Michael KreponSpace Diplomacy

Quote of the week:

“And to meet the emerging threats in space, the newest war-fighting domain, the president has called for the creation of the U.S. Space Force.” – Vice President Mike Pence, “America needs a Space Force” Washington Post, March 3, 2019

Note to readers: Here is the talk I gave at an outstanding workshop on “Nuclear Risk Reduction in an Era of Major Power Rivalry” on February 20th, hosted by Lawrence Livermore’s Center for Global Security Research.

What happens in space depends on what’s happening on the ground. There appears to be an escalatory step-jump from friction on the ground to friction in space, but we can reasonably assume that this step-jump can happen quickly in the event that friction on the ground turns into warfare.

These assumptions could be mistaken, since I only know the tip of the iceberg when it comes to major power practices in space. The tip of the iceberg consists of information in the public domain.

Based on the tip of the iceberg, major powers seem to recognize that space warfare could be ruinous to that which they hold dear, and that kinetic space warfare could be especially ruinous. One reference point here is how few kinetic energy anti-satellite tests have been carried out. Information about non-kinetic ASAT tests is spotty, at best, and could undermine my analysis.

That said, it’s striking how few KE-ASAT tests have been carried out. Major space powers seem to need proof of concept, after which there’s no need to hit to kill. Given what we now know about the indiscriminate effects of KE-ASAT testing – especially tests that are poorly designed — countries that carry out such tests have deserved the opprobrium they have gotten. Since KE-ASAT testing, like nuclear testing, reflects perceptions of military utility, the paucity of KE-ASAT testing strikes me as being a very good thing.

We have, as yet, no instances of warfare in space between major powers, just as we have no instances of nuclear warfare between states possessing nuclear weapons, despite the occasional breakdowns of deterrence. This record strongly suggests that imperfect deterrence still has applicability with respect to space warfare, just as it does for nuclear warfare.

I suspect that deterrence of space warfare may be stronger than we commonly presume. Even if I’m wrong, it’s deeply unwise to denigrate deterrence in space.  It’s unwise for U.S. officials to say that space warfare isn’t a matter of ‘whether, but when.’ We stopped saying this about nuclear warfare decades ago. We don’t advertise the Strategic Command as a war-fighting force; why do we say this about the Space Command?

It also doesn’t help when we denigrate diplomacy. Diplomacy is a necessary accompaniment to deterrence, whether for space or nuclear weapons. Without diplomacy, deterrence increasingly takes on war-fighting aspects. The absence of space and nuclear diplomacy constitutes significant and dangerous voids. The quickest route to having our worst fears realized is to dispense with effective diplomacy. The worst of all geo-strategic worlds stares us in the face when we denigrate both deterrence and diplomacy.

The technologies associated with space warfare are newer than for nuclear warfare, but they are not all that new. Nor, in my view, are these technologies of greatest concern at present. Instead, there is incontrovertible evidence that the  most worrisome types of warfare at present are hybrid and information warfare.

There’s no reason for a major power to contemplate nuclear escalation in order to de-escalate when it can succeed by means of hybrid and information warfare. And there’s no reason for a major power to contemplate escalation to space warfare when it can succeed on the ground by means of hybrid and information warfare.

Methods of warfare that now demand our attention may not even be kinetic, let alone nuclear. Space and cyber warfare threats seem to me to require tried and true methods of deterrence, backed up by diplomacy. This is the same ‘deterrence + diplomacy’ formula that has helped prevent the use of nuclear weapons on battlefields for three-quarters of a century. Deterrence requires resilience, training, procurement and lots more. Diplomacy requires meaningful talking.

In my view, the diplomatic antidotes to space and cyber warfare are not treaties or ambitious bans; they are strengthened norms, rules of the road, or codes of conduct.

There’s one possible exception: a ban on KE-ASAT testing regardless of altitude or testing mechanisms employed to mitigate debris. This diplomatic initiative, however, lends itself to the slippery slope of wrangling over scope, the venue for negotiation, etc. And besides, a ban on KE-ASAT testing, while useful in terms of preventing even more indiscriminately lethal debris up there, doesn’t provide confidence when KE-ASAT tests are designed to miss or other non-kinetic means of ASAT testing are carried out. A tacit agreement among responsible space-faring nations not to carry out further KE-ASAT testing might therefore suffice.

The Stimson Center has long supported the idea of a code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations. Our first draft of a proposed code was written a quarter of a century ago. It was improved upon through a collaborative effort with Canadian, Russian, French and Japanese nongovernmental organizations.

The European Union drafted an exemplary Code of Conduct during the Obama administration. Regrettably, it received only lukewarm support from Washington and brickbats from Moscow and Beijing.

How to proceed? UN bodies are engaged in useful discussions on protecting the space environment. I’m inclined to supplement existing talks and institutional fora with discussions among the Big Three space-faring nations on guidelines for responsible conduct in space. A Big Three approach has been useful before in jump-starting the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Biological Warfare Convention. Back then, the United Kingdom was the third party. Now China has to be part of preliminary discussions toward norm building in the military as well as the commercial domains. Conditions do not yet appear ripe for a Big Three approach. Perhaps the creation of a U.S. Space Force will make conditions riper.

A code of conduct that focuses on debris mitigation, like the European Union’s draft, strikes me as the right focus, at least at the outset. Key guidelines might include the principle not to engage in purposeful, harmful interference of objects in space and to refrain from actions that damage or destroy space objects by any means. Another key principle, in my view, is that of individual and collective rights of self-defense if satellites are messed with. No one would give up the right of self-defense on the ground; why would anyone give it up in space?

Moscow and Beijing railed against the right of self-defense in the EU’s code of conduct, even as they were ramping up their space warfare capabilities. They weren’t serious back then. Now that they’ve gotten the Pentagon’s full attention, perhaps a three-way discussion on space diplomacy might make more headway.


  1. Phil Tanny (History)

    Michael writes…

    “It’s unwise for U.S. officials to say that space warfare isn’t a matter of ‘whether, but when.’ We stopped saying this about nuclear warfare decades ago.”

    We did? I would counter that unless someone has a credible plan for how all the nuclear powers will disarm together, at the same time, in unison, then we are indeed talking about when. This amateur can find no such plan anywhere myself, but maybe you can?

    What nuclear power will disarm while it’s rivals maintain an arsenal? If none, that means everybody disarms together or nobody disarms. If that’s true, that would seem to mean that any nuclear power can veto the entire process. In many countries that means a single human being could veto the entire disarmament process. That’s how we get to “when”.

    Michael writes…

    “The quickest route to having our worst fears realized is to dispense with effective diplomacy.”

    Yes, and effective diplomacy will have to be maintained perpetually for as long as these weapons exist. And there’s nothing in the record of human history to suggest effective diplomacy can be maintained permanently. Another way to get to “when”.

    Michael writes…

    “Instead, there is incontrovertible evidence that the most worrisome types of warfare at present are hybrid and information warfare.”

    Can we enlarge the scope beyond the present? What seems the most worrisome to me is that the knowledge explosion will keep generating ever more, ever greater powers, at an ever accelerating pace. So even if we solve all the challenges you touch on here, there will be plenty more to come, and they will come at us at an ever faster pace. Sooner or later this accelerating process outstrips our ability to manage. It’s an unsustainable process, unless maybe….

    We shift our focus from the guns, to we who are holding the guns. There’s one very specific reason we have to worry so much about what will pop out of Pandora’s box next.

    Violent men.


  2. Phil Tanny (History)

    Apologies, I’m really not trying to hijack the topic, I’m trying to think it through.

    Does any technical analysis of disarmament really matter? If an accelerating knowledge explosion is going to hand violent men ever more powerful tools does it matter whether those tools are nuclear weapons, AI weapons, cyber weapons, robot weapons, space weapons, all of the above etc? Whatever the arsenal, won’t the end result of handing violent men ever more powerful tools sooner or later be civilization collapse? Is a focus on trying to manage technology ultimately doomed to failure?

    If yes, what if we shifted the focus away from technology and towards the human factor?

    Here’s an example to illustrate. Saddam Hussein is dead. Thus, we don’t have to worry about an Iraq nuclear deal because the source of the threat, a human being, has been removed from the equation. Sounds promising so far, but there’s no way to scale this up to remove all violent men. To my knowledge, no society in history has succeeded in managing all violent men.

    So attempts to manage technology are doomed to failure, and attempts to manage violent men are as well. Seeing this, we could throw our hands up in the air, say goodbye to civilization, and prepare to die. Or…

    We could keep thinking.

    What if we’re reaching for some complex sophisticated analysis when really the source of the threat is ruthlessly simple? 95%+ of all the violence in the world is committed by men. Any kid can see this for themselves on their TV. If we want to survive, shouldn’t we be focusing on the primary source of all these existential threats?

    Are we getting so caught up in technical details that we’re failing to focus on the source of the problem? Rather than ask, “what does this have to do with space weapons?” we might instead ask, “what do space weapons really have to do with the problem we are trying to solve?”

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      There are two levels of violence here. One is individual or small group violence (e.g., rape, robbery, murder) that we commonly call crime. The other is inter-state violence that is normally carried out by non-criminals who are often trained to kill only as part of a war between states. Solving the problem of crime does not solve the problem of war, and vice versa.

      Arms control is less ambitious than the problem to solve war. The purpose of arms control can be to: 1) reduce the probability of war, 2) reduce the severity of war if war does occur, and 3) reduce the costs of armaments. In principle, complete disarmament could solve the problem of war, but other approaches to preventing war might also work.

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