Michael KreponSecond Wind

The Obama administration’s arms control team has to be tired. It took great effort to secure two time-sensitive and essential agenda items – negotiating a new strategic arms reduction treaty to replace one that was due to expire in December 2009, and engineering a positive NPT Review Conference in May 2010.

President Obama succeeded on both fronts. On its merits, New START should have been a walk in the park, but die-hard Republicans turned ratification into a cliff-hanger. The NPT RevCon was also a must win, since the Treaty couldn’t afford another train wreck like the previous conference in 2005.

There was much else to do, right away. President Obama oversaw policy reviews, hosted a meaningful nuclear security summit, and articulated his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. There were also wars to conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other pressing agenda items with Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, the Arab Spring, Muammar Qaddafi, a flagging economy, a debt crisis, and Republicans on Capitol Hill who equate compromise with surrender. This list is exhausting, but not exhaustive.

Arms control agenda items rise to the top when they can’t be postponed. JFK felt compelled to do something about the scourge of atmospheric nuclear testing. Richard Nixon had no choice but to nail down the NPT and negotiate the Strategic Arms Limitation accords. President Carter had a long ‘to do’ list on arms control that was winnowed down to negotiating and ratifying SALT II. President Reagan could not sidestep the dual track of impending “Euromissile” deployments and negotiations.

Except for when the Soviet Union was collapsing, big arms control achievements typically happen in the first half of a President’s four-year term, or outcomes drag out and success becomes harder to achieve, especially for Democratic Presidents. Less pressing arms control objectives are usually displaced by other deadline-driven agenda items and by upcoming elections.

Team Obama is still working hard, but has now gone mostly under the radar on the remainder of its ambitious arms control agenda. Work on nuclear security continues. The administration’s declared top-most multilateral negotiating objective is a fissile material cut-off treaty. The road ahead will be long and filled with potholes. The President’s emissaries are canvassing to see whether the CTBT might secure the consent of 67 Senators, an extremely hard sell when Republicans on Capitol Hill have that lean and hungry look. Talks with Moscow on expanding the scope and depth of nuclear arms reductions will be difficult and time consuming. The initiative of a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations endorsed by presidential candidate Barack Obama remains unmentioned by the White House.

These dynamics – or rather this lack of dynamism – reflect very hard problems and overburdened political appointees. New achievements will require the President’s surrogates to catch their breath and somehow pick up the pace. Conditions must also break right for more arms control successes under this President.

How, then, to proceed? In cases where there are structural impediments, such as the Conference on Disarmament, where the FMCT is supposed to be negotiated, and the Constitutional requirement for the Senate’s consent to treaty ratification, the Obama administration deserves some slack. Making the CD functional again — or creating an ad hoc forum to make progress on the FMCT — and finding enough Republican support for the CTBT will take time.

Two arms control time lines beckon, the 2012 nuclear security summit in Seoul and a conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, as promised at the 2010 NPT RevCon. Tangible progress and bankable commitments can be secured in Seoul. Planning for the conference on a WMDFZ in the Middle East has been slowed by political upheaval in the Arab world, especially in Egypt. In the wake of a UN Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood, Iran’s blatant disregard for the IAEA’s reports and UN resolutions on its nuclear program, and the deterioration of Israel’s diplomatic relations with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, conditions for a successful conference are very poor. (Note that I didn’t use the formulation “couldn’t be worse,” because they are likely to become worse.)

Two agenda items can easily be lost in the shuffle – the CTBT and the Code of Conduct for space. On both fronts, the Obama administration can still help steer positive outcomes without expending great political capital, while bypassing structural impediments. First, as posted previously, useful steps to make the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s valuable services permanent rather than provisional can be taken while awaiting the treaty’s entry into force.

The Obama administration can also do more to fulfill the President’s campaign promise to seek a space Code of Conduct. While the Pentagon was completing its assessment of the utility of a Code of Conduct, State Department officials lined up behind the European Union’s draft. “Leading from behind” on the Code will be less successful than with the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. The E.U. deserves kudos for moving the ball up the field, but it can’t seem to score the winning goal.

Meanwhile, Moscow has engineered the creation of a group of governmental experts at the United Nations, which will begin its deliberations on space in 2012. This forum – one quarter the size of the dysfunctional Conference on Disarmament – will include key states needed to de-regionalize the E.U.’s draft code. The GGE could become a vehicle for this purpose. Alternatively, Moscow and Beijing could try to use this forum to promote their proposed treaty to prevent space weapons that cannot be usefully defined or properly verified. In other words, the GGE could become a stepping stone toward a negotiating achievement or another stone in a blank wall of diplomatic obstruction.

The GGE presents a rare, near-term opportunity, but one that can be lost through bureaucratic timidity and high-level fatigue. Obstructionists thrive under these conditions. The Code of Conduct is garnering growing domestic and international support. It also has a few, hard-core opponents in the United States who speak louder when the Obama administration has lost its voice.

During the Bush administration, opponents of a Code of Conduct argued that if something ain’t broke, it didn’t need fixin’. Translation: the United States needed to maximize freedom of action in outer space and to reject any restraining measures, including a Code of Conduct. The results of this approach are now evident in the form of an unprecedented increase in space debris, a satellite collision, and tests or pseudo-tests of anti-satellite weapons.

It is clear to most space watchers that something most definitely is broken and in need of fixing, most immediately in low earth orbit, where debris hazards, ASAT capabilities, and space traffic management have become serious concerns. Opposition to whatever President Obama tries to do in space, as on earth, is endemic in some circles. Space diplomacy offers the Obama administration a welcome reprieve from trench warfare, since executive agreements like a space Code of Conduct are not treaties, do not require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate, and are a clear presidential prerogative.

The high-water mark for space diplomacy occurred in a brief five-year window framed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 ABM Treaty. There has been very little effort ever since to lend order to this essential but chaotic domain. In the absence of sensible rules of the road for space, U.S. national and economic security will be jeopardized. A Code of Conduct could therefore be a considerable as well as an essential diplomatic achievement. But at this juncture in the Code’s evolution, the Obama administration is still stuck in first gear.

Note to readers: Part of this post appeared as an op-ed in Space News.


  1. Scott Monje (History)

    How was it decided that the Code of Conduct would be an executive agreement instead of a treaty?

    • krepon (History)

      There is a fairly long list of executive agreements, with two important precedents with regard to Codes of Conduct. The Incidents at Sea Agreement (1972) addresses the need for responsible maritime rules of the road. It was negotiated at a time when the US and Soviet navies were operating in close proximity and occasionally scraping hulls. More than twenty other navies have undertaken similar agreements. The Dangerous Military Practices Agreement (1989) between Washington and Moscow similarly sought to establish norms of responsible behavior when ground and air forces were operating in close proximity. Space if the only domain where a comparable Code of Conduct is lacking.

      The Obama administration has concluded that it has the authority to act in a similar manner as its predecessors. Whether it has the ability to do so remains in doubt.


  2. wrf (History)

    I do not think the problem really lies completely in Obama’s (or his team’s) court. They have had the difficult challenge of bringing both the international community and the domestic circus on board. A not inconsequential feat. In some ways, the domestic circus is more difficult to entertain.

    Could you kindly elaborate on your note that “[t]he high-water mark for space diplomacy occurred in a brief five-year window framed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 ABM Treaty”?

    Did the latter treaty make space diplomacy harder? — was it a cause and effect or was it coincidence that, perhaps, space diplomacy just became harder in 1972?

    I believe the lapsing of the latter treaty has made space diplomacy harder in the current time-frame, but I am not an expert on space issues. Your more detailed views would be welcome. Thank you.


    • John Schilling (History)

      By 1972, the low-hanging fruit in space diplomacy had already been picked. Outer space had been deemed by all to be free for transit by all, in roughly the same fashion as the high seas. Everybody agreed that nuclear warfighting in space was Real Bad, and that nuclear bombardment of Earth from space would be even worse. Everyone agreed that Neil Armstrong had not claimed the Moon as United States territory and his hypothetical Soviet successor would not be taking Mars as, well, the Red Planet. The relevant treaties were signed and ratified without serious controversy.

      Attempts at space diplomacy since, have dealt (mostly unsuccessfully) with much more contentious issues: Is space to be totally demilitarized, deweaponized but used for military operations such as reconaissance and communications, or a conventional battlefield? Aside from “no nukes”, how do we draw and enforce that line given that spacecraft are inherently quite missile-like and an astronaut’s camera and radio would have real military utility? Outside the military realm, is space to be preserved as a socialist paradise for all the peoples of the world, or do capitalists get to make filthy lucre on the high frontier?

      About the only remaining issue where there is anything close to a consensus that hasn’t been codified into a treaty is the space-debris issue. Just about everyone agrees that we need to stop depositing large ammounts of junk in Low Earth Orbit, including but not limited to debris from live-fire tests of hard-kill ASAT weapons. Progress on this one is hindered by people on both sides who want to tie it to their preferred resolution of the more general space-weapons issue; as Michael Krepon points out, there is a path by which the administration can probably lock in a pretty good standard without having to go the full treaty-making route.

  3. ZeeKay (History)

    It will be unfortunate if we shift our unsettled disputes from earthly battle grounds to the heavens above us. Hence, PAROS and a code of conduct for space may be necessary.
    “Shopping venues” for favourable outcome of conflicts may only increase the challenges. Delay in negotiating the FMCT or enforcing a CTBT are two examples. States do not compromise on the principled stand they have to take in order to meet their security threats.
    One state stood alone against the CTBT and another finds it difficult to address divisive inner ranks to ratify the treaty banning testing.
    CD is not structurally flawed, the international system’s inability to accommodate the security concerns of smaller states is.
    The earth-dwellers will probably unite if challenged by a common extra-terrestrial enemy. For other conflicts refer to Will Durant’s maxim, “War is a constant of history…”

  4. Aaron Tovish (History)

    Michael assumes that the current level of resources devoted to arms control is fixed and hence tough priority calls need to be made. I think it would be more appropriate to question the overall low priority accorded arms control and disarmament compared to other supposed security matters. Cancel one SSBN or SSGN and you could easily double the resources for arms control and disarmament. It is the overall set of priorities that need to be challenged, not micro-managing how to work within an inadequate budget.

  5. Aaron Tovish (History)

    The CD is structurally flawed. Its rules of procedure were inherited from a much smaller body. At 60-plus members now, the requirement for consensus on procedural matters is just plain dumb. Over the last 15 years one country or another (the US from 200–2008) blocked the CD procedurally. Countries are quick to use this ‘veto’ so that they can avoiding having to take public stands on substantive issues. That space is now being dealt with through a separate Group of Governmental Experts, and the US is proposing the same for FMCT speaks volumes. Indeed the other two issue areas of the CD — negative security assurances and nuclear disarmament — would benefit from GGEs as well. At this point, just about anything would be better than perpetuating the CD delusion.

  6. Sergey (History)

    Will United States, China, India etc. agree in this code not to use thier plans for missile defeneses to shoot in satellites — especially of other nations satellites? This is most important point — if not, there will be hard time to get agreements on space codes of conduct. I hope they can all agree on this.

    • krepon (History)


      I hope you are well.

      Missile defenses, including the Moscow ABM system, have these capabilities, as do MRBMs, IRBMs, ICBMs, and SLBMs. We have lived in this world for some time now, and yet space has not become a shooting gallery. At least not yet.

      Deployed, “dedicated” ASAT capabilities have been a rarity, in part because residual ASAT capabilities have been so plentiful. “Space deterrence” between major powers can be achieved at a small fraction of the cost of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War.

      One key element of a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations has to be that satellites or other space objects cannot be used for target practice, whether by missile defense interceptors or by other kinetic and non-kinetic means. The European Union’s draft Code of Conduct, as well as the Code developed at the Stimson Center with the help of NGOs from Russia, China, Japan, France and Canada, include this injunction.


  7. Jawad (History)

    “Will United States, China, India etc. agree in this code not to use thier plans for missile defeneses to shoot in satellites — especially of other nations satellites? ”

    I think that most important question is, Will other nations be willing to accept the claims of US, China and India that they will not shoot down the satellites of other Nations

    • John Schilling (History)

      Indeed, any claim that satellites will not be destroyed in the event of a shooting war between spacefaring powers, is simply not credible. Appropriate weapons will exist, even if only in improvised form, and at least one party to the conflict will see an advantage in using them (more precisely, a grave disadvantage in not using them). Given the stakes involved in a major-power shooting war, neither the material nor the political consequences will stay first use.

      A code of conduct that rules out shooting down satellites in peacetime, that can be made credible. There’s a long list of violent things the major powers could do in peacetime but have agreed not to. As Michael Krepon notes, we used to play the “Oops, we ‘accidentally’ rammed your destroyer” game as a means of signalling brinksmanship with the Russians, but everyone decided it would be best to stop that, and we seem to have actually stopped that. We can probably do the same w/re satellites.

  8. Sergey (History)

    Yes, this is an important part of the Code — but I hope all will agree to it! A small correction if I may: the Moscow system has inadequate range to reach most satellites. And, of course, the problem is not so much with regular IRBM, ICBM, SLBm etc. mentioned because these do not have the kill vehicles design for homing on another missile (or satellites)….this is the source of the main problem seen by some people with the ABM interceptors (and testing) of USA, China (and maybe India): altitude and ability to track and home to collide. I wish you very best of luck!

    • John Schilling (History)

      The payload (1000+ kg) and accuracy (few hundred meters CEP) of a modern ICBM/IRBM/SLBM is sufficient for a reasonable Pkill against low-orbiting satellites using nothing more than a simple cannister-of-buckshot shrapnel warhead bolted to the original post-boost vehicle. Or, for that matter, one of the stock nuclear warheads with a time fuze. There’d need to be some new software for the targeting and launch control systems on the ground, of course.

      Neither of these would be anyone’s first choice as a dedicated ASAT weapon, but nations with modern ballistic missiles and no ASAT/ABM systems almost certainly have preliminary designs for something like this in their “What to do in case of Space War One” file cabinet. Absent anything better, such systems will be put into service fairly early in Space War One.

    • wrf (History)

      CEPs usually refer to fixed positions on the ground — there is both time and space to consider for activities against satellites. The buckshot idea is interesting but it’s feasibility has been addressed in a report published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences: see pages from p. 157


  9. John Schilling (History)

    CEPs are defined against ground targets, but imply a certain precision in the timing of post-launch events regardless of target altitude. Note that the AAAS study you cite uses that approach. I do admit to assuming the ability to control actual launch time to a tenth of a second or so; that shouldn’t be difficult to achieve but may not be wired in to existing systems.

    And the AAAS study is rather explicitly aimed at improvised ASATs based on the No Dong and aimed by a guy with a telescope in Pyongyang. For that scenario, they get a Ph of ~0.1 against a large unhardened satellite, and I agree. Using the same math for a Trident D5 aimed by the Air Force Space Surveillance System, I get a Pk of ~0.8 against a satellite an order of magnitude smaller and/or harder than the nominal AAAS target.

    I don’t have as much data on the Chinese and Indian systems, but their performance should be in the same league. If the question is, how do the major-power armed forces respond should their diplomats tell them they can’t build and test ASATs, contingency plans for something like this is the answer. I’m not sure it is an improvement.