Michael KreponCanada Reclaims its Space

Canada is again a serious player on space security. One case in point is a thoughtful paper submitted to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva last June (CD/1865, “Working Paper on the Merits of Certain Draft Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures and Treaty Proposals for Space Security”).

This Working Paper begins with a reminder of how closely the Outer Space Treaty’s terms were foreshadowed in the prior Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which was adopted by the United Nations on December 13, 1963. The inference here is clear: When domestic and international politics are not conducive to ambitious treaty making, focusing on guiding principles as well as transparency and confidence-building measures constitutes a sound diplomatic strategy. Multiple use space technologies, such as BMD programs that could have ASAT applications, are also not conducive at present to treaty making.

So how might the international community best update core principles and norms of space security? The European Union has tabled a draft Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations which could serve, with subsequent inputs from other nations, as a basis for updated principles and norms. Over time, norms that become customary practices could evolve into more formal arrangements.

One critical element of the EU draft is a provision of “no harmful interference.” This principle is not new – it can be found in the Outer Space Treaty itself, and in a succession of strategic arms control and reduction treaties, including the recently completed New Start accord. Under these agreements, signatories are obligated not to interfere with satellites used to monitor compliance with treaty provisions.

Norms for space matter because many nations know how to interfere with satellites. Restraint or interference can become contagious, whether during peacetime, crises, or the conduct of warfare. It is in the U.S. national security to affirm the norm of no purposeful, harmful interference due to America’s heavy reliance on space. Because of the contagious, pernicious effects of interference, other major space-faring nations might also see the wisdom of affirming this norm.

Not all states abide by international norms, confirming their outlier status. For example, Iran and Libya have interfered with satellites broadcasting information to which they objected. A Code of Conduct could help clarify malpractices and facilitate remedial action, when warranted. But what, exactly, does “no harmful interference” mean in a contemporary context? And how does this injunction relate to “space weapons” that are hard to define and confirm? If an international norm of no purposeful, harmful interference is to be strengthened, is it better to delve into particulars, or not?

The Canadian paper asks a very tough but inescapable question: “Should the world’s first space-based weapon be granted safe passage or freedom from harmful interference in outer space?” If the answer to this question is “no,” as the Canadian paper implies, then it is either OK to interfere with presumptive space weapons (including, perhaps, by extreme measures) or, as Ottawa prefers, countries can negotiate a ban on space-based weapons. But whether or not a ban on space weapons could somehow materialize, how would the international community know whether a space-based weapon is orbiting overhead? By inspecting launch payloads? Doubtful. By widely sharing highly sensitive intelligence information? Also doubtful. The treaty Ottawa seems to endorse won’t eliminate the problem it has highlighted, nor the available means to interfere, damage or destroy satellites. So whether or not a treaty or a Code of Conduct is in place, Ottawa’s question still pertains: Should an object in space that may be a weapon be granted a free ride?

One answer to this question is that some norms that apply during peace time do not apply during war. Another way to deal with this dilemma is by means of deterrence and threats that leave something to chance. Major space-faring nations are quite capable of interfering, damaging and destroying satellites, so deterrence could apply in space as well as on terra firma. Another way to address Ottawa’s question is by including a “supreme national interests” or “right of self defense” clause in a Code of Conduct that could override the general principle of no purposeful, harmful interference with space objects. Other suggestions are hereby solicited.


  1. yousaf

    “so deterrence could apply in space as well as on terra firma.”

    It certainly could assuming we — and everyone else in space — had perfect space situational awareness to be able to attribute causes of space failures. (e.g. Who just killed my satellite?)

    Absent that, space “deterrence” is ill-defined and unworkable.

  2. Janet M. Simons (History)
  3. Mark Gubrud


    Let’s remember what the Canadian paper proposes.

    Explicitly referencing both the Russian-Chinese draft treaty for the prevention of placement of weapons in outer space, and the Obama campaign and early White House website statement calling for a global ban on weapons for interference with satellites, Canada proposes uniting the two in the form of a treaty intended to prevent space weaponization.

    The Canadian approach is summarized as “drafting hard security guarantees first, as a soft declaration of legal principles…” This is not a Code of Conduct proposal, it is an arms control proposal. It would ban space-based weapons and testing of antisatellite weapons.

    Quoting from existing treaties and official documents, the Canadian working paper rebuts claims that space weapons are undefinable, or that this matters. It shows that reasonable language can be found with a little looking.

    Unfortunately, the Canadian proposal only suggests an ASAT test ban, missing a formal declarative commitment not to develop or deploy ASATs. That’s a serious weakness because an ASAT test ban, especially one framed as a ban on debris-creating KE ASAT tests only, is a very weak impediment (none at all, really) to the development and proving of even KE ASATs, not to mention all the other ASAT modes of attack which the US and any challengers are much more likely to want to use.

    Now, as to some of your arguments,

    Norms do matter and one norm that matters very much is the development, testing, possession, and even transfer of space weapons by the United States or any nation. The most important norm to have is this: no space weapons. Let’s have at least a declaration by all spacefaring powers that they do not have, and will not develop, test, produce, stockpile or transfer space weapons, which are

    1. Any weapon for interference with space objects stationed in outer space, and

    2. Any weapon stationed or prepared for stationing in outer space.

    Start with that. Why not? After all, if a commitment is really unclear, nobody can keep you to it, can they? But I think this one is really quite clear enough. Not that lots of smart people won’t have lots of work to do arguing about particular cases and criteria which might distinguish weapons from non-weapons space objects. Let the arguing begin with a commitment by everyone that we are not going to have space weapons, whatever that means.

    As for the “tough but inescapable question,” a treaty that bans all space weapons, both space-based weapons and ASATs, addresses this question in a manner that is self-consistent and satisfactory from the point of view of realistic security concerns. It posits that:

    1. Space objects stationed in outer space shall enjoy sanctuary from harmful interference or the threat of harmful interference, and weapons for such harmful interference shall not be prepared.

    2. Space objects stationed in outer space shall not carry weapons, and weapons shall not be stationed in outer space, nor prepared for stationing in outer space.

    Now, as long as both rules are observed, we have no problem. However, if a space object were to carry a weapon, it would violate rule #2. The question is whether the treaty should then recognize an exception to rule #1 applying only to the particular object in violation of rule #2. It would be an outlaw object, therefore subject to interference, at a minimum. But to be ready for such a contingency would imply the pre-existence and maintenance of weapons in violation of rule #1. There would then of course also need to be under the treaty a mechanism for determining the outlaw status of space objects, and the authorization of action to be taken against it, presumably by the militaries of member states. All this seems a lot to demand of a mere arms control treaty. It does not seem practical to me.

    What does seem practical is to ask for, and obtain (see the history of PAROS votes) a global commitment to these rules or principles, and work from there to construct a system of verification and assurance of adherence to them.

    If somebody then does go ahead and deploys space-based weapons or an arsenal of obvious ASATs, a likely outcome for the proposed Space Security Convention would be its collapse, particularly if the offender were a major nuclear and space power, as it almost certainly would be.

    Fortunately, the threat of such a “breakout” scenario is remote and much less severe than might be imagined. It is very unlikely for one nation to steal a march on all others by secretly developing space weapons and then suddenly deploying them. For such a strategy to be successful, they would have to use the weapons almost immediately, otherwise other nations would race to deploy countermeasures and space weapons of their own. And using the weapons means fighting a major war with another nuclear power, at least. Which major power is going to pursue such a strategy?

    The slightly less remotely likely scenario is that North Korea or Iran orbits a satellite we don’t like. In that case, even if we had no ASAT capability, we could slap something together as quickly as needed if, in fact, it was needed. Which is extremely unlikely ever to be the case.

    You are right that some norms that apply during peace time do not apply during war. Not nuking your neighbors, for instance. You know, back in the good old days people somehow understood that space weapons were verboten because space war would be nuclear war; it was almost impossible to imagine that the United States and Soviet Union would be blasting each other’s satellites out of the sky and not end up blasting each other’s cities the same day. Now we’ve got people citing the Laws of Armed Combat to justify space warfare and space weapons, and the United States remains the principal obstacle to progress towards a Space Security Convention that incorporates a space weapons ban.

  4. kme

    “supreme national interests” or “right of self defense” clauses would seem to allow harmful interference with satellites critical to directing attacks in progress against a country – or even pre-attack intelligence gathering – negating much of the point of the treaty in the first place.

    I mean, countries are hardly going to start attacking satellites if it’s <i>not</i> in their “supreme national interests”, are they?

  5. yousaf (History)

    Another aspect of what is unclear when folks talk about space deterrence is whether they mean:

    1. If you kill my satellite — and I can somehow attribute cause — then I kill yours


    2. If you kill my satellite — and I can somehow attribute cause — I will attack you with nukes(!) or conventional arms.

    Case (1), which Michael mentions, is likely not a deterrent: some nations may not care if you hurt their satellites, at least not as much as the US may care about getting one its own hurt.

    Within Case (2) the nuke threat is not credible — the nuclear taboo is too strong to be broken for such a relatively minor provocation.

    There may be some merit in the US announcing “If we find out that you messed with our satellites, we will feel free to attack your ship/airfield etc. with conventional arms”

    I touched on this point in an article in the Bulletin a couple of years ago.

    “Fielding offensive space weapons for the sake of deterrence also doesn’t make sense because the United States relies much more heavily on its satellites than any of its adversaries. A better way to deter attacks on U.S. satellites would be for Washington to make clear that any attack on its space assets would be considered an attack on U.S. soil and result in a heavy conventional retaliatory attack.

    Ultimately, the protection of the capabilities facilitated by space assets is needed. For instance, having a fiber-optic backup system for certain high-value communication satellites is much smarter than maintaining many expensive, ineffective bodyguard satellites. Alternate redundant non-space systems, whenever possible, are the smartest defense. The United States could also have redundant satellites ready to replace any losses in those satellites for which no land-based backups exist. Temporary and reversible electronic countermeasures that could throw off the guidance systems of incoming ASATs are another sensible defense. Better Space Situational Awareness is also badly needed, if for nothing else, than to properly tell apart a satellite attack from a satellite malfunction or natural interference such as a strong solar flare or debris impact.”

  6. Mark Gubrud


    You are certainly right that a threat to respond to an attack on a satellite, particularly after some time had been taken to determine with certainty the nature and origin of the attack, with nuclear weapons is not credible. Which is why I don’t believe anyone has made such a threat or proposed it be made.

    But as I have observed many times, all current potential space weapons powers are also nuclear weapons powers. This includes states like India, Israel and Iran. In fact, all potential space weapons powers are also at least potential nuclear weapons powers. This has some implications for the idea of “space deterrence” and what the prospect of war and armed confrontation in space would mean.

    It is extremely unlikely that the United States will find out that a physical attack on one of its satellites was carried out by a nation against which we would at present want to launch any kind of physical assault in retaliation. North Korea? They torpedo a South Korean ship and everybody just acts embarrassed. China? Remember the P-3 incident? Or the Belgrade Embassy?

    On the other hand, if China or Russia or anybody were to suddenly launch a massive strike on American military space resources, I suspect attribution would be immediate and unambiguous, and it would be taken as an unambiguous signal of the onset of war, and may God help us.

    When we contemplate the prospect of an arms race in space, we should understand that we are standing at the precipice of extreme danger. The main purpose of an agreement to ban space weapons is to avert this danger, to declare that we are not going down that road, which leads only to an ever more unstable standoff between increasingly complex weapons systems trained on each other and primed to react, retaliate or preempt if possible. All of which is not at all cute if the players of this deadly game are the world’s nuclear and space powers.

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