ken, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. You're on the air.

KEN: Thank you very much for taking my call. My question has to do with the peaceful uses of space, and how can we incentivize all these rival nations to work together? I mean, is there a way we can like funnel the transmission of our data because I know they have - we have a wealth of human spaceflight data they'd love to get their hands on. And hopefully, we have some strings over that data, you know what I mean?

PALCA: Sure. Ken, thanks for that call. Go ahead.

MOLTZ: It's a good question. One of the problems that we have today is that much of the cooperation has become very politicized. I mentioned the rivalries within Asia, but certainly, there is a concern about China's rise, and U.S. politics have taken on that concern. Congress recently passed legislation that bars NASA from talking to the Chinese about space cooperation. And so this is a very severe limitation. We did not have those kinds of limits during the Cold War on working with the Russians. So that kind of limitation will have to be overcome if we're going to begin to normalize these kinds of exchanges.

Now, one of the areas where we do exchange information is in the areas of space situational awareness. The U.S. Air Force has recently begun to provide information to Asian countries, including China, about when their satellites might collide with other satellites. The reason that we're doing that is that we don't want to see any satellites collide that would create dangerous debris.

PALCA: We're talking with Clay Moltz. He's a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, about a space race that's heating up in Asia. I'm Joe Palca, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I was just wondering, though, what would a war in space look like? I mean, how would that play out?

MOLTZ: War in space could occur with one side using an anti-satellite weapon to destroy another country's spacecraft. The danger of this is multiple, though, for all countries in space. You cannot simply harm one asset in space without harming others. You could destroy, for example, a particular country's satellite, but then, the debris from that collision would spread through space and become, if you will, speeding bullets that could affect all other spacecraft. As I mentioned, China's anti-satellite test has generated 3,000 or more pieces of debris that will orbit the Earth for around 50 years.

And already, we have had to maneuver satellites out of the way of this debris. And so a space war could even make low reaches of space unusable. In other words, there would be so much debris generated if there were multiple attacks on satellites that really all countries would have difficulty conducting much of anything in this region, particularly if you're talking about human spaceflight. You wouldn't want to put people in that area of space.

PALCA: All right. Let's take another call now from Paul in Boston, Massachusetts. Paul, you're on the air. Welcome to the program.

PAUL: Hi. Good afternoon. You know, I listen to the conversations you have about space exploration often, and I find them interesting, but I'm often frustrated. You know, the most difficult culture to (unintelligible) is the one that we swim in. And a number of years ago, there was an interesting document that went around some U.S. space command sort of laying out the United States' plan for the weaponization of space and domination for markets for trading and those kinds of things, and yet we never hear that conversation because it seems like the conversation is always the U.S. are just coming at this from the purest of intentions and motives. And I think that if I were some of those other countries, I would be very concerned about what the United States is doing from the perspective outside of our culture and our mindset.

PALCA: Interesting question. Clay Moltz, you would be in a position - do you think other countries look at the United States and think they've got to be prepared to deal with us in the future?

MOLTZ: Well, first of all, let me emphasize I'm speaking my personal views as a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. I'm not speaking for the U.S. Navy. Obviously, we are the largest space power in the world today. In the past, we had a few programs that involved weapons tests in space. We stopped our kinetic tests of the anti-satellite weapons in 1985 because of the debris concern. This is something that has been part of U.S. requirements to reduce the amount of debris and also to reduce tests such as missile defense to very low altitudes, so that that debris will de-orbit quickly.

Now, the United States has adapted a policy in the last year about space security that emphasizes new transparency, that emphasizes international cooperation, that emphasizes sharing of data on things like space situational awareness. So I see this as a turning point really for the United States in recognizing that in many regards we are interdependent in space with other countries.

PALCA: OK, Clay Moltz...

MOLTZ: And so when you...

PALCA: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt you, but we've...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PALCA: ...run out of time for this segment of the show, so I'm sorry, but I think we were getting the idea that things are - this is a good time for things to get better. So thanks very much. James Clay Moltz is the author of "Asia's Space Race: National Motivations, Regional Rivalries, and the International Risks."

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