Michael Gordon in the New York Times—disclaimer: I am quoted—details the Bush Administration’s decision to say nothing to Chinese to discourage their January 2007 ASAT test:
What administration officials did not say is that as the Chinese were preparing to launch their antisatellite weapon, American intelligence agencies had issued reports about the preparations being made at the Songlin test facility. In high-level discussions, senior Bush administration officials debated how to respond and even began to draft a protest, but ultimately decided to say nothing to Beijing until after the test.
Officials concluded that China was unlikely to cancel the test and that there were few good options to punish China if they ignored an American warning to hold off. American intelligence agencies were loath to let the Chinese know they were aware of the state of their preparations.
Meeting Chinese demands for a negotiation on space-based weapons was not considered an option for the administration. The United States last tested an antisatellite weapon — a missile that was fired into space from an F-15 warplane — in 1985, and has no current program to develop a new antisatellite system.
With an eye on missile defense, however, the administration has sought to maintain maximum flexibility for American military operations in space. So the administration’s decision was to monitor China’s preparations and draft a protest that could be delivered after the test.
Gordon also provides the dates of the previous tests—July 7, 2005, and Feb. 6, 2006 (Boy, those dates are different. Interesting.)
The excuse about protecting sources and methods is bullshit—the Chinese conducted two flybys that were obviously tracked by unclassified US assets and then left the launcher on the pad for over a month, where it was perfectly visible to overhead imaging. We knew that they knew that we knew.
The real argument is that the Bush Administration wanted to “maintain maximum flexibility.” The hoary appeal to “keeping our options open” drives me nuts—keeping some options open requires closing others. Adults recognize that they can never keep all the options open. Policy-making is about making choices.
After all, Chinese anti-satellite weapons will restrict US freedom of action in space, too, just as would a ban on certain military missions. That we chose not to pursue a ban—either because we thought it might fail to prevent China from acquiring ASATs, because we’d rather have certain military systems or for any other reason—is not keeping our options open, it’s choosing some options at the expense of others.
The United States, including this Bush Administration, has used treaties to increase our freedom of action—take, for example, the Navy’s support of the Law of the Sea. CNO Vern Clark argued:
The Law of the Sea Convention helps assure access to the largest maneuver space on the planet – the sea – under authority of widely recognized and accepted law and not the threat of force. The Convention protects military mobility by codifying favorable transit rights that support our ability to operate around the globe, anytime, anywhere, allowing the Navy to project power where and when needed.
I’ve asked before , but I will ask again: Why can’t law free the Air Force in space as it does the Navy at sea?