Andy GrottoGen. Chilton on a Space Weapons Treaty

Yesterday morning I attended a breakfast featuring General Chilton, STRATCOM commander. The one-time astronaut offered this colorful illustration for why definitional issues would make it impossible, in his judgment, to negotiate a workable treaty banning space weapons:

Let’s say you build a craft capable of pulling alongside a satellite, extending a robotic arm, and plucking the satellite’s solar panels off, thereby disabling it. Would you consider that a space weapon? Well, if so, that would mean the U.S. space shuttle is a space weapon.


  1. Sam (History)

    This isn’t the only definitional issue. The way around it is to address actions rather than capabilities.

  2. Alen Thomson (History)

    I guess I, reluctantly, find myself agreeing that the definitional muddle is one of the big problems with the “space weapon” question. Are we talking about various kinds of ASAT means, space-to-ground (aka “space strike”) weapons, reconnaissance/targeting/BDA spysats, GPS that enables JDAMs and the like, or what? Not to mention comsats that are vital to command and control from echelons going from the NCA all the way down to the squad level.

    Just how to deal with all this as a policy matter I leave to people smarter than myself.

  3. Brian W (History)

    He definitely has a point. The USSR made that exact same argument over the Space Shuttle and this was one of the main drivers for the Buran program.

    Instead of banning space weapons, what the community should really be discussing is banning certain actions in space, specifically those that damage the space environment or third parties.

  4. FSB

    Is Gen. Chilton in favor of traffic lights? Or does he think we should be able to drive our cars wherever we want at whatever speeds through red lights.

    How about the USG stop being disingenuous and at least start talking about some rules of the road or codes of conduct?

    How about adopting Garwin’s old rules/definitions?

    Let’s adopt article one and then we can worry about article II’s definitions later:

    Each Party undertakes not to destroy, damage, render inoperable or change the flight trajectory of space objects of other states.

    1. Each Party undertakes not to place in orbit around the earth weapons for destroying, damaging, rendering inoperable, or changing the flight trajectory of space objects, or for damaging objects in the atmosphere or on the ground.

    2. Each Party undertakes not to install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

    3. Each Party undertakes not to test such weapons in space or against space objects.


    Or does the USG think that anarchy in space is OK? then they would be OK with China doing another test right?

    Perhaps with some adult supervision the USG will learn that rules bring about stability and predictability and leaving options open is an invitation to anarchy.

    If USG hates rules then I’m going to drive home on the sidewalk at 110 mph through a red light and injure a couple of kids and old ladies along the way…I hate rules too, but they are in everyone’s benefit. Get it?

  5. yousaf (History)

    one can skirt this strawman of “definitional problems” by adopting a code of conduct as step 1. Even if you can’t immediately agree on what hardware to ban, all sensible nations can agree of some minimum set of forbidden actions in space.

    So: yes, use the shuttle to do whatever, but don’t use it to disable another country’s satellites.

    This whole issue of “definitional problems” is a red herring.

  6. Sek (History)

    This definitional issue is a non issue. There are easy way around it. That is exactly what the Russian shave done when they have introduced a draft treaty (PPWT – prevention of the placement of an arms race in outer space) at the Conference of disarmament this year.

    The project deals both with capacity (prohibits the placement of objects in space that are clearly space weapons – that would cover both space-space and space-earth weapons) and with intent (to cover space objects that could be used as space weapons even if they are not space weapons per se and to cover the use of ground based weapons that can be used as asat).

    The problem is not one of definition. It is that the US does not want to hear from a treaty. One of the main reason why the US opposes such a treaty is the fact that it would rule out the possibility to develop and deploy a space segment of the national missile defense.

  7. Darren (History)

    Or does the USG think that anarchy in space is OK? then they would be OK with China doing another test right?

    Yeah, because the threat of self-defeating action by one party to annoy another party is the best basis for diplomacy.

    I think it was Talleyrand who said that. Or maybe Kissinger.

  8. Mark Gubrud

    A kitchen knife can be used as a weapon, but it raises considerably less concern than an assault rifle, which is also of less concern than a fully-loaded Abrams tank which in turn is of less concern than a nuclear device.

    Likewise, the inherent ability of some space and space-oriented systems to be used to interfere with other space systems, and the ambiguity of some programs which may appear to have dual purposes, is of much less concern than the prospect of an unambiguous, open-ended arms race in space in which a series of increasingly dangerous systems optimized for combat in earth orbit (and beyond) are deployed in an unstable confrontation with decreasing time lines for decision and response to a possibly ambiguous attack warning.

    The problem with the code-of-conduct idea is that in being contrasted with arms control it says explicitly that it’s okay to develop, test, and deploy space weapons as long as you don’t use them, which means it doesn’t put any obstacle in the path of the same arms race we would have had without such a code.

    The main virtue of the code of conduct proposal is that it may be a gentle way to overcome American resistance to any kind of negotiation or engagement on space. However, this benefit comes at the cost of effectiveness. It is a kind of watered-down arms control. It should not be allowed to be the enemy of stronger arms control.

    To say that a kitchen knife can be used as a weapon is not to prove that arms control is futile.

    Yes, intent has to be a criterion, and intent is hard to judge or to prove; therefore the way to deal with issues of intent is to create an international body responsible for oversight and implementation of the treaty regime, which also serves as a forum for states to provide arguments and evidence to their good faith and intentions.

    In such a forum, the US could argue that the Space Shuttle is too costly and vulnerable to be an effective weapon – for example, a hostile nation’s military satellite might be booby-trapped – and likewise that the latest experimental refueling microsatellite is really intended just for that purpose and that results from the program indicate that it is indeed a cost-effective way to extend the service life of certain satellites which must conduct frequent maneuvers or that expend a lot of fuel because of low-altitude flying.

    If China noted that the US had apparently deployed several dozen of the “refueling tankers” on solid-fuel rockets deployed in silos, with only a few satellites equipped to be so refueled, and that each “tanker” was equipped with a powerful main engine and only a moderate ratio of fuel to airframe mass, plus a robotic grappling arm that would appear unneeded to effect docking with a cooperative spacecraft outfitted with the appropriate docking port, and that American military officers openly advocated the use of essentially equivalent vehicles for “offensive space control,” then the American pleadings to the ISA would ring rather hollow and so would American objections to similar projects being undertaken on an experimental basis by China, Russia, India and Brazil.

    Which means that, in the end, such an arms control regime might fail, just like any arms control regime might fail, but that is no reason not to attempt to make it work. Negotiating it, enacting it, getting it ratified and implementing it will go a long way toward undercutting the forces that are pushing us toward an arms race, and that may now seem to make arms control unattainable.

    In the end, the claim that there is something unique about the space environment that makes it not amenable to arms control, and I mean rigorous, verified, comprehensive arms control – is just an empty shibboleth. I am not aware of any coherent argument in favor of this view which does not apply equally well to arms control of any kind, i.e., it is just as empty as it would be to argue that ICBMs can’t be controlled as long as nations are allowed to have as many space launchers as they like, or that nuclear weapons can’t be controlled as long as nations have uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing, or that chemical weapons can’t be controlled as long as nations have chemical industries, etc.

  9. Andy (History)

    Yes, one can ban actions, but as Mark notes, making it a crime to use a gun is not the same thing as gun control.

    When talking about banning space weapons, we are really talking about banning the capability to carry out those actions we’d all like to get rid of. Banning an action is quite a bit easier to do than banning a capability, particularly those capabilities that are dual-use. And, unfortunately, like so many other areas where people seek to limit capabilities (gun control being the most obvious example) definitional problems abound. For a good non-space comparison, just look at attempts in the US to ban ‘assault weapons.’ The ban, in the end, didn’t have much effect.

    A similar problem exists with regard to space. A complete ban will have the undesirable (to everyone) effect of curbing many legitimate uses for space. A more limited ban is likely to be ineffective to those who really want the capability, as loopholes will undoubtedly be created. Maybe its worth the attempt, but no one should be under any illusion that whatever limitations are created will be a solid barrier preventing weaponization of space.

    We can examine some existing systems to demonstrate the problem. Is AEGIS a space weapon? After all, it demonstrated the capability to destroy objects in space, but its primary function is air defense. How would those who believe the definitional problem is a red herring deal with this example? Whatever rule you lay down to prevent AEGIS from being used as a space weapon, how will you verify compliance? The Navy won’t be inclined to allow potential adversaries access to the inner workings of one of its most important weapons systems. And the Chinese and Russians are likely to feel the same way about their systems.

    Mark makes many good points, but I don’t agree his “forum” solution is workable. Without a solid treaty (with clear definitions) backing such a group to limit its actions, it will become just like most committees – a political organization where decisions are more about helping allies and punishing enemies than fair arbitration.

    Perhaps the definition problem is not insurmountable, but it and verification seem to be to be pretty substantial obstacles to create real limits on space weapons.

  10. Jim Oberg (History)

    “The problem with the code-of-conduct idea is that in being contrasted with arms control it says explicitly that it’s okay to develop, test, and deploy space weapons as long as you don’t use them, which means it doesn’t put any obstacle in the path of the same arms race we would have had without such a code.”

    Contrast this with the often highly praised Outer Space Treaty, which banned placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit, but which was powerless to prevent the USSR developing and deploying a system to place nuclear warheads into orbit — and the excuse was, well, they’ll only be used in wartime and under those conditions the treaty is moot.

    What was it, exactly, that the OST stopped anybody from doing, that they really ever wanted to do? Pretended safety is far more hazardous than recognized non-safety.

    A prudently cynical view of proposed weapons control in space is legitimate concern over the resulting delusion of security that one side — the US — could easily fall into, after having signed such a treaty. There’s also the US domestic litigation, privately sponsored, against any known space projects with potential ability to break things, filed in accordance with the treaty’s incorporation into US law. Imagine, for example, a restraining order against DART, or XSS-11, or even — at the top of the thread — the space shuttle? Don’t tell me there wouldn’t be any number of federal judges, on some circuit or circus, open to such precedent-setting arguments.

    But we’ve got to DO something, I guess… or at least, be seen to be doing something. We’ve got to protect our phony-baloney jobs, gentlemen!*

    *Blazing Saddles, if the literary allusion was garbled…

  11. Jim Oberg (History)

    “In the end, the claim that there is something unique about the space environment that makes it not amenable to arms control, and I mean rigorous, verified, comprehensive arms control – is just an empty shibboleth. I am not aware of any coherent argument in favor of this view which does not apply equally well to arms control of any kind…”

    Seems to me that the fragility of space-based assets, and their criticality, might be such a unique feature that provides enough reward for one-time cheaters, to make it worthwhile — even mandatory — to develop cheating capability.

    The use of force in space, in a brief episode, may profoundly redistribute earthside power relationships, so that a subsequent ‘disciplinary hearing’ instigated by the whining losers would be moot.

    Also, the uncertainty level of actual space weapons use, in the absence of multiple precedents and project histories, and in the continuing absence of reliable definitions, inspection regimes, and verification standards, is so high that suspected or overt threats to use such systems would have disproportionate influence of national decision making in a crisis.

    Lastly, technology change historically has relegated ‘last-war-technology-control’ agreements into the circular file of history, and if there’s any arena where technology change soars, it’s space — another uniqueness of that environment.

  12. Mark Gubrud

    Andy, I certainly support a solid treaty with as clear definitions as possible, at least as solid and at least as clear as those we have in other treaty regimes such as SALT, the NPT and the CWC.

    My use of the term “forum” is not meant to suggest some kind of feckless debating society, but rather an institution comparable to the IAEA in which evidence and arguments, as provided by states about their own activities, about those of other states, and independently generated, is assessed, questions posed (including requests for futher evidence, access and inspections where appropriate), and findings are reached with due process.

    Would such a “forum” be entirely free of politics, alliances, helping allies and punishing adversaries? Well, is the IAEA? And if not, do you propose abandoning it, or concluding that we must abandon hope of containing nuclear proliferation?

    I don’t mean to suggest that a treaty, with definitions and verification measures, is going to be a trivial exercise, but again I see no clear argument as to why it should be any more difficult than arms control in other domains – and yes, arms control does fail, quite often, but that is almost always due to the lack of sufficient political will, not to inherent technical difficulties.

    A complete ban on space weapons does not need to stand in the way of any legitimate non-weapons activity in space; it may create some burdens but some burdens are worth it, and it may require greater transparency which may come at the cost of some competitive advantages but that is another price all should be willing to pay. The problem is the same as with nuclear energy, chemical and biotech industries, etc. – how do you ban (or contain) war preparations while allowing closely-related peaceful work to proceed? With monitoring, oversight, transparency, review, guidelines, etc. This does not mean absolutely everything has to be spelled out in the negotiations leading to a treaty. The finer details will be the work of the ISA.

    Aegis SM-3, for example, is clearly a system of interest. Its capability as a satellite interceptor has been demonstrated (and was clear enough before the demo). However, as presently deployed, the SM-3 missile does not have the altitude and range reach to make it a highly capable ASAT. I suspect that within a flexible framework such as I am suggesting, a system like the Aegis SM-3 might be allowed provided its booster is not upgraded to provide a credible ASAT capability and provided further tests in an ASAT mode are not conducted. That would leave the more difficult case of the GMD, but since that system is in reality militarily useless (easily defeated by known countermeasures), I would argue that the US ought to be willing to give up that expensive turkey in exchange for the real security benefits of a space arms control regime.

  13. Mark Gubrud


    The OST stands as a solid foundation for international security in space. It preempts claims of territorial soveriegnty and establishes that all nations have the right to use space for peaceful purposes. While its failure to control space weapons other than space-based WMD is well known, even in this area its implicit injunction against “harmful interference” with the space activities of other states suggests a possible conceptual framework for space arms control.

    Whether the Soviet FOBS system was contrary to the letter of the OST is debatable, since with FOBS the nuclear weapon was to make only a fractional orbit, which is arguably different than basing nuclear weapons in orbit for an indefinite period of time (until Doomsday). The latter was, as you know, a widespread fear at the beginning of the space age. You may say that, on consideration of the issue, neither superpower really wanted to place nuclear weapons in orbit, but then again, did we really want to construct the kind of hair-trigger missile confrontation (half an hour to oblivion) that we had by the mid-1970s? The point of arms control is precisely to avoid doing stupid, dangerous things that on careful consideration we may decide we never wanted to do anyway.

    Of course, the Shuttle can carry a nuclear warhead to orbit any day of the year. However, I would like to know if you can cite any legal precedents where a federal judge has successfully issued a restraining order against the government or the military for deploying a weapons system that some private party alleged to be in violation of a ratified arms control treaty. Because if such precedents exist, I would like to file a number of suits ASAP, particularly in reference to US obligations under Article 6 of the NPT… but I digress.

    As to the uniqueness of space, we do tend to think of satellites as fragile creatures in comparison with, say, tanks or warships, which would normally not suffer much damage from say, a 10 m/s collision; however, a 10 km/s collision with a 100 kg object releases 1.2 tons of TNT equivalent, which would be enough to smash an Abrams and do serious damage to many warships; satellites are also pretty hard to hit in this comparison, and I expect that if the space arms race proceeds unabated we will see a next generation of military satellites hardened against laser, electromagnetic and low-speed kinetic (microsatellite) attacks. So I would say that we may need a more careful definition and measures of fragility, appropriate to the space environment, before we can make such a comparison meaningful.

    I completely disagree with your implied claim that the use of force in space, in a brief episode, will so profoundly redistribute earthside power relationships that the United States is at all likely to find itself a “whining loser” in the aftermath. If we are really so concerned about the vulnerability of our military satellite-based resources, let’s get serious about reducing our reliance on them as well as reducing their vulnerability with modest ASAT countermeasures combined with vigorous ASAT arms control.

    The uncertainty of the outcome of an attempted ASAT space strike, especially under an international regime that allows countermeasures and responsive deployments but strongly constrains ASAT development, deployment and testing, seems to me a powerful deterrent to action under any strategy that relies on the use of ASATs to neutralize American space power, nor do I think it is likely that the US will be so afraid of (e.g.) Chinese ICBMs fitted with KE ASATs that it will be paralyzed with fear by such threats issued in a crisis (if we are not sufficiently worried about Chinese ICBMs fitted with hydrogen bombs).

    Lastly, technology is racing ahead in lots of areas, and actually the progress of space technology appears relatively slow in comparison with computers, robots, materials, etc. But it is precisely this relentless and accelerating onslaught of technology that threatens to propel us into a new arms race to oblivion if we do not race at the same time to build a structure of international security and arms control which channels our technical efforts into peaceful, positive, and cooperative ventures instead of preparing to fight each other.

  14. Jim Oberg (History)

    Mark: “The uncertainty of the outcome of an attempted ASAT space strike, especially under an international regime that allows countermeasures and responsive deployments but strongly constrains ASAT development, deployment and testing, seems to me a powerful deterrent to action under any strategy that relies on the use of ASATs to neutralize American space power… “

    This is an excellent point, Mark — thanks for the well-aimed disagreements.

    Let me suggest that you don’t have to use a weapons system (or know it is 99% effective) for the weapons system to be useful.

    The kind of scenario I’m concerned with is a circumstance where a terrestrial force confrontation, in which US forces depend for a large multiplication factor from space-based support, but where the complication arises that a significant doubt is cast over the invulnerability of the space asset. Would the US leadership, under such doubts, opt to decline the confrontation?

    We agree on a common long-range solution — enhance survivability of space assets through redundancy, distribution, masking, and other well known (and several fortunately less well known) techniques.

    Placing more confidence in own’s asset survivability seems to be a stabilizing factor. But doesn’t that re-introduce some issues, such as how would one go about verifying real survivability without making practice detection and live-fire attacks on test objects under hi-fidelity conditions?

    I’m afraid that the sensitivity of current space asset reliance schemes to break-out (real or only imagined) or surprise may be that unique aspect of space, vis-a-vis all other theatres of operation, which advises against reliance on the pretence of treaty protection.

  15. Alen Thomson (History)

    Another definitional question might be, “Are there satellites that, in time of war, would be defined as legitimate (and significant) military targets?”

    To be specific, what about reconnaissance satellites? What about ELINT satellites designed to locate and identify military radars and other emitters? What about navigation satellites that are operated by the military and vastly increase the capability of a variety of terrestrial weapon systems?

    If the answer is “yes, those would be legitimate targets,” then what is the argument against possessing the means for attacking those satellites or at least attacking the functions they perform?

    Let me note that I am not a space weaponization enthusiast — quite the opposite. But there do seem to be significant arguments for an ability to counter already-existing military uses of space during wartime.

  16. FSB

    Jim Oberg’s concerns about surprise and rapid break-out are not all that well-founded.

    Murder happens all the time, but it is still illegal.

    Having a set of rules for space operations and banning certain weapons would increase US and global security. The US could have a small research program to keep a hedge against any rapid breakout from other nations.

    This is just like BMD: installing a partial leaky defense against possible remote future threats we are creating real problems in the present w/ Russia.

  17. Mark Gubrud

    Jim, your first question points back to the folly of over-reliance on an asset you know to be potentially vulnerable. (Re our favorite scenario for a possible future conflict with our favorite future peer competitor, what are we going to do about the fact that our aircraft carriers have already become floating value targets and are basically sitting ducks if the Chinese are serious about putting them out of action, e.g. with maneuvering ballistic RVs as recently discussed here?)

    As you stated, we agree on the desirability to “enhance survivability of space assets through redundancy, distribution, masking, and other” approaches including responsive replenishment and non-space alternatives such as UAVs. This does not seem to me any longer-range a program than the development of weapons in the futile pursuit of space control (ensuring own use while denying others’).

    For enhancing survivability through direct countermeasures to ASAT attack, and particularly for deterring another state’s reliance on its ability to carry out a successful space strike, it does not seem to me that “practice detection and live-fire attacks” would be needed at all, especially since this would imply the need to obtain an adversary’s cooperation in taking practice shots at our birds with their ASATs, which seems unlikely (but perhaps we can propose it the next time we host the Olympics).

    Rather, the point is to complicate the attacker’s game by introducing unknown and unpredictable features (decoys, flares, dazzlers, jinking, etc.), as well as to take straightforward hardening measures such as possibly reinforcing and armoring the airframe, responsive shutters that close against high-power lasers, stealth measures, EMP hardening and so on. If such countermeasures are kept secret, and if ASATs cannot be tested against simulations of what they might consist of (because ASAT testing is banned), then I think that even if we cannot have complete confidence in the survival of our assets we will nevertheless know that no adversary can have complete or any reasonable degree of confidence in being able to neutralize them quickly in a surprise attack.

  18. Mark Gubrud

    Allen, I hope that we have not yet come to the point where it is inevitable to regard military satellites (yup, used in war to help kill people) as “legitimate targets” and are therefore unable to effect meaningful arms control against space weapons and against the dangers posed by a space arms race.

    What will be a “legitimate target” in the event of a US war with China? Los Angeles? Is nuclear arms control illogical because, after all, no one is ever going to use nuclear weapons for slight reasons, and if a thousand warheads have already fallen on a thousand targets, why is one more illegitimate?

    It seems to me that this line of reasoning is just another general attack on the very idea of arms control, the very idea that by imposing restraints on what nations do in preparation for wars we want to avoid, by placing obstacles in the path of arms races that would otherwise be driven by the advance of technology and action-reaction cycles, we limit the risk of war by limiting the number of ways it can escalate or be initiated, reducing the level of feverish preparations for war and the resulting level of hostility and mistrust, and possibly containing the level of violence should conflict still break out in some way.

    Militarists argue that it makes no sense to preserve space as a sanctuary for military systems that may be used in a violent conflict. But the alternative of an unrestrained space arms race is much worse.

    Rather, the illogic lies in the notion that war itself is legitimate at all. War is the enemy, violence is the disease, and everything we do to contain it is a step forward, even if we might possibly fail.

  19. Andy (History)

    It seems that an even bigger problem than definition is verification. Assurance that nations are not cheating would seem to require a level of intrusiveness that no one is likely to agree to. At a minimum one would want inspections of every space vehicle before launch. Considering the way satellites are built and prepared for launch, an effective ban would likely require inspection during manufacture and/or assembly along with launch vehicle mating (and maybe even the launch vehicle itself). Without such intrusive measures, now would the Russians and Chinese, for example, be able to detect a secret secondary weapon “package” on a US satellite with an otherwise legitimate purpose? Or, we could launch a wholly weaponized satellite with no legitimate use and simply claim some legitimate purpose as cover. Once it’s in orbit, no one will know the difference.

    Similar problems exist for ground-based weapons. How does one verifiably ban the type of ASAT used in the recent Chinese test? It was essentially a ballistic missile with an attached kill vehicle instead of a warhead. Are the Chinese going to let an international inspection regime ensure their ballistic missiles don’t have KV’s instead of nukes or something else? And how does one verifiably guard against R&D and construction of such kill vehicles to begin with? We can ban testing, sure, but even there much testing can done covertly under the guise of some other legitimate use.

    These are only a few potential space weapon technologies. What about ground-based or airborne lasers? What about directed energy, or something like AEGIS, as mentioned before?

    So the problem of arms control in space is not really comparable to the NPT and other types of arms control. Once something is in orbit, it can’t be feasibly inspected which makes the IAEA’s problem of timely visas for inspectors seem relatively trivial. The major powers (not just the US) are unlikely to permit the kind of inspection and verification regime to make a ban effective.

    Assuming an agreeable, workable and comprehensive definition for space weapons could be negotiated (something I think is highly unlikely for reasons previously stated), a cursory look at the problems of implementation of such a treaty strongly indicate to me that banning space weapons would essentially be a gentleman’s agreement among nations – which, like all such agreements, appears to work just great until the knives come out. As Jim said, we don’t need “pretend” or illusory arms control and in my judgment, that is all a treaty banning space weapons is likely to provide.

    One might argue, however, that the purpose of a space weapons treaty is more about politics than actually limiting weapons. Given the right political context, an unverifiable and loop-hole-ridden treaty might be useful – as long as one realizes the limitations of such a treaty. One might argue it’s worthy to politically delegitimize such weapons in the hope that nations may hesitate to employ them for fear of paying a political cost. That strategy would probably not prevent the use of space weapons in major existential wars, but might in more limited conflicts.

  20. Mark Gubrud


    I’m not about to give up. Your arguments pooh-poohing space arms control are again just generic arguments that can be made against any arms control, and there is nothing that makes them uniquely applicable to space.

    The technical parameters of the verification problem are of course different for every different kind of arms control problem; for space, as with other domains, some of the controls we would want to implement are hard to verify and others quite easy. For example, it is obvious and well-noted that a KE ASAT impact test ban is probably the most completely verifiable piece of arms control either proposed or in effect today. However, I would not stop with that, and those who propose to do so are underselling what is reasonably achievable, as evidenced by the fact that many arms control provisions currently in force are far less reliably verifiable than that.

    Pre-launch inspection would be great; I’m all for it, but it is no more essential than is the inspection of every ICBM simultaneously to ensure de-MIRVing and the absence of prohibited CBW, or the opening of every warehouse that might contain a covert chemical or bioweapons lab. A system of limited inspections might be proposed, or we might agree to a regime without any kind of prelaunch inspections, which I agree would be weaker but would still serve to avert the worst prospect of an unrestrained space arms race.

    It is not the case that once in orbit a satellite is no longer subject to inspection; rather, under current rules, once in orbit a satellite is fair game for anyone to come up close to and photograph from many angles, measure heat balances and any nuclear or electromagnetic emanations, etc., and analyze to decide if it is a likely suspect as a weapons platform. Even if it seems unlikely that a UN agency will be able in the near future to fly its own inspection microsatellites, the technology has already been developed by the US and is being developed by China, and states can either submit their independently acquired data as evidence or could lease the use of inspection vehicles to the UN agency when the need arose.

    Under rules which required states to account for the purposes of their satellites, an international body could reasonably assess whether a satellite might be hiding something more sinister under its side panels, or was most likely just what its owner said it was. Such rules would of course have to legitimate our uses of space for spying and military support, but that would be very much in American interest and we might as well advance such a proposal. Maybe the Russians and Chinese won’t agree to any such rules, either, but why don’t we call their bluff, then, instead of refusing to engage the whole issue.

    One obviously can’t verify the absence of R&D which might potentially contribute to space weapons any more than one can in the cases of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, but the actual testing and deployment of space weapons, particularly in the numbers needed to pose a significant threat, would be much harder for anyone to keep secret. Do we currently have access to every cave in China or Russia to ensure they aren’t hiding any ICBMs on mobile TELs? Do we need to?

    Defining space weapons is not the problem; in fact, the general definition is trivial – what is going to be harder is deciding what cases meet that definition. But this is hardly a problem unique to space arms control, nor is it unique that one may belittle any such regime as “a gentleman’s agreement” or “pretend.” No arms control is ever going to matter if “the knives come out” for real. The ABM Treaty didn’t prevent George W. Bush from withdrawing and initiating deployment of interceptors, but note that this was not done covertly.

    Which brings us to the point that arms control really is more about politics than “actually limiting weapons,” because “actually limiting weapons” in any non-political manner is impossible. I do not advocate an “unverifiable and loop-hole-ridden treaty,” I advocate as strong and as strongly verified a treaty as we can get everyone to sign on to, and while even the strongest arms control regime is no permanent guarantee that a new arms race, and the apocalyptic war it would probably lead to, will never break out, at least it may go a long way to defusing the potential for that to occur in the near future, and give us time to evolve a more civilized world civilization.

  21. FSB

    yeah, we can’t verify and say with certainty that no-one in DC will not commit a murder tonite, but murder is still illegal.

    Since people are going to commit murder (…it’s inevitable…) then we should make murder legal, right?

    Banning (even imperfectly) certain actions increases our (and everyone’s) security. Why is this difficult for people to understand?

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