Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security


Back to table of contents
Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

Beneath a rich diversity of opinion about current security issues, a dominant fact sets the practical foundation for policy worldwide. For at least fifteen years the United States has been financing its military establishment at a rate roughly equal to the rest of the world combined. As a result of that disparity, U.S. operating capabilities are unique in the contemporary world and arguably in history as well. Any other country would require more than a decade of extraordinary investment to match the U.S. capacity to project military power over distance, and no other country is yet attempting to make such an investment. When the popular phrase “sole superpower” is invoked, disparity of investment is what it most plausibly means.

That disparity does not confer the ability to exercise global hegemony, as is sometimes casually imagined. For all the romance about wielding military power, it is in fact a ruinously inefficient means of accomplishing most constructive objectives. As has become painfully apparent in the occupation of Iraq, it is one thing to defeat an opposing military establishment and quite another to shape the behavior of an entire society. The United States could forcefully alter the established pattern of sovereign jurisdiction in only a few exceptional circumstances. Moreover, its capacity for major combined arms operations cannot be comprehensively applied to the smaller-scale, more widely dispersed patterns of violence that currently pose the most active forms of threat. Nonetheless, in specific instances of its choosing, the United States is capable of bringing decisive coercive force to bear, and that potential is a riveting security consideration not only for those countries with reason to fear the United States but also for those indirectly implicated.

Because the provision of security is a central obligation of all governments on which their legitimacy depends, the disparity of capability creates fundamental issues of sovereign equity and makes the operating principles of the U.S. military establishment a matter of strong international interest. Those countries that are members of the U.S. alliance system enjoy a higher standard of protection against external assault than those that are not, but as a consequence they are also more entangled in whatever the United States does. Countries outside the U.S. alliance system must rely on their own resources, and some bear a heavy burden to do so. Those countries that are assumed by the United States to be threatening are themselves threatened by the implications of that assumption. For the protected and disregarded as well as the threatened, disproportionate power requires a commensurate degree of reassurance.

Most of the world therefore finds troublesome the George W. Bush administration’s rejection or revision of policies traditionally used to convey reassurance by imposing agreed restraint on the development and use of military power. The United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that was considered by Russia to be a defining feature of the mutual deterrence relationship and essentially imposed a replacement arrangement that subjects Russia to progressively increasing strategic disadvantage. The United States proclaimed the intention to initiate the use of force, including nuclear weapons if necessary, to prevent states or terrorist groups that it considers to be inherently hostile from acquiring technology that could be used for mass destruction, and it cited that rationale as justification for the forceful removal of Saddam Hussein’s government. Undertaking the action against Iraq without international authorization violated the central rule of international security—the prohibition against aggression that the United States itself had defended in the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. Whatever is said or not said in official diplomacy, the combination of these developments has been disturbing to nearly all other countries and genuinely alarming to some.

In both instances the underlying security principles at stake were obscured by details of the specific situation. Russia chose to absorb the demise of bilateral strategic stabilization without immediate antagonistic reaction, and in the absence of dispute between the principal parties none of the countries indirectly affected—China, for example—had adequate standing to object. There was active protest against the invasion of Iraq but too little sympathy for Saddam Hussein to provide a good opportunity for pursing the broader implications. The two episodes provoked specific concern but did not generate extended debate about international security arrangements in general.

Smoldering international concern will nonetheless find occasions for expression. The Russian reaction to proposed U.S. missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic has been amplified by these deeper concerns to a degree that threatens the basic elements of nuclear and conventional force restraint in Europe. The underlying issues of equity and the organizing principles of policy that either mitigate or exacerbate them are too abstract to be the primary focus of practical discussion. If they are to be engaged and seriously contested, they need to be embedded in some defining context that serves both to illuminate them and to command sustained attention.

Many issues might serve these purposes, but the regulation of space activities is especially significant among them. In conducting global military operations, the United States already heavily depends on observation, navigation, and communications services provided by space assets. U.S. planning documents project not only the development of more advanced military support satellites but also the introduction of anti-satellite weapons, space-based missile defense interceptors, and space-based global strike weapons. The stated purposes are to observe potentially hostile activities as they occur, to enable rapid counterattack, and to be able to deny similar capability to all other countries. If those aspirations were ever to be achieved, they would enable highly intrusive forms of coercion that could be undertaken without the bur- dens of occupation. Any country threatened by that prospect has reason to ponder attacking the space assets on which the threat would depend, yet their efforts to develop anti-satellite options run a high risk of stimulating even greater U.S. military efforts to control and exploit space.

Fearing the destructive competition likely to be triggered under these circumstances, the attentive international community has been attempting to initiate negotiations to extend existing rules regulating military uses of space. This endeavor has been blocked largely by the refusal of the Bush administration to authorize the necessary negotiating mandate, but that refusal has not yet been broadly ratified. The American public is almost entirely unaware of current efforts to control space militarily, and many of the domestic constituencies that depend upon space activities do not appear to have examined the implications of the new U.S. space policy in realistic detail. Nor has the economic and technical feasibility of achieving complete U.S. military space dominance been the subject of comprehensive review by Congress, by a balanced independent commission, or by any other expert-level group that rep- resents the broad array of interests at stake. There are good reasons to expect that the development of space will eventually become a prominent venue for engaging the general issues of international security and for working out the more refined principles of policy and rules of behavior that common interest is likely to require. Those reasons derive in part from basic features of the space environment, in part from formative history, and in part from projected trends of utilization.