Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security


Back to table of contents
Nancy W. Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

If the constructive use of space does unavoidably require international accommodation, as originally presumed, and if the pursuit of assertive national dominance is recognized as both unrealistic and provocative, then a major reformulation of current U.S. policy will be necessary and will require serious consideration of enhanced legal protection built upon the principles and legal obligations of the OST. If defeating belligerent reactions to an assertive policy of dominance is not feasible, then preventing such reactions by conveying credible reassurance, which almost certainly would require legally binding commitments, becomes vital. The relative capacity and recent behavior of the United States is such that simple declarations of benign intent and voluntary behavioral guidelines are inadequate to assuage concerns. Responsible assessment of the situation must therefore anticipate eventual negotiations to elaborate the existing rules regulating space activity in order to assure equitable protection for all countries. If dominance is not possible, enhanced legal protection is not merely a necessary concession to other countries but rather the predominant interest of the United States itself. Although proposals designed to improve legal protection have been advanced in the PAROS discussions in the CD, none of these appears to have been taken seriously enough by the U.S. government to have been systematically reviewed. Since the suspension of ASAT negotiations with the Soviet Union in 1979, the United States has refused to engage in any formal discussion of additional regulation, and the notoriously laborious process of working out acceptable details has not even started. The central issues and applicable principles are nonetheless reasonably apparent, and plausible outcomes can be visualized even if the exact content and timing cannot be. Formal negotiations designed to provide more robust legal protection for space activities would seek:

  • to prohibit deliberate interference with legitimate space assets and dedicated preparations to undertake interference;
  • to prohibit the deployment in space of all types of weapons;
  • to distribute the burdens and benefits of verification-related monitoring in an equitable manner; and
  • to define the legitimate limits of space-based support for military operations.

A fully developed legal regime would require acceptable specification for all of these elements and would undoubtedly be difficult, but not impossible, to achieve. Even a partial set of these measures, however, could compete with partial realization of the dominance vision as a basis for security, and the process of deliberation would be a necessary means of pursuing practical consensus on the underlying principles in question—most notably, the balance between competition for national advantage and collaboration for mutual protection.