June 2, 2014 7:00 pm JST

US fears 'Pearl Harbor' in space

TOSHIKI YAZAWA, Nikkei staff writer

WASHINGTON -- Former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has repeatedly warned of a possible second "Pearl Harbor" recently, citing the country's huge vulnerability to cyberattacks by China.

     In fact, China is now expanding its U.S. targets for cyberattacks, which have so far been primarily aimed at getting access to corporate secrets related to the nuclear, steel and other industries.

     According to U.S. Congressional research, the control systems of multiple U.S. artificial satellites responsible for air traffic control and global positioning systems have suffered waves of cyberattacks that are believed to have originated in China.

     If the U.S. stands idly by, the main functions of the American military, such as reconnaissance and early warning systems, could be paralyzed due to surprise attacks.

     The U.S. administration of President Barack Obama filed criminal charges against five Chinese people in May for involvement in cyberattacks by a unit of the People's Liberation Army.

     The U.S. move reflects a growing sense of crisis over a possible second "Pearl Harbor" as Panetta put it. Panetta served as Pentagon chief in the Obama administration between 2011 and 2013.

     According to Chinese media, President Xi Jinping ordered the air force in April to beef up its attack and defense capabilities, including in outer space, by promoting the integration of its national defense and space policies.

     The U.S. is particularly alarmed by a Chinese weapon system designed to destroy spy satellites using ballistic missiles.

     In a test that scattered debris in outer space, China successfully destroyed a satellite with a ballistic missile in January 2007. China is believed to have since improved the targeting accuracy significantly.

     One U.S. defense official described the Chinese weapon system as one of the biggest threats to the American military.

     A growing number of experts say that China is now ahead of the U.S. in the development of new supersonic bombers that are difficult to track on radar because of their high stealth capabilities. This view has added fuel to concerns in the U.S. Congress.

     Further frustrating the U.S. in the space and military fields is Russia, with which the U.S. is now locked in an increasingly deep confrontation over the issue of Ukraine.

     The Obama administration focuses on asteroids as the immediate target of its space exploration plan. But this policy is unpopular not only at home but also internationally.

     In fact, the European Space Agency is now eyeing closer relations with China, India and other emerging markets. China successfully landed a space probe on the moon, while India successfully launched a Mars probe.

     NASA wants to keep Britain, Germany, France and Japan in the U.S. fold. In January, NASA announced a decision to extend the mission of the International Space Station, by at least four years.

     Under the agreement among the countries participating in the space station, which include Japan and European countries, the mission was to expire in 2020.

     John Sheldon, a former British diplomat well-versed in international space policy-related matters, said that NASA decided to extend the ISS mission to prevent China from playing a leading role in international space exploration projects.

     Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin unveiled retaliatory measures against the U.S. in May in response to economic sanctions over the Ukrainian crisis.

     The retaliatory measures include banning the supply of Russian engines for U.S. rockets to be launched for military purposes. Russia also threatened to terminate cooperation over the ISS project, saying that its participation in the project after 2020 is uncertain.

     What alarms the U.S. is the partnership between China and Russia being strengthened in the space field.

     China and Russia are actually cooperating at international forums such as the United Nations-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to push for their proposals for new rules on the military use of outer space.

     The U.S. is desperately trying to keep Australia, Canada, Britain and others in its fold in the space and military fields. It is also trying to strengthen relations with Japan in those areas.

     But the U.S. and Japan have yet to make progress in the very important area of missile defense cooperation, according to a source familiar with the bilateral relations.

     European countries other than Britain do not want heavy dependence on the U.S., so they have to pay close attention to the balance between the U.S. on the one hand and China and Russia on the other.

     A decline in U.S. power is inevitable due to the rise of China and Russia. The confusion over U.S. space and military policies could deepen further.

     In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union were locked in a fierce competition over space development, conducting satellite destruction tests. Pointless tensions continued between East and West over missile defense and other issues.

     A new Cold War-like situation appears to be emerging in outer space due to two changes in geopolitical dynamics -- China's rising power and the Ukrainian crisis.

     There is a possibility that international cooperation for the peaceful use of outer space will disappear amid a wave of relentless mutual distrust between the U.S. on the one hand and China and Russia on the other.