Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Banning Force Application Weapons in Space

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Authors
Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Project
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

In addition to prohibiting acts of interference in space and dedicated preparations to undertake them, advanced measures of protection would have to include a categorical ban on all types of weapons deployed in space for possible use against terrestrial targets. Otherwise the prohibition on interference would create a legal sanctuary for initiating attack. Negotiating an explicit ban would require some agreed determination of what constitutes a weapon and would have to contend with fertile imagination as to how deliberate damage might be inflicted. As a practical matter, however, the main problem would be conventional weapons of various designs intended for attack on the Earth’s surface or in the atmosphere.

The idea of attacking surface and airborne targets from space is one of the more fanciful features of the dominance vision. At present, no specific weapons conception would plausibly compete with standard alternatives already available for those missions, but because the idea is especially venture- some it has acquired ideological status for some of its advocates and is a source of emotional alarm for those potentially threatened.212 A formal ban on such weapons would be an exercise in reassurance that some are reluctant to give and many are eager to receive, but because there is no historical legacy to deal with and no development programs that have gone beyond the conceptual stage it would not pose as many immediate problems of definition and verification as would the other weapons categories. The ban would legally preclude the development of systems that countries would be unlikely to deploy once they carefully weighed technical, economic, and military considerations, but because it would constrain the exploration of feasibility it would be consequential. In terms of verification the ban would present the problem of determining that weapons development and deployment activities that are not being observed do not actually exist, and the principal difficulty would be that of setting an appropriate burden of proof.

ENDNOTES

212. The concept that is currently receiving the most attention, at least in the unclassified literature, is the FALCON idea for a launch-on-demand reusable HCV. If the HCV were to become technically feasible, it would not fit within the traditional definition of a space weapon as something that has been placed in orbit and thus could raise challenging definitional questions if negotiators wanted the new rules to cover it.