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Getting Ready to Get “Space Weapons” Wrong

The Obama Administration took office promising – on the White House website, no less – to pursue “a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.” It apparently had second thoughts, however, and soon pulled this reference.  In the late spring of 2009, however, it flip-flopped anew, and agreed to Chinese and Russian demands that the U.N. begin discussions on preventing an “arms race in outer space.”  This is not technically the same thing as beginning “negotiations” on such an agreement, but the White House has reversed longstanding U.S. policy and allowed the U.N.’s Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva to slip its leash and start bounding off in pursuit of this goal.

Does this necessarily mean that the Obama Administration will now embrace a “space weapons” ban?  It is conceivable that the whole thing is a cynical diplomatic ploy of the sort that one might have expected – based upon his campaign rhetoric – our new president never to contemplate.  Has the United States accepted “discussions” on space weaponry in order to break the CD’s long deadlock, while fully intending never to let any such agreement ever see the light of day?  That’s certainly how any number of other governments approach CD negotiations.  (Just look at the proposed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty [FMCT], in the name of which Washington made its historic “space weapons” concession.  If you think all the FMCT’s proclaimed “supporters” really support it, you haven’t been paying much attention.  Sadly, the U.S. cave-in on actually requiring an “effectively verifiable” agreement will give the foot-draggers more options than ever.)  Could American diplomats have finally learned from the self-inflicted diplomatic wounds of the Bush Administration’s compulsive honesty about the limitations of arms control, and figured out how to swim with the seasoned CD professionals in Geneva’s games of refined hypocrisy?

Maybe.  But maybe not.  On arms control issues, the new team in Washington seems to be more made up of True Believers than shrewd pragmatists skilled in the dark arts of dissimulation and conceptual jiu-jitsu.  Moreover, in this season of multi-trillion-dollar federal deficits, calamitously paralyzed health care initiatives, continued operations at Guantanamo Bay and non-prosecution for CIA agents who followed Justice Department guidelines on harsh “enhanced interrogation techniques,” unspent “emergency” stimulus money, an ever-grimmer situation in the Afghanistan war to victory in which he pledged to devote himself, and sinking presidential approval ratings, the arms control arena remains one of the few where President Obama’s political base may still think he will transform the world.  It is quite possible, therefore, that the new administration really means what it now (once again) says.  A “space weapons ban” may be an incoherent and perhaps dangerous idea, but it is one whose time the new administration seems to think has come.

But why am I unhappy with this?  What’s wrong with preventing an “arms race in outer space?”  It sounds like a commendable goal, but arms control is full of pitfalls for the credulous or unwary.  Unfortunately, this is one of them. Rather than getting bogged down in the fools’ errand of trying to define and prohibit space “weaponry,” we should refocus our efforts on ways to prevent risky and deter hostile conduct in space.

The present campaign to ban “space weapons” dates from 2002, when China and Russia began promoting a draft agreement on “preventing an arms race in outer space” (a.k.a. PAROS) by banning the deployment of weapons there.  Their focus has been to prohibit actually stationing weapons in space – something the United States considered doing, years ago, for ballistic missile defense, but has not pursued – while leaving unconstrained the terrestrially-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry Moscow has possessed for decades (and on which it claims recently to have resumed work), and which Beijing tested in 2007.  The PAROS proposals, in other words, were designed to impede our defense while preserving their ability to threaten our space assets.  Think of this as asymmetric warfare by means of arms control: no discredit to them for trying, but shame on us if we buy into the skewed agenda.

The Obama Administration, however, has endorsed PAROS-based discussions at the CD, the U.N.’s disarmament treaty-drafting organ.  To be sure, the erstwhile White House pledge of a ban on “weapons that interfere with … satellites” is not as transparently asymmetrical as the perennially disingenuous Chinese and Russian proposals. Nevertheless, the White House version of the “space arms race” agenda makes up in conceptual incoherence what it avoids in asymmetry.

The problem is that essentially anything that can reach space can be used against space assets.  A sufficiently powerful radio-frequency transmitter, for instance, can be used to jam communications or damage satellite circuitry.  Ground-based lasers or other directed-energy devices can “dazzle” or damage satellites.

As the Chinese ASAT test showed, moreover, any rocket capable of launching objects into space can slam itself or its payload into an orbiting satellite.  (Indeed, the Russian ASAT first tested in the late 1960s was essentially a satellite that maneuvers into a synchronized orbit with its target in order to come alongside and destroy it.)  Today, China’s program for rapidly launching microsatellite payloads – which includes a reusable aircraft-launched booster expected to enter service next year – will give Beijing what is in effect a significant new direct-ascent ASAT capability.  There is no such thing as a mere “fender bender” at orbital speeds: any satellite, especially one capable of changing its position, or any satellite launcher can be used as a “space weapon.”

In order really to ban things usable as space weapons, in other words, one would have to ban essentially all access to space.  And banning technologies that have the ability to interfere with satellites could have other consequences too – though some such results would no doubt be welcomed by our potential strategic adversaries.  As the United States demonstrated in 2008 by using a ship-based missile to prevent one of its own satellites from spiraling dangerously out of control, some missile defense systems – not to mention ballistic missiles themselves – can reach targets in space.  A ban on weapons capable of harming satellites could therefore do much to preclude the United States defending itself, its forces, or its allies from ballistic missile attack.  This is why it is so unfortunate that President Obama’s enthusiasm for the ideal of arms control has apparently been allowed to cloud his understanding of its reality.  The administrations of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush – not exactly all of them rabid militarists – all understood that trying to ban “space weapons” was a bad idea.  Pursuing bad arms control in space is not the kind of “change” America needs from our new president.

So is there a better way to address space security?  Yes – but only if we’re willing to abandon the mistaken notion that arms control is necessarily about banning technology.  It may not be possible intelligibly to define a “space weapon,” but we could perhaps better spell out, and penalize, impermissible space conduct.

The backbone of space law is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans the deployment of nuclear weapons in space and requires that space be “free for exploration and use by all States … in accordance with international law.”  Threats or aggression against space assets are already covered – irrespective of location – by the U.N. Charter and by customary international law.  If more specificity is needed, it may be possible to develop a code of conduct for space, enshrining “best practices” for space-faring nations and reaffirming existing norms against harmful interference with space objects.  In fact, the European Union is already promoting its own draft of such a code.

To be sure, the devil can sometimes lurk in the fine print of such texts.  No interference should be permitted, for example, with countries’ inherent right of self-defense, which in the modern world could involve the use or transit of space – or indeed actions against hostile space assets, which presumably should be no more immune in time of conflict than terrestrial ones.  Nevertheless, code-of-conduct approaches to space security are far more promising than “weapons” prohibitions.  Rather than indulge potential adversaries’ efforts to use arms control as a tool of strategic advantage, the Obama Administration should start an international discussion about the appropriate penalties for the violation of existing rules against hostile activity in space.  It should also promote “best practices” to help control the growing hazard of space debris – exacerbated by the Chinese ASAT test – that is gradually making some orbits “uninhabitable” and threatens to create a “bumper car”-like cascade of satellite damage that would imperil all countries’ access to space.

We should also spend more time and effort in preparing ourselves for the kind of space-denial efforts that could be expected from not-yet-our-peer competitors such as China in a possible future conflict.  Recent Air Force war gaming, for instance, is rumored to have made it disturbingly clear not only that the U.S. is extraordinarily vulnerable to space-denial attacks (which, after all, is not news) but that in wartime scenarios it might be quite worthwhile for our opponents to create circumstances hostile to all uses of space.  While our adversaries’ operations would be impeded as well, the theory goes, we would be far more relatively disadvantaged – especially in “expeditionary” overseas scenarios in which we would depend hugely upon space-based communications, surveillance, targeting, and other types of combat support, while our opponents would be fighting in their own neighborhood (and likely with less space-dependent systems).  At least under present circumstances of U.S. spacefaring and military-technological dominance, space-preclusion is a sharply asymmetric form of warfare … with us on the losing end.

Lessening our vulnerabilities in this regard will require shifting from today’s space architecture of a small number of huge, expensive, highly capable, and extremely vulnerable satellite assets to a more redundant system of smaller, more redundant, better protected, and quickly-replaceable assets – supplemented, wherever possible, by backup capabilities that don’t rely upon space (e.g., rapidly-deployable and/or long-duration airborne assets).  It will require better space situational awareness, including the ability to provide deterrence-facilitating attack attribution in the event that someone moves against our space systems.  (Such an attack, we should also make clear, would be no less an act of war than attacking one of our naval vessels on the high seas.)  Beginning in the Bush Administration, the Pentagon began to move forward on some of these ideas, but much more is needed: this is a project that will require great sums of money and careful attention over many years.  In short, we need to take the idea of space warfare (by others) much more seriously if we do not wish to become its most prominent victim.

President Obama should shift his focus from the crowd-pleasing chimera of a “space weapons” ban – a conceptually flawed approach supported for all too obvious reasons by some who do not wish us well – to a genuinely valuable agenda: restricting and deterring the kind of conduct in space that could gravely threaten U.S. national interests and international peace and security, and building capabilities that will improve our ability to cope with the space-denial strategies others seem to be developing.  That’s how to get “space weapons” right.

– Christopher A. Ford


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