04/17/2009 - 10:31

Alternatives to a space weapons treaty

Brian Weeden

Brian Weeden

Weeden is a technical consultant on space issues at the...

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Today, no accepted definition of a space weapon exists. Case in point: Recently, Space.com quoted a senior Pentagon official as saying, "There are no space weapons programs being funded by the U.S. Air Force." This statement was immediately criticized by many within the space arms control community as hypocritical and false. They cited the ongoing development of ground-based missile defense assets as evidence, along with dual-use space programs such as XSS-11 and MiTex and doctrinal statements of the importance of "space dominance."

Some experts consider a space weapon to be an object or device in orbit that is used to strike targets on the ground. Others consider a space weapon to be an object or device that can strike other targets in space. Still others consider a space weapon to be anything that can attack, degrade, or destroy satellites--whether from space, the ground, or air. These diverse definitions have frozen the international arms control debate over space weapons for decades.

For example, some within the space arms control community applauded the introduction by Russia and China in February 2008 of a draft treaty to the Conference on Disarmament that purports to ban space weapons. But that treaty only addresses objects that are in orbit. It doesn't cover ground-based antisatellite weapons. Thus, if implemented, the treaty would prohibit any space-based missile defense interceptors--an essential part of the U.S. missile defense system--while allowing for the continued research and development of Russian and Chinese antisatellite missiles. This leads to the impression that the goal of the proposed treaty is to hamstring the U.S. missile defense capability while allowing its potential adversaries to retain their capability to counter U.S. space superiority.

Debate over the definition of a space weapon isn't new. The Soviet Union once considered the space shuttle to be a space weapon because it could be used to capture, destroy, or inspect satellites. More recently, an argument was put forth that space-based solar power satellites would be a space weapon, because the method of transmitting energy to the ground (whether laser or microwave) could be used to interfere with satellites or objects on the ground, even if it wasn't powerful enough to destroy them.

Immediately after President Barack Obama's inauguration, the following statement appeared on the White House website: "The Obama-Biden administration will restore American leadership on space issues, seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites. They will thoroughly assess possible threats to U.S. space assets and the best options, military and diplomatic, for countering them, establishing contingency plans to ensure that U.S. forces can maintain or duplicate access to information from space assets and accelerating programs to harden U.S. satellites against attack."

Many within the space arms control community seized upon this as proof that the Obama administration would back an international treaty banning space weapons. But it should be noted that the statement isn't (yet) official U.S. policy. According to comments made by John Logsdon, the director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, at the February International Space University Symposium on Space and Security, it reportedly originated from an Obama campaign white paper and was transferred verbatim to the White House website by a junior staffer without input from any of the governmental bodies that manage national policy.

Even if the United States does decide to make the statement official policy, that doesn't mean it will use a legally binding treaty as the implementation mechanism. Instead of focusing on banning all space weapons, perhaps the goal should be to preserve the long-term sustainability of outer space, so that all of humanity can use it for peaceful purposes and socioeconomic benefits. If that's the case, then there are a multitude of international efforts and mechanisms to achieve such a goal that already have strong international support.

International law focuses on two concepts: (1) finding areas of common interest between states; and (2) states consenting to be bound under a legal regime on those common areas. Any international treaty or other mechanism dealing with space security issues needs to be focused on these two principles.

Over the last three years, an increasing number of states have realized that space is indeed a global commons and that the actions of one actor impact all other actors. The first wake-up call was the Chinese antisatellite test in January 2007, which created the largest debris field in history. More than one satellite has been forced to make avoidance maneuvers to prevent a collision from this debris. The second wake-up call was the first-ever collision between two satellites in February. In this instance, it was inaction that lead to the creation of a significant amount of debris in what was already the most crowded region of Earth orbit.

Neither of these two incidents involved traditionally defined space-based weapons. Both incidents did involve either action or inaction by the States involved, and it is these types of actions (or inactions) that the international community is beginning to focus on as a means of preserving the space environment.

There are three recent developments within the international community along these lines. The first is the informal discussion by the European Union of a draft Code of Conduct to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. This concept has been under discussion for several years, primarily through the efforts of Michael Krepon at the Henry L. Stimson Center. At its core, the code of conduct is a set of mutually agreed upon principles for acting responsibly in outer space as well as methods for parties to communicate with each other.

The second--again, the culmination of many years of research and hard work--is the proposal by France of an agenda item on the "long-term sustainability of outer space activities" to the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). Under this proposed agenda item, measures that could potentially enhance the long-term sustainability of space will be discussed and put forth for consideration, which could eventually form the basis for improved safety measures and eventually some sort of space traffic control.

The third development is the discussion of a system of international civil space situational awareness. Long the domain of the military, space situational awareness is the data about human and environmental threats to objects in orbit. If implemented on an international level, a civil space situational awareness system would provide all actors in space with the information necessary to operate in a safe and efficient manner, including conducting collision avoidance maneuvers.

Taken together, these three developments represent a set of building blocks toward a new international space security regime. The Code of Conduct would establish a common set of principles that define responsible actions in Earth orbit. It would also establish definitions for irresponsible actions, such as use and testing of kinetic-kill antisatellite weapons and harmful interference. If all states follow these principles, eventually they could become evidence for customary international law, even if the code wasn't legally binding at the start. The Law of the Sea coalesced over time in a similar manner.

Through the agenda item on the long-term sustainability of outer-space activities, COPOUS could come to an agreement on a set of "best-practice methods" for how spacecraft should be operated in space. These methods could then form the basis of a space traffic control system, stipulating how satellites should be operated to reduce damage and degradation of the space environment.

An international civil space situational awareness system would provide the crucial data to all space actors to enable informed discussion on the dangers involved in irresponsible actions as well as which operational methods are safe and beneficial. Such a system also would serve as a part of a verification mechanism for adherence to both a Code of Conduct and a space traffic control system, because it would be able to observe actions in space and provide data on them to all actors.

These three developments not only break the current international deadlock on a new space security regime, they also provide the two fundamental requirements for a legally binding treaty--definitions and verification. Along the way, they also would serve to increase the safety of space activities and serve as confidence-building measures between states. All of this taken together will greatly decrease the chances of armed conflict in Earth orbit, as more and more states realize the dangers involved and the benefits from peace and cooperation.

While some may see these initiatives individually as falling short of a treaty banning space weapons, together they will accomplish many of the same goals in a more practical and effective manner, and they may lay the foundations for an eventual treaty should the international community still need one.