Space weapons agreements, treaties, and politics
by Taylor Dinerman
|DeSutter pointed out that the US used to believe, as a matter of doctrine, that no nation would ever sign an arms control agreement with the intention of violating it. We now know better.|
A taste of what the debate would look like was seen at the National Press Club in Washington DC last week. The Marshall Institute sponsored a talk by Paula DeSutter, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, on “Is An Outer Space Arms Control Treaty Verifiable?” It is important to understand that her remarks were vetted by the full bureaucracy at the State Department, including both career Foreign Service officers and Bush Administration political appointees. These were not “off the cuff” pronouncements, but were a carefully thought out statement of US policy thinking about this problem.
She pointed out that any analysis of an arms control agreements must examine whether it is technically verifiable and then whether it is effectively verifiable. Most proposed space arms control agreements, notably the ones recently put forward by China and Russia, are not even close to being technically verifiable. Moreover, they seem to know this. Their goal is to set out their terms and then sit back and watch while the Americans tie themselves up in legalistic knots over definitions and doctrinal and/or philosophical questions.
More important to any future agreement is whether it could be effectively verified, and here the answer, from both the Bush Administration and most of the professionals at the State Department, is no. Any maneuvering space vehicle can be used as a co-orbital anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). Any space launch vehicle, IRBM, or ICBM can be used as part of a direct ascent space weapons technology that is proliferating quickly. Within a few short years both Iran and North Korea could have a rudimentary capability; others could follow.
DeSutter pointed out that the US used to believe, as a matter of doctrine, that no nation would ever sign an arms control agreement with the intention of violating it. We now know better. As long as US military power depends on a massive, complex, and expensive set of defenseless space assets, the incentive for any potential foe to develop ways of attacking them is too great to be over come by any international agreement. If, however, the US can be constrained from developing and deploying effective countermeasures thanks to such an agreement, they have every reason to pressure Washington limiting its own actions.
Being a diplomat DeSutter, of course, had to speak diplomatically. She said that “there is no—I repeat, no—on-going arms race in space.” This is like watching the horses warm up for the Kentucky Derby and then saying “there is no on-going horse race here”: true enough, but hardly relevant. There was no space race before the USSR launched Sputnik in October 1957, but there were lots of ongoing space programs.
Part of the problem is due to the lack of transparency and good faith that surrounds this issue. When the US complains about others who seem to be hiding their space weapons efforts from international scrutiny a lot of people, some of them Americans, question whether the “black budget” is hiding US space weapons projects. This objection should be dismissed out of hand, since the secret budget has to be approved by bipartisan congressional committees and a politically controversial program such as that would never be allowed to get through the process. In any case, leaks are a way of life in Washington and there have been no reliable leaks about this in Aviation Week or elsewhere.
|Without clear and specific orders from both the executive branch and from Congress, the Defense Department is not going to proceed with any sort of space weapons program no matter how much some members of the military may feel the need.|
The best the US can do is to conduct some preliminary technology work that has other applications, and this must be done through the open budgeting process. The fact that after the recent NRO satellite intercept the US Navy immediately de-scoped the spare SM-3 missiles that had been modified for the purpose shows just how sensitive an issue this is within the military. Without clear and specific orders from both the executive branch and from Congress, the Defense Department is not going to proceed with any sort of space weapons program no matter how much some members of the military may feel the need.
Today the issue is essentially stalemated. No real progress on either side has been made on either side since Clinton’s first Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, killed the Brilliant Pebbles program in 1993. If a President McCain were to try and revive that program he would face a monumental political fight, but it would be one where his supporters would claim that he was actively trying to protect America and its friends. Any attempt to break the stalemate in favor of an arms control agreement would face an equally massive reaction from the other side of the political spectrum claiming that President Obama or President Clinton was, at best, forcing America to rely on the kindness of strangers.