Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Setting Limits on Legitimate Military Support

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Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

In the numerous international discussions anticipating space negotiations, Chinese diplomats have repeatedly indicated that some limitation on military support activities would have to be considered. They have not specified their concern and have not advanced any candidate proposal, but one can infer that the remarks refer to space support for the global strike missions the United States is explicitly developing. Because the principal weapons involved in those missions now or in the near term—advanced aircraft, cruise missiles, and conventionally armed ballistic missiles—would not be included in a formal ban on space weapons, the Chinese are raising the question as to whether some supplemental restriction on space-based military support would be necessary to restrict the capacity for sudden, long-range surprise attack. The unspoken implication is that China might not be willing to adhere to an interference ban or a space weapons ban without some agreed limitations on the future capabilities of force enhancement satellites or the conditions under which they can legitimately be used.

The Chinese suggestion generates such strong immune reactions within the United States that even those who support formal negotiations have generally avoided the topic for fear of political backlash against the other provisions. That the issue can indefinitely be avoided is doubtful, however. The prospects for global strike missions are significant enough to create a serious incentive for interference with military support assets, and that would have to be addressed in a fully developed regime of legal protection. Although no immediately apparent way exists to draw a boundary between support services that are legitimate and widely considered to be vital and support services that would be unacceptably threatening, some practical guidelines can be applied.

In any formal negotiation that included the topic, it would be appropriate to establish the presumption at the outset, perhaps as a condition for engaging in discussion, that it is legitimate for any country to use space for the kinds of passive military support activities that have traditionally been tolerated as conducive to international security and that any restriction to be considered would have to do with the possibility of substantial extensions of existing capabilities primarily associated with intrusive attack missions. Establishing such a presumption from the outset of negotiations would allow the topic to be addressed without appearing to compromise established rights. Also appropriate would be to focus discussion and perhaps limit the agenda to the most sensitive support services in question—primarily observation and tracking—and to exclude communications relay and navigation services that would be especially difficult to disentangle from legitimate activities. In the event that technological advances make possible very high resolution observation and real-time tracking anytime, anywhere, such that individual vehicles could be identified and followed for the amount of time required to attack from remote locations, some restraining rules would almost certainly have to be worked out. Otherwise heads of state and military commanders would perpetually be subjected to imminent personal threat. For the foreseeable future, expense alone will likely prevent blatantly objectionable levels of remote observation and tracking, but that practical fact should encourage formal discussion rather than substitute for it. The point would be to establish recognition of the principle and routine adherence to it, not to attempt to preclude any conceivable violation.