The Buzz

Why Russia and China Should Fear the X-37B Space Plane

The Obama administration’s space policy eschews the weapons in space option. It instead emphasizes efforts towards ensuring space resilience and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) as a key aspects of space policy to deter adversary counter-space threats like anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Reconstitution of space capabilities after an adversary ASAT attack is also an essential aspect of space resilience, and DARPA is developing a vehicle similar to the X-37B, the XS-1 Spaceplane, which is designed to launch payloads at low cost in a responsive manner. Matching this responsive space launch capability with low-cost Cubesats means the US can rapidly replace lost capability after an attack. Furthermore an ability to temporarily operate in a degraded space environment may also mitigate the effects of losing access to space capabilities. Yet the X-37B would give the next Administration an option to quickly develop a very advanced ASAT capability if it were needed. That’s going to be an important issue for the next occupant of the White House to consider, given that both Russia and China are continuing to ignore US efforts to prevent the weaponization of space, and are developing a broad range of ASAT capabilities that will allow them to threaten the vital satellites depended upon by the US and its allies. SSA only permits the monitoring of space activities, and real space resilience may need to include defending critical high-end satellites such as missile early warning, GPS or strategic communications satellites. An expanded X-37B capability may be an answer to defending these vital assets through providing close-in escorting capabilities that can respond to an approaching threat before it can close within range of its target. For the US to take a step towards the weaponization of space is a policy dilemma for Washington and has implications on space security, both of which will considered in a subsequent article.

This first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here