Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security


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Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

The rules that currently govern the use of space were codified in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty less than a decade after the first satellites were flown. They were designed to protect the common interest of all societies while regulating the competition for military advantage that dominated the pioneering programs of the United States and the Soviet Union. The rules assured universal rights of access and precluded sovereign jurisdiction over orbital transit. They permitted military support services, including reconnaissance, as long as the activity was peaceful, not aggressive. Orbiting weapons of mass destruction and using celestial bodies for military purposes were categorically prohibited, but sending nuclear missiles through space or placing conventional weapons there were not.

The United States was the principal sponsor of the original rules but has become the principal obstacle to their legal elaboration. In order to protect efforts to develop ballistic missile defense, the United States has refused since the 1980s to consider explicit rules prohibiting deliberate attack on space objects and the deployment of weapons in space. It has assertively blocked formal attempts to organize negotiations on those topics and has stood virtually alone against the rest of the world in doing so. The 2006 U.S. National Space Policy and supporting documents formulate the intention to dominate space for national military advantage and to control access by all other countries. The United States is spending tens of billions of dollars each year—far more than all other countries combined—to acquire advanced military space capabilities. The U.S. national security strategy outlines an intention to use these capabilities to eliminate emerging threats before hostile states or terrorist groups acquire dangerous technology—a standard of preventive protection that it does not propose to cede to any other country.

That officially stated formula violates the basic principles of the Outer Space Treaty and is inherently objectionable to all other countries. It is also technically and economically infeasible and surveys show that it would not command the support of the American public, a large majority of which wants additional legal provisions to protect satellites and prevent space weapons. But despite these apparent impediments, a policy of national military space domination prevails within the U.S. government at the moment and is being pursued with sufficient resources to mandate the concern of responsible security officials in other governments, especially those in China and Russia, but among U.S. allies as well. Informed observers can readily understand that the United States cannot dominate space to the extent imagined, but it can develop highly intrusive attack capabilities based on the use of advanced space assets. A predictable counter-reaction would be to hold at risk the satellites upon which the U.S. strategy of coercive prevention depends, which would in turn make all space assets more vulnerable than they currently are. The U.S. vision is too unrealistic to drive a classic arms race but does threaten to provoke asymmetrical responses that would be legally and physically destructive.

This situation clearly requires a more penetrating discussion than has yet occurred and ultimately a more rational balancing of real interests. Assets in space are becoming increasingly vital in daily life not only in the United States but throughout the world as well. In pursuit of an image of dominance that would not be tolerated and could never be achieved, current U.S. space policy threatens services that are integral to the performance of the global economy as well as our own military capabilities.

The American Academy called upon two scholars to evaluate both the feasibility and desirability of U.S. military plans for space. Nancy Gallagher, the Associate Director for Research at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), and John D. Steinbruner, a Professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and Director of CISSM, provide a comprehensive review of U.S. military plans for space, arguing that the current goal of establishing decisive military space “dominance” is no more feasible or desirable in a globalizing world where the United States is first among many countries with space capabilities than it was during the Cold War competition between two roughly equal space superpowers.

Gallagher and Steinbruner argue that the United States will not be able to “outspend and out-innovate all potential rivals in space.” Moreover, they con- tend that the “costs of using military means to protect U.S. and friendly space systems against asymmetrical attacks” will outweigh the “benefits of seeking full-spectrum space dominance.” For this reason, the authors urge the United States to abandon its current policies and to support international negotiations to build on the Outer Space Treaty by developing new rules that explicitly address the central problems of space security. These negotiated legal protections would prohibit deliberate interference with legitimate space assets, outlaw the deployment of weapons in space and other dedicated anti-satellite weapons, and define the legitimate limits of space-based support for military missions. Gallagher and Steinbruner conclude by highlighting some practical steps necessary for successful negotiations, including strategies for ensuring the equitable distribution of the costs of verifying compliance with these legal prohibitions.

Two events that occurred in mid-February, after the text of this mono- graph was completed, highlight the need for space security to receive urgent attention from the next U.S. administration. On February 12, 2008, at the Conference on Disarmament, Russia and China formally presented a draft treaty on “The Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Space Objects,” and the Bush administration immediately reiterated its opposition to any new legal restrictions on its access to or use of space. Two days later, the Department of Defense announced plans to use a modified sea-based theater missile defense interceptor to destroy a malfunctioning U.S. spy satellite before it fell to Earth, which it carried out on February 21, 2008. Regardless of what one thinks of the details of the Russian-Chinese draft treaty or the rationale that the Bush administration gave for destroying the satellite in order to preclude the possibility of its fuel tank landing on a populated part of the Earth, it is clear that military capabilities in space are advancing with no correspondingly serious effort to discuss, let alone to negotiate, how they should be used.

This paper is part of the American Academy’s “Reconsidering the Rules of Space” project. The project examines the implications of U.S. policy in space from a variety of perspectives, and considers the international rules and principles needed for protecting a long-term balance of commercial, military, and scientific activities in space. The project is producing a series of papers, intended to inform public discussion of legitimate uses of space, and induce a further examination of U.S. official plans and policies in space. Other papers consider the physical laws governing the pursuit of security in space (spring 2005), challenges posed to the U.S. space program by current policies (spring 2005), and Chinese and Russian responses to U.S. space plans (spring 2008).

The Academy convened a workshop to discuss the current paper in September 2007. We join the authors in thanking the participants in this workshop for their insights. We also thank members of the Academy’s Committee on International Security Studies for their thorough review of this paper in June 2007.

We acknowledge the excellent work of Phyllis Bendell, Christopher Davey, and Anne Read in helping to produce this report. We are, most of all, grateful to the authors for applying their knowledge and experience to these important issues.

The Rules of Space project is supported by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. We thank the Carnegie Corporation for its support and Patricia Nicholas for her assistance.

Carl Kaysen
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Co-chair, Committee on International Security Studies American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Paul K. MacDonald
American Academy of Arts and Sciences