Michael KreponSpace Diplomacy

Those who still seek an ambitious military space diplomacy initiative during the Obama administration would do well to dwell on New START. President Obama, already tackling half a dozen outrageously hard problems, has to work overtime to convince two-thirds of the Senate to consent to ratify a modest but essential treaty. Senate Republicans (including deficit hawks) have held him up for ransom, and Republican presidential hopefuls have been Palinized. Republican Senators will be more numerous after November 2nd, and any Republican who claims to be worried that New START confines U.S. missile defense options would be apoplectic about a treaty banning weapons in space.

Moscow and Beijing can read these tea leaves, so will they continue to champion an unverifiable space treaty whose scope far exceeds the ABM Treaty?

Here is the key provision of their proposed treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT):

States Parties undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kind of weapons, not to install such weapons on celestial bodies, and not to station such weapons in outer space in any other manner; not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects; not to assist or encourage other states, groups of states or international organizations to participate in activities prohibited by the Treaty.

The PPWT’s definition of “weapons in outer space” is:

any device placed in outer space, based on any physical principle, specially produced or converted to eliminate, damage or disrupt normal function of objects in outer space, on the Earth or in its air, as well as to eliminate population, components of biosphere critical to human existence or inflict damage to them

As for the “use of force” or “threat of force,” the PPWT defines these as

any hostile actions against outer space objects including, inter alia, those aimed at their destruction, damage, temporarily or permanently injuring normal functioning, deliberate alteration of the parameters of their orbit, or the threat of these actions

The PPTW makes no mention of ground-based ASATs. Verification measures are not integral to the proposed treaty, but may be considered later in an additional protocol.

If Beijing and Russia stick to their guns, they would doom a rare opportunity to accomplish something modest but essential and doable. The Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, is willing to engage seriously on military space diplomacy. The necessity to do so is obvious: Major space-faring nations have experienced four wake-up calls in close succession between January 2007 and February 2009 — a successful Chinese “hit-to-kill” ASAT test; another major debris-causing event, the break-up of a Russian missile body; a U.S. shoot down of a dying satellite, ostensibly for safety reasons; and a collision between a dead Russian satellite and a functioning U.S. satellite.

The need for rules of the road relating to debris mitigation – including ASAT tests — and space traffic management, have never been clearer. More ambitious approaches, such as a complete ban on ASAT testing or “weapons” in space, would be desirable, but are impractical and unverifiable. (How would you deal with “shoot-to-miss” ASAT tests?)

The last Really Big Space Treaty — unless you want to count the ABM Treaty, which banned the development, testing and deployment of space-based ABM systems or components — was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. To understand how the Kennedy administration wisely laid the groundwork for the OST by means of a UN General Assembly resolution, check out the inestimable Ray Garthoff’s article in the Winter 1980/1 issue of International Security, “Banning the Bomb in Outer Space.”

The OST, which is known as the Magna Carta for space, codified some essential norms, but is greatly in need of updating. This is hard to do because Presidents always have higher treaty making (i.e., nuclear) priorities. As I have written here before, problems of scope, definition and verification related to military capabilities in space are damn-near intractable. And when, on those rare occasions when negotiations begin, somebody overreaches badly. The last time the United States was ready to discuss ASATs, during the Carter administration, one of the Kremlin’s opening gambits was to define the space shuttle as an ASAT.

The European Union has an alternative to the PPWT. It is placing the finishing touches on a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations that would update the OST’s norms. The previous draft of the EU’s Code of Conduct, released in December 2008, included these key principles:

the responsibility of States to take all the appropriate measures and cooperate in good faith to prevent harmful interference in outer space activities

the responsibility of States, in the conduct of scientific, commercial and military activities, to promote the peaceful exploration and use of outer space and take all the adequate measures to prevent outer space from becoming an area of conflict

The EU Code of Conduct’s “general measures” include:

The Subscribing States will establish and implement national policies and procedures to minimise the possibility of accidents in space, collisions between space objects or any form of harmful interference with other States’ right to the peaceful exploration and use of outer space

The Subscribing States will, in conducting outer space activities: refrain from any intentional action which will or might bring about, directly or indirectly, the damage or destruction of outer space objects unless such action is conducted to reduce the creation of outer space debris and/or justified by imperative safety considerations

Take appropriate steps to minimise the risk of collision

When executing manoeuvres of space objects in outer space, for example to supply space stations, repair space objects, mitigate debris, or reposition space objects, the Subscribing States agree to take all reasonable measures to minimise the risks of collision

The Subscribing States resolve to promote the development of guidelines for space operations within the appropriate fora for the purpose of protecting the safety of space operations and long term sustainability of outer space activities

With respect to debris mitigation, the EU’s draft Code of Conduct calls on participating states to “refrain from intentional destruction of any on-orbit space object or other harmful activities which may generate long-lived space debris.”

After publishing its draft Code of Conduct in December 2008, EU officials went on the road to solicit comments from countries not directly involved in the drafting process. A final version of the EU Code incorporating some of these inputs should be approved this fall. Then what?

The EU Code needs to be “de-regionalized.” But how? The Obama administration is likely to look kindly on the EU’s efforts, but if other major space-faring nations outside of Europe – especially India, Japan and Brazil – are not on board, Russia and China will have cover to remain holier than thou. The steps taken by key European capitals and Washington between the release of the EU’s final product and a UN General Assembly resolution will matter greatly. The challenge for Tokyo, New Delhi and Brasilia will be to step up to their responsibilities as major space-faring nations. The challenge for Beijing and Moscow is to agree to the essential rather than to insist on the impractical.


  1. 3.1415 (History)

    If such a moderate treaty is so hard to ratify in the US, it is not difficult to imagine that nothing will be done for the outer space, until a really big event takes place and all parties involved have to do something.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Which “moderate treaty” are you talking about?

      The PPWT is not moderate. It deals only with the subject of weapons in space, and on that subject it says “Absolutely none, ever, period”. That is, at its core, the most extreme position one can take on the issue. I suppose we could debate moderation vs. extremism in the methods by which the absolute prohibition is enforced, but that’s not terribly useful.

      The EU Code of Conduct, is truly moderate. But it is not a treaty. It is the domestic space policy of a foreign quasi-nation, or perhaps a somewhat informal agreement between a group of nations from which the United States is encluded. It can’t be ratified in the United States for the same reason that, e.g., the latest Eurozone banking regulations can’t be ratified in the United States.

      If the EU Code of Conduct had been written up as a treaty at the start, and signed by the then-popular President Obama, it would probably have been ratified sometime last year. Right now, it would have to wait on the midterm elections, but in the long run the odds would be pretty good. The EU Code of Conduct, is the sort of moderate proposal that could very easily be ratified in the United States if it were a treaty. Which it isn’t.

      Michael Krepon’s point is that if something like the EU Code of Conduct were presented as a treaty, it would be the Russians and the Chinese that would refuse to ratify it. Or sign it, or even allow it to be openly debated. I suspect he is right. The Russians and Chinese have little to gain from a moderate treaty in this area. They’d gain more from the extreme absolute-prohibition version, which they won’t get. And they’d gain something at least from being able to cast the United States as the Evil Bad Guys Who Won’t Sign A Space Weapons treaty, which they can get if they can shape the debate such that moderate proposals are excluded.

    • FSB (History)

      I think “pi” was talking about New START, btw.

      PS: better to round up to 3.1416

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      The PPWT would ban the stationing of weapons in space, something which it is fair to say is currently proposed by only extremists in the United States and by almost nobody else on the planet.

      As indicated in my longer reply to Michael, I am not a big fan of the PPWT, but currently it remains the case that there are no weapons deployed in space, and I don’t think it is in any way extreme to propose that things be kept this way for the indefinite future, if possible.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)


    The question of whether President Obama could get a comprehensive space security convention past the US Senate at this point (and it sounds like you are among those who have already written this President off as a lame-duck one-termer) is less interesting than how far he could go in changing the tone and direction of US policy, and the ideas in currency among policy elites, away from the craven pursuit of space weaponization that has characterized the United States for three decades now. Obama has reasserted the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world, and he could do at least as much for space, where the goal of zero space weapons is actually far more modest since it is still approximately where we remain, with only minor infringements.

    It would be good if the President had some help in this from ostensible arms control advocates, instead of more flogging the miscarried fetus of the Russian-Chinese PPWT and repetition of the utterly content-free assertion that space arms control would be any more “unverifiable” than nuclear, chemical, conventional, naval, or any other arms control.

    As to the former, the PPWT’s definitions are perfectly usable, but also not as good as others we can easily come up with if we try. Its omission of ground-based ASATs is of course what makes the PPWT a non-starter, and it has many other weaknesses, but rather than criticizing Russia and China, American arms controllers ought to be criticizing US policy and describing a more comprehensive treaty which the US could advance as a counterproposal.

    As to verifiability, you ask “How would you deal with “shoot-to-miss” ASAT tests?” Good question. I assume you refer to the fact that kinetic energy ASATs can be tested pretty well in close flybys of satellite targets, without needing actual impacts. But this only works if the flybys are in fact very close, i.e comparable to the size of the target, say a few meters off. Any such near-interception at high velocity in Earth orbit would be observable by ground-based or space-based telescopes, as well as radar, and would run the risk of an accidental collision producing an obvious debris shower. So a prohibition of such tests would actually be one of the most verifiable of any arms control measures that are in effect or that could be proposed.

    But of course, a kinetic energy ASAT test ban, while highly verifiable, would be technically meaningless as long as it permitted testing and unrestricted deployment of kinetic energy “missile defense,” since testing such weaopns against “suborbital” targets is sufficient to establish their lethality against orbital ones.

    And kinetic energy ASAT is also irrelevant to the current frontiers of the space arms race, which are ground-based laser dazzlers and radio jammers, and maneuvering microsatellites for low-velocity interception, observation and interference with satellites. But controls, monitoring and restriction of such activities are neither unverifiable nor useless if we want to prevent the further development and escalation of a space arms race.

    The EU Code of Conduct is a fine document, and I hope it will soon be endorsed as a matter of record by the United States. But it is not arms control, and is not a substitute for arms control. It places no meaningful obstacles in the path of the emerging space arms race, and will have zero effect even on the further development, testing, perfection and deployment of kinetic energy ASATs, such as the SM-3 Block IIs which the US currently plans to deploy on a massive scale worldwide.

    The kernel of a Space Security Convention is 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.

    Let all spacefaring powers commit to these principles first, then talk about how to implement them and verify compliance. Late as the hour may be, there is still time.

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    Isn’t it a problem that existing reconnaissance satellites function as artillery spotters? Would a country in a serious war with a spysat-operating enemy refrain from interfering with those satellites at the expense of suffering a grave military disadvantage?

    Perhaps a lesser treaty limiting the effects of ASAT weapons (no massive debris clouds) would be more practical.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      Reasonable terms for a space security convention would recognize the legitimacy of “peaceful” uses of outer space including military uses, while banning the stationing of weapons, where “weapons” are defined as those devices that actually project interfering, destructive or lethal force.

      Would a ban on interference with satellites used in military operations (or arguably as part of “weapons systems” be respected in wartime? Perhaps not, but it might take some time to improvise the means of interference, and since any nation that is likely to be able to physically attack a satellite is also likely to possess or be able to produce nuclear weapons, in the case of such a war we have worse things to worry about. The goal of space arms control would be to prevent a space arms race from making such a war more likely, by preventing the stockpiling of weapons such as ASATs which would then be available for rapid action at the onset of violence.

  4. Peter Brown (History)

    Good job here. This is another reason why much closer attention will be paid to the upcoming orbital debris removal workshop in Beijing in mid-October. What will be the tone and the general mood? Wait and see.

  5. John Schilling (History)

    The fundamental problem is that offensive counterspace weapons can be developed as or from dual-use systems, while defensive counterspace weapons pretty much have to be dedicated counterspace weapons. Offensive counterspace weapons can be brought to reliably operational satellite-killing status without ever being tested against a satellite; defensive counterspace weapons need extensive and overt on-orbit testing. Offensive counterspace weapons can be covertly deployed, or kept on the ground just short of deployment, whereas defensive counterspace weapons need to be ready on orbit when the shooting starts.

    And within the realm of offensive counterspace weapons, it’s the hard-kill sort that can be trusted to do the job on the basis of limited testing.

    So, in the event of a naive “no weapons in space” treaty or policy, the first shooting war between two spacefaring nations will simply result in all the artillery-spotting or otherwise militarily useful satellites of both sides, being turned to clouds of debris by things that weren’t Genuine Space Weapons(tm) until that moment. Unless perhaps one side is run by the terminally naive, in which case their enemies’ satellites will remain intact and they will lose the war.

    The alternative is, yes, an arms race in space. An arms race which the United States would certainly win, and possibly win by means of defensive and soft-kill offensive counterspace weapons. In that case, the first shooting war between spacefaring powers will result in some rather than all of the satellites being destroyed, and hopefully most of the destroyed satellites being intact derelicts rather than debris clouds.

    For everyone not actually participating in a shooting war against the United States, this is better. Obviously, the Russians and the Chinese would rather see all the satellites dead than see the United States win. It is unclear why anyone else would want to oblige them.

    And if it turns out that there never is a shooting war between spacefaring nations, then it hardly matters one way or another. Unless there is gratuitously messy testing of hardkill counterspace weapons in peacetime, which is the sort of thing that can easily and realistically be dealt with by negotiation.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      You do not explain what you mean by “defensive counterspace weapons.” If you mean countermeasures to ASAT attack such as decoys and evasive maneuver capabilities, these should not be considered weapons and would not need to be banned under a space security convention. If you mean “shield” companion satellites that would get in the way of attacking KE-ASATs, these are first of all, extremely dubious concepts, and second, might not be considered as weapons or might be placed in a category of objects not necessarily banned but restricted in number and capability.

      You say that “offensive counterspace weapons can be covertly deployed,” but if we can count Chinese ICBMs we ought to be able to count their ASATs, since both are deployed on the same rockets. At least, if we can get the Chinese to agree simultaneously to limits on their ICBMs and to a no-ASATs pledge, we would have the basis to ask them what all those extra rockets were about. Bear in mind that a few ASATs do not pose such a severe threat. An adversary would need dozens or hundreds to carry out a strike that could cripple the US in space (while leaving the rest of our military assets intact). If we are really so concerned about such a “space Pearl Harbor” we ought to be doing more about ORS and replacement satellites as well as non-space alternatives such as UAVs for reconnaissance, communications and navigation.

      You also don’t say what you mean by “things that weren’t Genuine Space Weapons(tm)”. The only objects other than dedicated ASATs that pose a serious ASAT threat are some “missile defense” systems (specifically, those whose boosters give them the range and altitude needed for effectiveness in the ASAT role) and nuclear ICBMs themselves. The latter pose an ASAT threat only if an adversary is willing to rock the boat of nuclear deterrence by using a nuclear weapon in space. If such an adversary exists, and has such a capability, we are indeed in trouble.

      What you do say is that “the United States would certainly win” a space arms race. That is an extremely foolish and dangerous notion. If we know anything about space, it is that it is an environment in which vulnerability is the rule. We can certainly deny the use of space resources to others, but we cannot assure it for ourselves. Especially since, in a serious space arms race, to the extent that anyone would “win” or be able to hold a dominating position for some period of time, it would be largely a contest of mass and numbers, and one whose course would be determined by the ability to pay the extremely high costs of launching and replacing vulnerable satellites and equally expensive space weapons. Given the current global economic outlook, I would not want to bet the future of the United States on that.

      The way to ensure security in space is to limit the threat with arms control, and to focus on survivability, countermeasures, replacement, and non-space alternatives. Together with peace-building on Earth and in space, this can help to avert the looming nightmare of an accelerating arms race toward instability and oblivion.

  6. Steven Dolley (History)

    Perhaps a lesser treaty limiting the effects of ASAT weapons (no massive debris clouds) would be more practical.

    How could that be done? Don’t KKVs, and as far as I know other ASAT technologies, inherently spread debris fields? or am I missing some category of technology that does clean kills in outer space? I’m not an astrophysicist, but I don’t see how that would be possible. let alone enforceable or verifiable.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Not all ASAT technologies involve KKVs. The details of non-kinetic ASATs tend to be rather classified, but I don’t think I risk endangering national security by pointing out that a highly maneuverable satellite with a robot arm and a can of spray paint could disable an imaging spysat without generating substantial debris 🙂

      And the proper way to test kinetic-kill ASATs, if there is such a thing, was demonstrated in the USA-193 incident. Aim your ASAT at a target that is already falling out of orbit, which is easy enough to arrange even if you can’t find one that’s doing so already. And make sure the ASAT itself is on either a suborbital or an
      escape trajectory.

      For best results, do the intercept at 100-150 kilometers or so – orbital dynamics require that any debris element return to approximately the point at which it was generated, once per orbit, and nothing that dips down below 150 kilometers every orbit will last very long. But even if you somehow have to do the intercept higher up, hypervelocity impacts tend to produce two debris clouds, one centered on the impactor and one on the target. If those are both on non-orbital trajectories, so will be most of the debris.

      Shouldn’t be too difficult to codify this in a treaty or informal agreement, if people are so inclined.

  7. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Don’t KKVs, and as far as I know other ASAT technologies, inherently spread debris fields?

    Many different kill mechanisms have been dreamed up that wouldn’t produce the debris that a multikilometer/second KKV does. Lasers attacking solar cells, electronic or high power microwave attacks, rendezvous that would spray paint on optics or solar cells, place small shaped charges on instrument sections, etc., etc.

    But no matter whether these somewhat fanciful kinder-gentler ASAT techniques are developed or not, I do think that, faced with the question, “Do we take out those satellites or do we lose the war?”, most military decision makers would elect to launch the KKVs and worry about the debris fields later.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      KKVs are not necessarily the most reliable satellite killers. If satellites are equipped with any kind of evasive maneuver capability or other countermeasures, “coorbital” ASATs that approach their targets relatively slowly, and can pursue evading targets or take the time to probe, assess and discriminate between the real target and (what would probably be only crude) decoys, may have an advantage over one-shot-one-chance KKV ASATs. In most cases, other kill mechanisms than direct impact could have a very high probability of effectiveness against satellite targets, with the added advantage of not producing debris.

  8. Allen Thomson (History)

    Mark Gubrund said,

    “Would a ban on interference with satellites used in military operations (or arguably as part of “weapons systems” be respected in wartime? Perhaps not, but it might take some time to improvise the means of interference”

    No, it need take very little time at all if KKV is included. The US, just to take a random example, already has a couple of dozen ASAT-capable ground-based interceptors deployed and will be getting a bunch more when SM-3 Block II comes on line later in the decade. As for the soft-kill type, it’s harder to tell because they’re generally easier to hide and can be hard even to recognize.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      The couple of dozen GMD interceptors do indeed pose an ASAT threat, but one that is limited in numbers and basing locations, as well as the altitude reach of the rockets. SM-3 Block II poses a more severe threat, because of larger numbers and globally mobile deployment. SM-3 Block II should be canceled, and GMD decommissioned. Strategic “missile defense” is a destabilizing boondoggle that reduces US national and global security. But, if I am unable to persuade my fellow countrymen to come to their senses and abandon missile defense follies in the near term, it is still conceivable that these systems could be “grandfathered” under altitude and numerical limits, so that at least some essential space assets could be kept out of range and so that the ultimate size of the threat would be known to be limited. States deploying such “missile defense” systems could be asked to declare that they are not intended as ASAT weapons and to justify their existence in terms of specific ballistic missile threats. Once such limits are in place, we can work on getting rid of the stupid things.

      “Soft-kill” ASATs, kept on Earth, are no easier to hide than ICBMs or kinetic energy ASATs kept on Earth. And while they are hardly “fanciful” or dubious in their practicality, they do require development and testing.

      Part of the logic of space arms control is that, while states might continue to hold some level of ASAT capability, under a declared space weapons ban the threat would be limited below the level that can be maintained covertly or behind a screen of ambiguity and dual-use. With the threat thus contained, defensive measures including hardening, countermeasures, replacements on hand, and non-space alternatives can be used to implement a robust infrastructure whose survivability would deny the benefits of using any residual antisatellite weapons or capabilities.

  9. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    What will cause the militarization of space? Game changes. Currently there is no real driver other than denying space to the US. But that’s a tall order, a nation would have to attack LEO as well as MEO. Maybe even GEO. But what might make this a tempting option? Perhaps a large military stand off ala the former intergerman border. But that’s not really in the cards.

    The clear and present danger that will deny space to the US military is American economic weakness. But what believable development might push someone to develop a real asat capability? Perhaps a satellite system to find and track mobile missile launchers, and/or find and track submerged SSBN’s. But that would mean the US would want to chase Russian and or Chinese ICBM’s into silos or subs, and have the ability to conduct a crippling first strike. Again we’re just not living in that kind of world. Yet.

    I think given our times, which will change no doubt, arms controllers are trying to counter a near theoretical technology that has no overbearing pressure to bring these systems to operational status in the near or mid term. So is this diplomatic foresight or ideological foolishness? Wish I knew…..

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