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Space weapons illustration
Negotiating a treaty to ban space weapons may do little to prevent some entities from developing them anyway. (credit: Defense Department)

Arms control in space

In 2001–2002 George Bush and Vladimir Putin signed a major agreement drastically reducing the numbers of their strategic arsenals. If such an agreement had been signed in the 1980s it would have been hailed as the dawn of world peace and disarmament. Instead, due to the nature of our times and the politics of the men who signed the agreement, it has been ignored or minimized. All the pageantry and suspense that used to surround arms control negotiations is now a thing of the past.

In an age of asymmetric warfare, the idea of two superpowers sitting around a table in Geneva maneuvering for political and military advantage in the legal language of a treaty seems as obsolete as the old Soviet parades on Red Square. New actors such as India and Pakistan, not to mention North Korea and Iran, are uninterested in participating in such rituals, except on their own very peculiar terms.

In an age of asymmetric warfare, the idea of two superpowers sitting around a table in Geneva maneuvering for political and military advantage in the legal language of a treaty seems as obsolete as the old Soviet parades on Red Square.

Now some in Washington are proposing that a new multilateral space arms control agreement be negotiated that will create “rules of the road” for satellites, despite this statement in the administration’s new National Space Policy: “The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or any other activities in space for U.S. national interests.” This is a pretty clear negative message to the arms control community.

Writing for the Arms Control Association’s Arms Control Today in 2004, Michael Krepon explains that US anti-satellite (ASAT) programs “will cost far more and be far more sophisticated than the ASAT weapons of potential adversaries, who would opt to kill satellites cheaply and crudely.” He is quite right about this, but one does have to ask, if these nations can build these space weapons “cheaply and crudely” now, why don’t they do it? If long-range missiles and nuclear weapons are proliferating, why does anyone think that space weapons will not?

If fact, they may already be doing it. The US intelligence community has failed so often in the past to anticipate proliferation activities, such as those of the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, that there is no reason to think that their record will be any better on space weapons.

Instead of pursuing US military space superiority Krepon proposes a doctrine of “space assurance” similar to the rules of the road proposed by the Soviet Union and it allies back in the late 1980s. This “requires the avoidance of dangerous military activities is space, including flight tests that simulate attacks against satellites and the deployment of ASAT and space weapons.” Taken to its logical extreme, this would mean that any rendezvous and docking maneuvers, such as those of a Progress resupply vehicle with the International Space Station, would have to be banned, since this could be construed as the testing of an ASAT.

Next year may be when the great space weapons debate begins.

The idea that our foes might refrain from attacks US space assets because “…they will only suffer more casualties by impairing satellites that improve targeting and reduce collateral damage” does not fit with the nature of contemporary information warfare. As one Israeli put it, “When they kill our innocent civilians, they win. When we kill their innocent civilians, they win.” Since it is an important goal of the enemy for the US to create as much collateral damage as possible, why should they not attack those assets that the US uses to reduce it?

Next year may be when the great space weapons debate begins. For the Democrats, with their new majorities in the House and Senate, the question will be whether they want to give in to the arms control community on this issue, and thus potentially confirm their stereotype as weak on defense. Or will enough of them join with the majority of Republicans and protect American interests in space as well as on land, sea, and air?


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