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SM-3 launch
For better or for worse, the proposed EU Code of Conductr for outer space activities won’t restrict the deployment of missile defense systems, which could also be used for intercepting satellites, as was the case with USA 193. (credit: US Navy)

Six answers to 37 senators

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On February 2, 37 senators, led by Sen. Kyl of Arizona, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to express their concern that the administration may be pursuing an agreement on a Code of Conduct for Outer Space Affairs with the Europeans.

Indeed, a fact sheet on the new National Security Space Strategy says that the “United States is working closely with the European Union on a draft international Code of Conduct, which could serve as an important first set of norms of responsible behavior.”

The Code would place some restrictions on conduct, not on hardware.

The senators’ letter states that they are “deeply concerned” the administration may pursue an agreement that could pose “a multitude of potential highly damaging implications for sensitive military and intelligence programs… as well as a tremendous amount of commercial activity.” I provide some possible answers to the six specific questions the senators raise regarding the implications of the US signing on to the code of conduct:

1) How would it “impact… a U.S. decision to deploy missile defense interceptors of any sort in space”?

As the name “Code of Conduct” suggests, the Code would place some restrictions on conduct, not on hardware. This is unfortunate: it would be better if the Code were more comprehensive and negatively impacted any possible US plans to “deploy missile defense interceptors of any sort in space”. Space-based missile interceptors may be emotionally appealing to the 37 senators but they are a technical fallacy, as pointed out here earlier (see “The fallacy of space-based interceptors for boost-phase missile defense”, The Space Review, September 15, 2008) and also in a much more detailed 2003 study by the American Physical Society.

2) How may it affect “the development, test or deployment of an anti-satellite weapon, such as the one successfully used in the 2008 Burnt Frost operation”?

Unfortunately, the question is somewhat ill-posed: the weapon used to destroy USA 193 (Operation Burnt Frost) is the SM-3 missile defense interceptor which is already tested and deployed.

However, if the code of conduct encouraged the military-intelligence community to think twice before conducting a repeat of Operation Burnt Frost, that too would be a good thing. The explanation given to the public about why Operation Burnt Frost was carried out was clearly not supported by the government’s own studies. (A less technical description of the flaws in the official explanation, with illustrations, was published here.)

A likelier explanation—or, at least, an additional motivation—for why Operation Burnt Frost was carried out is that officials did not want any parts of the secret satellite (USA 193) landing in non-US hands, as has happened in the past (see “Black Fire: De-orbiting spysats during the Cold War”, The Space Review, October 25, 2010) but, puzzlingly, this is not what they told the US public.

Rather than opposing the very mild language of the Code of Conduct, the 37 senators should instead think about the benefits that would accrue to the US from participating in, if not leading, the formulation of such confidence building measures.

If the senators are concerned about how the code of conduct will affect “the development, test or deployment” of future US anti-satellite weapons in general, the answer is, again, unfortunately it will not restrict the fielding of such weapons in any meaningful way. But it may restrict their use, unless such use is in “self-defence in accordance with the United Nations Charter or imperative safety considerations”. Since the US has the most to lose in opening up space to anti-satellite weapons it would be much better if the final code were more restrictive.

3) How it would affect “a kinetic defensive system in outer space that is capable of defeating an anti-satellite weapon, such as the one tested by the People’s Republic of China in 2007”?

The Code of Conduct would not restrict hardware in any meaningful way. Again, this is too bad since such defensive systems are technically impractical and a waste of American tax dollars.

4) Would it have any impact on satellite development or operations by the military or the intelligence community?

The code of conduct will have a net positive impact on the military and intelligence communities. For example, if there had been a rule in place to stop China from lasing US spy satellites, this would have been a net plus for the military-intelligence community.

5) How much would compliance with the code cost?

There would, of course, be a nominal cost to implement the code. However, if the code led to more careful and technically informed thinking in the US government, and the consequent cancellation of the flawed projects possibly being entertained by the 37 senators (see questions 1–3 above) or others, there would be considerable savings to be had. Savings would also be affected since there would be fewer damaged satellites and the US government would be carrying out fewer post-mortem studies of US satellites that had been illuminated or irradiated, than in the absence of such a code of conduct (see question 4 above).

6) Will Russia and China be involved in the Code of Conduct?

The senators are correct to encourage Russia and China to be included in discussions of a space code of conduct. As the senators are perhaps aware, Russia and China have repeatedly argued for the importance of preventing the placement of weapons in outer space and the necessity of concluding a legally binding agreement.

It should be noted that the US military is, in fact, in favor of setting up norms of conduct in space. General Cartwright recently said that norms are needed, e.g., to know what the appropriate response to a potential attack would be. And Bruce MacDonald, an expert in the field, is supportive of arms control in space, saying that “[o]ne example where arms control could play a supporting role in space security is with a ban on the testing or demonstration of ‘hit-to-kill’ anti-satellite capabilities, or any act that intentionally produces substantial amounts of space debris.”

In fact, rather than opposing the very mild language of the Code of Conduct, the 37 senators should instead think about the benefits that would accrue to the US from participating in, if not leading, the formulation of such confidence building measures. They ought to also support a verifiable limited test-ban on anti-satellite weapons that would further benefit US security.