Michael KreponNorm-Setting for Outer Space

Norms are standards of proper or acceptable behavior. They establish expectations and clarify misbehavior, thereby helping to isolate, limit, and sanction bad behavior. Without norms, there are no norm-breakers. They can be codified in treaties and other legal instruments, or they can be less formal, such as those embedded in international codes of conduct. When less-formal norms become customary international practice, they gain standing in international law.

Norms can be particularly helpful when they encourage transparency, because transparency measures can lead to important negotiating breakthroughs. Extraordinary treaties that drastically reduced nuclear forces between the United States and the Soviet Union were enabled by a slightly regarded, multilateral agreement in 1983 in which the Kremlin permitted foreign observers to attend conventional military exercises.

Not everyone will sign up to norms right away, and there will always be outliers. Even so, norms can discourage unwanted behavior, even by holdouts — but not for die-hard outliers. The speed and effectiveness of norm building depends on the attitudes and actions of major powers, not outliers. The most reluctant major power is usually China.

Norms relating to nuclear weapons have been well established. The most important norm since 1945 has been against the use of mushroom clouds on battlefields. Another important norm has been against atmospheric nuclear testing. The superpowers stopped doing this 1963; China didn’t sign up to this norm until 1980. The cessation of underground nuclear tests is becoming a norm, even though the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty hasn’t entered into force. The Soviet Union stopped testing underground in 1989, followed by the United States and Great Britain in 1992, then France and China in 1996. India and Pakistan haven’t signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and tested in 1998, but not since. That leaves only one outlier — North Korea.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty began to codify norms, such as the obligation not to place weapons of mass destruction in this domain. The Outer Space Treaty also gained important adherents over time. France didn’t sign up until 1970, West Germany in 1971, India in 1982, and China in 1983.

The Outer Space Treaty predated and didn’t tackle problems of debris, harmful interference and traffic management in this domain. For space to be sustainable for military, intelligence, commercial, scientific and exploratory purposes, norms governing debris, harmful interference and traffic management will have to be established or strengthened.

Some in the United States assume that U.S. adversaries will disregard norms and that rules of the road for space will hamstring U.S. responses. Their preference for freedom of action is understandable, but paradoxically at odds with U.S. national security and commercial interests in space. A free-for-all in space would impair everything the United States has gained and stands to gain in this domain. Freedom of action to engage in certain types of bad behavior — such as anti-satellite (ASAT) tests that generate long-lasting, lethal space debris — can ruin space for everyone.

Because norms can’t be taken for granted, the United States has to have insurance policies against those who behave irresponsibly in space. No spacefaring nation has more retaliatory options to choose from than the United States — and not just in space. The ability to retaliate helps to deter norm breakers. The denial of gain by norm breakers also helps to deter. Having resilient capabilities for space operations is therefore essential.

There are three ways to proceed to set norms in space:

  • An ambitious treaty that seeks to prevent the placement of weapons and the threat or use of force in outer space.
  • A narrow treaty banning the worst and most verifiable kinds of ASAT tests — those that generate long-lasting, mutating debris clouds.
  • A norm-setting international code of conduct.


The second and third options are not mutually exclusive.

Russia and China have proposed the first approach, offering a revised treaty draft in June. This initiative does not address the needs of norm building relating to debris, harmful interference and space traffic management. Nor does it address ground-based ASAT capabilities or inherently ambiguous technologies that can be used for military as well as peaceful purposes. A space weapon in their draft treaty is defined in the eye of the observer, and there are no verification provisions.

The Russian and Chinese draft treaty is not a serious diplomatic initiative; it’s a dodge. China has the world’s most active, unacknowledged ASAT testing program and is allergic to transparency measures; Russia is playing catch-up in space.

The second option — a ban on “hit-to-kill” ASAT tests that generate long-lasting debris — would be useful and verifiable. While any steps that prevent new debris fields would be welcome, this initiative focuses on only one norm and could take a long time to negotiate. Russia and China will likely seek to merge their draft treaty with an ASAT test ban in order to buy time while they move forward with ASAT programs under the guise of missile defense testing. The U.S. Senate’s consent to ratification of a narrow ASAT treaty may not be forthcoming.

The third option is, by far, the best. The European Union has been drafting an international code of conduct that sets strong norms relating to debris and harmful interference. The former would address hit-to-kill ASAT tests that generate long-lasting debris. The draft International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities sets up consultative and information-sharing mechanisms that can pave the way for traffic management-related practices and norms. The EU has consulted broadly with other states, and will unveil a new version of a draft international code in the coming months. The United States and other spacefaring nations are supportive of the EU’s handiwork, but there will be important stragglers.

Beijing and Moscow have agreed in principle to the notion of an international code, but both are reluctant to sign up to this one. New Delhi has no substantive problems with the EU’s draft code and has a history of responsible behavior in space — but India has difficulty joining codes of conduct. Brazil and some other nonaligned states prefer the startup of negotiations on an ambitious treaty.

What to do? Capitals can choose to take concrete steps to create and strengthen norms for responsible spacefaring nations, or wait for stragglers. Two stragglers are crucial — Russia and China. They are likely to sign up, but not right away. Will moving forward with a code of conduct for space quicken their adherence, or retard it?

In my view, the longer responsible spacefaring nations wait to define norms, the more harm will be done to the space environment. Beijing and Moscow will join the code just as they joined the ban on nuclear testing — after meeting minimum military requirements and after being embarrassed by not being part of an emerging consensus.

I recommend the following course of action: It’s time to call the roll on the international code of conduct for space this fall at the United Nations, followed by a signing ceremony. Begin regular consultations and information sharing, as the code calls for, inviting non-signatories to lend a hand with the build-out. All major construction projects relating to space now proceed in stages. It’s crucial to get the design right at the front end, and the EU’s diplomatic initiative does this admirably well.

It’s time to get to work. Norm setting against dangerous military practices in space will not be helped by waiting for stragglers. The United States plans to adhere to the code of conduct’s provisions whether or not China and Russia sign up. A signing ceremony will hasten the day when they join.

Note to readers: This essay appeared in the September 8, 2014 issue of Space News.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)


    The devastating consequences of the Soviet Union’s nuclear past are slowly being uncovered – particularly in Kazakhstan

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    Pentagon report cites missile defense quality assurance problems at Fort Greely
    Dermot Cole
    September 10, 2014

    But the rushed schedule for deploying the kill vehicles, starting more than a decade ago, led to operational problems, a new report from the Inspector General office of the Department of Defense says. The schedule contributed to a series of test failures before a successful $200 million flight test in June, the report says.

    “A combination of cost constraints and failure-driven program restructures has kept the program in a state of change,” said the Inspector General, an independent watchdog agency that advises the executive branch and Congress.

    “With more than 1,800 unique parts, 10,000 pages of work instructions, and 130,000 process steps for the current configuration, EKV repairs and refurbishments are considered by the (missile defense) program to be costly and problematic and make the EKV susceptible to quality assurance failures.”

    Pentagon officials had been waiting for a successful test before restarting production on 14 missiles to be added to Fort Greely by 2017, a $1 billion project. Bloomberg News reported in July that Raytheon Co. had been cleared to build more kill vehicles as part of the Alaska expansion plan.


  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    EXCLUSIVE: Send British nukes to US if Scotland votes Yes say military chiefs

    BRITAIN’S independent nuclear deterrent should be moved to the United States if Scotland gains its independence next week, senior military figures have said.



    —Do you want to tell the ACW reader’s who the guy in the portrait is?

  4. rba (History)

    “The 1967 Outer Space Treaty began to codify norms, such as the obligation not to place weapons of mass destruction in this domain.”

    Despite scores of studies that acknowledge how effective nuclear explosives are in planetary defense (perhaps most comprehensively: http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/171331main_NEO_report_march07.pdf ) – it seems that OST and CBTB nix their role and they’re rarely mentioned in discourse. When it comes to imparting momentum on small bodies we end up with really complex, expensive, and inefficient methods to ignore the elephant in the room: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/events/lectures_archive.php?year=2014&month=11

    So if the event actually arises when we actually need to actually do a deflection mission – would we have to wait to change the anti-proliferation framework? If not, isn’t it moot? To me, looking back on the regulatory framework from the Cold War era just seems awfully myopic. Not to mention ignoring the danger of redirecting asteroids that might accidentally end up landing in Moscow, DC, etc.

  5. George William Herbert (History)

    I don’t think anyone has advocated positioning nuclear warheads in space preemptively in case a NEO comes in on a collision course. The objectives of the modern observation programs are to spot everything big enough to do serious (continental level, planetary level) damage, other than long period comets, with enough warning time to do something about it (be that evacuations, shelter in place, fire a probe with a nuke to deflect, long-action gravity tug like B612 advocate, etc.

    If a nuke is necessary, launching from earth is probably wiser than keeping one live in space.

    Among other things, warhead components do age out and need refurbishment and replenishment from time to time. The decay curve of Tritium is one example, but not the only one…

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    —If this happens, should someone stand on the dock and welcome the Uk’s submarines with Revolutionary War Regimental colors from 1777?


    The referendum on Scotland’s independence could have a nuclear impact on the United States. The United Kingdom’s atomic arsenal is based in Scotland, and independence leaders have said they would like to expel the weapons from the country, perhaps forcing England to send dozens of Trident missiles, submarines, and warheads to a naval base in Georgia.

    The UK’s nuclear weapons are housed in the southwest corner of Scotland, at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, the Ministry of Defense confirmed Tuesday. The missiles, 58 of them in all, are leased from King’s Bay Naval Base in southeastern Georgia, near the Atlantic Ocean just north of the Florida border. The British have been leasing the missiles and periodically having them serviced at King’s Bay since the mid-1990s, according to the British government.

    If Scotland were to vote yes on independence and no on nukes Thursday, the British would be hard-pressed to quickly find or build another place in the UK with the infrastructure to store them, according to experts. That could force the UK to ship the missiles back to the US, at least temporarily.

    “Its a huge logistical problem,”said James M. Acton, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “One could imagine basing the submarines at Portsmouth [Naval Shipyard], where other submarines are located, but it’s hard to imagine the warheads being based there. There would be huge local opposition, I think, to basing the weapons there.”

    • rwendland (History)

      “UK’s nuclear weapons are housed in the southwest corner of Scotland” makes it sound like they are based in a highly unpopulated part of Scotland. In fact HMNB Clyde is 25 miles from central Glasgow, and about 17 miles from the Glasgow suburbs, so certainly not a “corner of Scotland”. This is a point the nationalists made in the recent independence campaign: would the Westminster govt have placed the nuclear base 25 miles from central London – No, it indicates a lack of concern for Scotland in London. And its hard to argue against that point.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    ARMY & NAVY CLUB: In the dog-eat-dog, admiral-eat-general world of budget warfare in the age of sequestration, it’s easy to pit programs against each other. The Navy’s new nuclear missile submarine and the Air Force’s Long-Range Strike Bomber, for example, are both huge strategic-weapons programs with enormous bills coming due in the next decade and much debate over who should pay. Strategic Command chief Adm. Cecil Haney emphasized here this afternoon that he needs both of them — and more.

    “Strategic deterrence is more than the triad platforms,” the bombers, submarines, and ICBMs, Haney said. Other aspects — from EMP-proof communications to early warning satellites are equally important — and potentially as expensive. In particular, Haney said today, “moving forward with the replacement for the Air-Launched Cruise Missile [ALCM] is just as important as having a future bomber.”


  8. Bradley Laing (History)


    Western states defeated a russian proposal on Friday to remove Syria’s alleged past nuclear activities from the agenda of meetings of the UN atomic agency, diplomats said.

    But in a vote that highlighted how polarizing the global political debate has become, China supported Russia’s initiative while only about half of the nations on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board – 17 out of 35 – voted against.

    Western diplomats argued that Damascus should be kept under pressure to cooperate with the IAEA’s long-stalled inquiry, even though this has hardly advanced in the last three years as the country descended into bloodshed.

    US envoy Laura Kennedy told the meeting ahead of the vote that the Russian proposal if adopted “would threaten the credibility” of the IAEA’s board of governors.

  9. Bradley Laing (History)

    Analysts say much about Pakistan’s program remains a mystery. Western experts, for example, are divided over whether Pakistan has the ability to shrink warheads enough for use with tactical or launched weapons.

    “They may have done so, but I can’t imagine it’s very reliable,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear and non-proliferation scholar at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Still, Lewis and other analysts say Pakistan is without doubt embarking on an ambitious multi-year strategy to enhance its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems.

    —“If it isn’t reliable, why are we doing this?”

    —“Because the government of India has so many advantages over us, even a 50/50 chance it will work is needed to cause them problems.”

  10. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Is this article saying that the U.S. taxpayer is paying for improvement to the United Kingdom’s nuclear force?


    The U.S. military has a reputation as a somewhat secretive organization. But in one respect at least, the Pentagon is one of the most “open” of our government agencies. Every day of the week, rain or shine, the Department of Defense tells U.S. taxpayers what contracts it’s issued, to whom, and for how much — all right out in the open on its website…

    Everything old is nuke again
    Two decades after the end of the Cold War, you might think nuclear weapons were passe, but the Pentagon does not. On Friday, it awarded Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) more than $146 million in funding on a previously “un-priced letter contract” to purchase Trident II (D5) submarine-launched nuclear missiles for the U.S. Navy. This money will also fund work on “Life Extension development” and support for already-deployed nukes through November 30, 2019, both for the U.S. Navy and for Great Britain’s Royal Navy as well.