Minimizing the Negative Effects of Advances in Military-Relevant Space Capabilities on Strategic Stability


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Nancy W. Gallagher and Jaganath Sankaran
Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament

We are pleased to share this monograph published under the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ project Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament. The current nuclear age is characterized by a simultaneous collapse of arms control agreements and the absence of strategic dialogue among the United States, Russia, and China—the three main nuclear players. As we know from the Russia-Ukraine War, today’s era is showing worrisome trends for the stability and security of the global nuclear order. As demonstrated during the Cold War, the creation of platforms for innovative brainstorming on areas of common ground is an essential step to reduce tensions, minimize the potential risks of nuclear escalation and arms racing, and promote a more cooperative international environment.

The Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament project brings together nuclear experts to discuss areas of opportunity and policy recommendations. One strand of the project’s work consists of a series of Track 2 dialogues among experts and former policy-makers from the United States, Russia, and China that is designed to identify critical short-term goals in arms control. A second strand of work builds on the Academy’s prior experience organizing educational sessions on a range of topics for the United States Congress. Through a series of engagements with members of Congress and their staffs, the project fosters knowledge on key issues and challenges facing the United States.

A third strand of work weaves the project’s expert discussions and policy recommendations together to produce publications on critical debates within nuclear arms control. This co-authored monograph features scholarly contributions from two experts who explore how advances in space capabilities by Russia, China, and the United States over the last two decades are likely to affect strategic stability. In Minimizing the Negative Effects of Advances in Military-Relevant Space Capabilities on Strategic Stability, Nancy W. Gallagher, Director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and a Research Professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, and Jaganath Sankaran, Assistant Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, suggest that the most destabilizing effects of technological advances in major power space capabilities are coming from how each country reacts to what they perceive others might do, and not from a sober assessment of how new capabilities necessarily impact every dimension of strategic stability.

These destabilizing effects may include incentives to start a war by choice that could involve other major powers, preempt a crisis or conventional conflict, or engage in arms racing, as well as lead to a deterioration of broader political relations among Russia, China, and the United States. The Biden administration was considering these effects when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. That war and U.S. fears that Beijing might try a similar tactic with Taiwan have heightened concerns about strategic stability and distracted analytical attention away from how advances in space capabilities, in practice, may affect strategic stability. The war in Ukraine and China’s responses to the visit of former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen’s visit to the United States have also precluded most official dialogue about how each country’s concerns about space and strategic stability could be addressed cooperatively through arms control, especially as Russia, China, and the United States move forward with space activities that others deem destabilizing.

While both authors highlight the dangers of the United States, Russia, and China disregarding each other’s interests and concerns in military space capabilities and space diplomacy, there is an opportunity to shape and impact the field of advances in space weaponization and strategic stability at a critical time in history. More importantly, Washington, Moscow, and Beijing need to indicate their willingness to consider cooperative measures, and experts should start to explore concrete cooperative measures they each could take.

These lessons about the importance of bilateral discussions, transparency, and unambiguous messages are deeply relevant to the challenges we face today. The authors remind us of the increasing dangers if the United States, Russia, and China do not communicate. The Academy will continue its work to bring together experts from these countries under the Promoting Dialogue project’s series of Track 2 meetings and publication series that are designed to highlight critical goals in arms control.

The Academy has played a crucial role in the nuclear field, particularly when a viable path to cooperation and collective governance was not clear. In 1959, at the height of the Cold War and the nuclear standoff between the United States and the USSR, members of the American Academy, including Donald Brennan, Thomas Schelling, and Henry Kissinger, among others, gathered at the Academy to rethink the framework that had governed relations between the two superpowers following World War II and to offer a new model of global interaction. The work of this group, in partnership with contemporaneous policy-makers, helped pave the way for the adoption of a new American nuclear posture based on strategic stability and arms reduction, rather than on arms accumulation. Since then, the American Academy has conducted more than a dozen projects focused on arms control and nuclear policy topics, ranging from the future of submarine-based deterrents, to international arrangements for nuclear fuel reprocessing, to weapons in space. Our work continues to shape the dialogue in the nuclear field.

We have no doubt that this publication will serve as an important contribution to contemporary thinking about approaches to strategic stability in the space frontier. The Academy will present and share this publication through a series of outreach activities, and it will be translated into Russian and Chinese for dissemination to policy-makers and the arms control communities in Moscow and Beijing.

We would like to thank Allan Myer, Belinda Frankel, and the Raymond Frankel Foundation for their generous support of the Promoting Dialogue project. We also want to thank Doreen Horschig, Melissa Chan, and Michelle Poulin in the Academy’s Global Security and International Affairs program area for their diligent work.

David W. Oxtoby
President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Steven E. Miller
Chair, American Academy’s project on Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament