Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Immediate Implications

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Nancy W. Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

In the absence of some riveting incident that might command attention and require immediate action, the fundamental issues of space policy are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. By itself the topic does not normally engage voting constituencies, mass media outlets, or national leaders, and that fact makes difficult the adjudication of the underlying collision of purpose within the specialty communities involved. Space policy is one of many emerging issues that pose such a problem. The specific issues in question are nonetheless embedded in broader concerns that do command prominent attention. The connection of space policy to terrorism, to the agonies of civil conflict, or to disputes over national nuclear weapons programs are not direct or obvious enough to be noted in public discussions of those subjects, but they are significant enough in operational terms to have relevance. Space services are vital in bringing remote military power to bear on all of these circumstances.

The opportunity for conveying reassurance is especially relevant. As the implications of globalization are gradually absorbed, it is becoming ever more apparent that raw power—that is, the capacity for destruction—is not the sole or even primary determinant of security in most circumstances of concern. The ability to contain violence and to defend basic legal order is determined more by establishing justification that is credible across cultural boundaries than by wielding coercive force. It is occasionally necessary to engage in violence in order to control it, but it is routinely necessary to nurture consensual acceptance of legal order on which the prevention of violence fundamentally depends. Any threatened or actual use of official force that runs counter to a country’s own legal principles or to international legal rules affecting all countries thereby endangers its own purposes. Justification is an inevitable problem for the U.S. military establishment because of its preponderant capabilities, and that problem has been compounded by the projected aspiration of national military space dominance. The compounded effect, however, also creates an opportunity to provide reassurance. Serious concern is a precondition for significant relief.

The most readily available and most reasonably demanded form of reassurance would be to agree without preconditions to open formal negotiations on the control of space weapons. Because the United States has refused to engage in negotiations on that topic for nearly three decades, a willingness to do so would be considered significant, provided that the identity and behavior of the negotiators and the institutional support given to them conveyed an impression of good faith. Establishing a formal negotiating process would also have the effect of subjecting the advocates of dominance to the discipline of competition within the U.S. government, and that in turn might stimulate broader attention and encourage more balanced judgment than has recently been applied. The initiation of negotiations can be done on executive authority in the United States with no requirement for formal congressional approval or for specific substantive decisions. Responsible management of security policy requires that much at a minimum.

But the scope and significance of opportunity is much greater than the minimum requirement. Predictably, the United States will eventually require legitimizing international assistance to master communal violence in Iraq and elsewhere and will have to convey credible reassurance to countries beyond its current alliance system in order to secure that assistance. Also predictable is that the threat of terrorism will eventually compel much higher standards of managerial control over mass destruction technologies, especially nuclear explosives. As these imperatives are encountered and the potential interaction between them pondered, the vital importance of establishing global security accommodation for purposes of mutual protection will have to be acknowledged. The clandestine, dispersed forms of violence that currently pose the most troublesome threats could be much better contained by advanced monitoring techniques designed to control access to the means of mass destruction and to enable detection of especially dangerous operations. In particular, all nuclear explosives could in principle be continuously monitored, making terrorist diversion or any hostile use far more difficult to undertake than it currently is. Intimate collaboration among all the nuclear-capable states would be required to set up such an arrangement, however, and legacy deterrent practices would have to be subordinated to that purpose. As yet no official effort to explore the possibility has begun, but the latent danger of dispersed explosives under conditions of endemic violence can be expected to force serious consideration at some point. The fundamental problem with the concept of dominance and the likely cause of its ultimate demise is that it does not comprehend the implications of the shift in the scale and character of threat that is occurring under the conditions of globalization.

The operational rules that would be the focus of space negotiations do not directly address these emerging forms of threat, but a formal negotiation would engage the central issue of global security accommodation necessary to establish robust protection. If the major societies of the world and the globalizing economy on which they increasingly depend are to be protected against the debilitating destruction that violent dissidents are capable of inflicting, they will have to develop behavioral standards, monitoring capacity, and compliance mechanisms that keep the inherent danger within tolerable range. Because the services provided by space assets have become so important to human activities of all types, space negotiations are a natural venue for working out rules of accommodation in practical detail, thereby establishing the underlying principles. A negotiating process conscious of that broader significance does not appear to be an imminent prospect under the current political leadership in the United States, but it is a reasonable aspiration.