Michael KreponSpace Code of Conduct Advances

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the Obama administration will lend its support to international efforts to craft a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations is welcome news. The fourth year of a presidential term is not the best time to announce an important diplomatic initiative, but the administration has had its hands full with nuclear negotiations and deadline-driven events, not to mention other crucibles at home and abroad. As written in this space (Second Wind, 9/21/11), the Code of Conduct initiative has always had to wait patiently in line. Chicago Cubs fans can relate to this phenomenon. In the meantime, the Code received a thorough Pentagon scrubbing and methodical interagency reviews to confirm the wisdom of this diplomatic initiative. President Obama and his team deserve kudos for fulfilling this campaign promise.

The timing isn’t bad, despite this being an election year. This summer, a group of governmental experts dealing with space issues will convene in New York. This forum, consisting of representatives from fifteen nations, has a workable mandate, unlike the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. One topic of conversation will no doubt be an ambitious and unverifiable treaty to ban weapons and threats from space championed by Russia and China. Another will be transparency and confidence-building measures in space, a subject that both Moscow and Washington can agree on, but probably not in every particular. A third topic of discussion will be the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct, which has been endorsed by Japan and Canada. The GGE could become another forum for wrangling and a wasted opportunity. It could also become the springboard to engage countries not involved in the EU’s effort to help shape a consensus diplomatic initiative on space.

International endorsement of a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations is not small change. There is a clear need to strengthen norms for space debris mitigation, traffic management and responsible stewardship of this endangered global commons. The Code of Conduct initiative could also help ameliorate US-Russian relations and provide China a way to step up to its responsibilities in space. To become a stakeholder, Beijing will have to drop its aversion to engage on realistic proposals. Like Moscow at the beginning of the SALT negotiations, Beijing will find deliberations over a Code of Conduct to be a challenge with respect to civil-military coordination and the acceptance of greater transparency.

After the US presidential elections, we will have a better sense of whether Washington will continue to champion the Code of Conduct and whether Moscow and Beijing will come on board. The pendulum swings of American electoral politics could foreclose the former and make a powerful case for the latter.


  1. alice slater (History)

    It is heartbreaking to see how the US establishment, including Mr Krepon, in this article, blithely dismiss the Russian-Chinese proosal to negotiate a treaty to ban weapons in space as too ambitious and unverifiable. If the US were commited to banning weapons in space, I’m sure we could devise a verification mechanism, like agreeing to permit inspection of payloads before launch, just as we have now agreed under Start to inspect nuclear weapons arsenals in the US and Russia. I fear the military-industrial-academic-congressional complex is working over time here tokeep the senseless arms race in space going, in the face of offers from our major competitors to stop it. A non-binding Code of Conduct is useless, compared to the advantages of a legaly binding, verifiable and transparent agreement to ban space weapons. We’ve signed on to banning other weapons legally. Why not for space?

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > I fear the military-industrial-academic-congressional complex is working over time here tokeep the senseless arms race in space going,

      I would find it useful to see a list of activities that are part of that arms race in space.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      I can say this as having worked on several space missions since the mid 90’s and trying to break into the infant commercial space launch industry. It would be a overwhelming regulatory requirement that I submit my payloads to international inspection. Considering that the worlds intelligence agencies have direct links to industry, I’d be submitting my payloads to not only international review, but also giving away everything to other companies via the intelligence agency industry short circuit. It’s one thing to give all my plans, schematics, and operations plans to the FAA. I can sue them.

      Look I’ll grant you, this is a problem. It’s a real problem. And I’ve advocated for the arms control process to be applied to the conventional forces as well as the strategic. I’m certainly open to the need for verification and for arms control efforts in Near Earth Space. I also understand that the establishment looks at the use of Near Earth Space as it is now, but realize there are some mice running about and trying to evolve into higher rodents. Don’t stomp us out.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      Here is a partial list of activities which constitute the ongoing space arms race:

      – Exoatmospheric missile defense, particularly the GMD and SM-3 Block II systems, which constitute large-scale deployment of KE ASAT weapons. US, China, probably Russia, India and France possibly to follow.

      – Explicit KE-ASAT deployment, although this is not known. Particularly deployment of interceptors on larger rockets with upper stages to reach MEO and GEO.

      – Development and testing of maneuvering microsatellites, particularly with large main engines whose design favors the capability of fast and muscular maneuvering over the economy of, e.g. ion engines or maneuvers over a longer time using less thrust and fuel. US, China, Russia, UK, Sweden, Germany, others.

      – Development and testing of high-power adaptively compensated lasers, especially ground-based lasers with large telescopes for reaching into space. US, China, Russia, Germany, others.

      – Development and active use of electronic warfare, espionage and sabotage in space and against the space programs of other nations.

      – Development and promulgation at the same time of doctrines for fighting wars which involve ASATs, cyberwarfare, satellite jamming and so on.

      – Development of “situational awareness” not only for the verification of peace but for the eyes of “the warfighter.” A satellite’s attack alarm becomes the first event in another kill chain.

      These activities constitute a continuing exploration of the possible, and are relatively modest in scale compared with what may be possible or is at least imaginable in the coming decades. From that perspective, what makes these activities constitute an arms race is that they represent a turning away from the hope of restraint (arms control) and making a commitment to the path of an arms race, to the fuller development of these concepts as they mature.

    • Scott Monje (History)


      Do these things have possible alternative uses? I’m surprised to see Sweden and Germany in the mix.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      Maneuvering microsatellites are dual-use. KE interceptors are pretty clearly committed to military use. Ground-based compensated high-power lasers lack plausible uses other than as ASATs. Jamming, dazzling and hacking are warfare. Not all these activities must be banned in order to have effective control and stop the space arms race. What is required is to end the pursuit of ASAT and any space-based weapons capabilities, while not necessarily ending dual-use technology development when economically justified.

      Sweden, Germany and the UK have been developing robotic microsatellite technologies which have obvious potential for weapons use, but they have done so openly and the vehicles have been optimized for cost-effectiveness, using ion engines for example and orbital maneuvers over weeks instead of hours. Overall, this is a good example.

      The US on the other hand has tested a series of seeming overpowered microsatellite vehicles capable of autonomous maneuver and proximity operations, and the US has secretly used microsatellites to conduct surveillance of other nations’ satellites. China has recently conducted similar proximity maneuver testing of small satellite vehicles.

    • Michael Listner (History)

      That’s because the PPWT is unverifiable. The whole “space weapon” debate is a smokescreen to undermine ballistic-missile defense.

  2. MK (History)

    Here’s the text of the announcement:

    January 17, 2012



    International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities

    The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors. Ensuring the stability, safety, and security of our space systems is of vital interest to the United States and the global community. These systems allow the free flow of information across platforms that open up our global markets, enhance weather forecasting and environmental monitoring, and enable global navigation and transportation.

    Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.

    In response to these challenges, the United States has decided to join with the European Union and other nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. A Code of Conduct will help maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space.

    As we begin this work, the United States has made clear to our partners that we will not enter into a code of conduct that in any way constrains our national security-related activities in space or our ability to protect the United States and our allies. We are, however, committed to working together to reverse the troubling trends that are damaging our space environment and to preserve the limitless benefits and promise of space for future generations.

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