Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Outlawing Preparations for Interference

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Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

In support of a ban on acts of interference, a negotiated protective agreement would presumably also seek to prohibit dedicated preparations for interference so as to protect the arrangement against sudden collapse. A cease-fire agreement or the desist-from-firing variant is not robust if loaded guns are left in the hands of combatants.

That supportive provision would undoubtedly be more difficult to achieve. A prohibition on any further tests or operational deployment of designated anti-satellite weapons would effectively contain any threat from that source, because their development up to this point has been rudimentary. But the U.S. program for ballistic missile defense poses more of a problem. Exoatmospheric interception of ballistic missile warheads also enables attack on satellites in LEO, and technical reasons lead some to believe that this is in fact the most credible mission. Kinetic interception of missile warheads can readily be defeated by accompanying decoys, but that tactic cannot be as effectively applied to space assets, which must emanate detectable signals over extended periods of time in order to perform their functions. Intense political commitment to missile defense in the United States and strategic resistance to it in China would undoubtedly be a major impediment to a ban on anti- satellite systems. That is not a valid reason for categorically rejecting the idea, but the issue is one that would require more consequential decisions than governments of any type are usually willing to make.

The central question is whether to attempt an inherently questionable distinction between ballistic missile defense and anti-satellite functions or whether to pursue an arrangement that encompasses both problems. The former approach might involve agreed limits on the testing and deployment of missile defense interceptors (number of launchers and their location) but would be burdened by the basic fact that a missile defense deployment of any size would pose a significant threat to the small number of sensitive satellites, each one of which is significant. The latter approach would be more venturesome and for that reason more interesting. A logical combined arrangement would require that any missile defense deployment be dedicated to global rather than exclusively national protection and that it be jointly operated to assure that commitment. Such an arrangement would not preclude the capability for satellite attack, but with suitable internal rules it would prevent operational preparation or actual execution of such attacks. Even dedicated advocates of missile defense might eventually warm to that idea. As a practical matter, the technical prospects of missile defense are so poor that establishing global legitimacy might well prove to be a necessary requirement for sustaining the effort.