Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Sharing the Burdens and Benefits of Monitoring

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Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

Verification, compliance management, and enforcement of various layers of prohibition to a high standard of assurance would require significant innovation and would be a major topic of formal negotiations. Relying solely on nationally controlled assets to detect violations would be unwise. No other country is currently able to match the extensive U.S. system for tracking space objects, and international space situational awareness is substantially dependent on information the United States agrees to share. Even the United States considers its existing space surveillance capabilities inadequate for current needs, let alone for monitoring compliance with new rules regulating military space activities. To the extent that deliberate interference with space assets or space-based weapons are considered to be significant threats, the basic capacity for monitoring space objects would have to be improved, and arrangements for distributing the resulting information would have to be worked out.

In an informal “non-paper” circulated in 2004, the Chinese and Russian delegations to the CD jointly reviewed the various proposals that have been advanced to assure compliance with a categorical ban on space weapons.213 Some proposed measures have involved direct inspection of satellites and their supporting facilities prior to launch, while others have relied on remote observation of the launch itself and of subsequent activities in orbit. The document notes that France, Canada, and the former Soviet Union have each separately proposed the creation of an international space monitoring agency with the authority and capacity to conduct remote observation or perform direct inspection. The non-paper catalogs predictable objections to different verification schemes, including opposition to on-site inspection, resistance by states that have space surveillance capabilities to sharing that technology or the information from it, and reluctance to bear the financial burden. The non-paper suggests that the first step should be agreement on the legal commitments to be included in a new space treaty, which could be of value even without verification and which could lead to agreement on verification commensurate with the security value of the obligations.

The joint assessment also suggests what is evident; namely, that the prospects for any new legal arrangements to constrain and monitor military space activities would be determined primarily by the United States, which has not only the most-developed monitoring capability but also the largest interests at stake. The United States has made the greatest investment in space assets and is substantially dependent on them for conducting global military operations. The potential vulnerability of these assets to relatively unsophisticated attack presents a more significant threat than any other military establishment encounters in space, and the intrusive military missions that are enabled by these assets create the strongest incentive for others to engage in such attacks. A ban on space weapons would disproportionately benefit the United States, which therefore has the strongest reason to set and maintain exacting standards of verification. Because of the inherent threat the U.S. military presents to all other countries, the United States also has the strongest incentive to convey as well as to receive reassurance. Advanced verification would have both effects, and an inevitable principle of reciprocity would obtain, however unwelcome it might be to some: one must convey reassurance in order to receive it.

The basic means of doing so involve establishing broadly representative international participation in the space surveillance activities the United States currently conducts and in any future extension of those activities. As a practical matter the principal purpose of a verification arrangement is to assure that a prohibition on acts of interference and deployment of space weapons would not be seriously contested. Equitable participation in the verification arrangements would be the principal method of achieving that assurance. Monitoring capacities cannot guarantee detection of all conceivable violations at reasonable cost. An appreciable barrier must therefore be set such that the security risks associated with undetected violations are lower than the security risks without a verified agreement, but the major effect is on the attitudes of those who engage in the monitoring process. International standards are in fact powerful once they are adequately established. Verification arrangements are the primary means of institutionalizing standards— that is, of embedding them in the routine operations of governments—and direct operational participation is necessary to accomplish that. All space-faring countries and presumably some representation of other space users would have to be directly involved if the principal effect is to be achieved. Involvement means that they would contribute to the monitoring effort, would participate in operational management, and would receive the data generated.

The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, signed in 1975, already provides part of the legal foundation for an advanced verification arrangement. The convention makes states responsible for space objects that they launch, that they commission others to launch for them, or that are launched from their territory or facility, and it requires that states maintain a national registry of all such objects. The convention further requires that all states report to the UN Secretary General specific information from their national registry; notably, the time and location of launch as well as the orbital parameters and the general function of the object launched. Other agreements include more detailed launch notification and date- exchange obligations; most notably, a U.S.-Russian agreement to establish a Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC) and the multilateral Hague Code of Conduct (CoC).214 With an ambiguous definition of launching states and no compliance management provisions, the Registration Convention’s central registry is far from complete. The United States has not been reporting the launch of intelligence-gathering satellites even though they are usually identified by amateur observers. The United States is not the only country that fails to take seriously its launch registry obligations, but it is the only major space- faring member of the Hague CoC that currently does not submit the recommended prelaunch notifications to other member states.215 The United States should improve its own compliance and encourage others to do so by making access to U.S. space surveillance information contingent on compliance.

Beyond strengthening compliance with the Registration Convention and other relevant agreements, an advanced verification arrangement presumably would establish an international monitoring center to track space objects beyond their initial launch, to observe their interactions, and to warn of any events that appear to involve deliberate interference. Although operational authority and primary monitoring responsibility would probably remain in national channels at the outset, creating an international center would force evolving specification of what information is to be shared and what the division of labor among the national governments is to be. An international center would also provide the institutional base for eventually internationalizing primary monitoring authority, an independent check on national activities likely to be necessary for credible reassurance. The growing problems of orbital debris and space traffic management might well give at least as strong an incentive for such an arrangement as the possibility of deliberate interference does and might even require higher-resolution observation capabilities.


213. "Verification Aspects of PAROS," a non-paper by Chinese and Russian delegations to the Conference on Disarmament, 26 August 2004.

214. These agreements are detailed in Scott C. Larrimore, "International Space Launch Notification and Data Exchange," Space Policy 23 (2007): 172–179.

215. The State Department explanation is that the United States intends to use the same notification message to fulfill its obligations under both the Hague CoC and the JDEC agreements and that it does not want to submit the messages to Hague CoC members until the JDEC agreement is implemented. This explanation makes little sense. Russia has been submitting its notifications to the United States and other Hague CoC members but is threatening to stop its Hague CoC prelaunch notifications unless the United States begins them.