Avoiding a Space Arms Race

By Daryl G. Kimball

Forty years ago this month, the Senate approved the Outer Space Treaty, which bars signatory states from placing into orbit any objects carrying nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Although it has helped protect space for peaceful uses by all countries, the treaty has not closed off all threats to the safety of military and civilian space assets and the pursuit of other types of space-based weapons.

For instance, some countries have developed offensive weapons capabilities that can shoot down satellites in orbit using ground-based ballistic missiles. The United States is now contemplating “defensive,” space-based, kinetic-energy missile interceptors. The time has come once again for states to engage in dialogue on space security and avert a new and dangerous arms competition in the heavens.

As if to highlight the problem, China recently used a projectile carried into space by a ballistic missile to shatter one of its weather satellites orbiting about 850 kilometers above the Earth into thousands of fragments. The highly irresponsible experiment—the first of its kind since U.S. and Soviet anti-satellite testing in the 1980s—reaffirms the vulnerability of surveillance and communications satellites to attack.

At the same time, the Bush administration's fiscal year 2008 budget request includes $10 million for initial work toward a space-based missile interceptor test bed. According to the Pentagon budget documents, testing of a handful of kinetic missile interceptors might begin by 2012. Once proven, the United States could significantly expand the number of orbiting interceptors providing a thin, “multi-shot” defense against intercontinental missiles.

Russia and China worry that U.S. ground-based missile defenses, combined with possible space-based weapons systems, could threaten their offensive nuclear deterrent forces and early-warning satellites. Today, Russia has an arsenal of approximately 800 long-range, nuclear-armed missiles, which will likely shrink significantly in coming years. China deploys approximately two dozen such weapons.

For some defense planners, the Chinese satellite shoot-down underscores the need, as stated in the official 2006 U.S. space policy, “to promote and protect U.S. security and space assets.” As Air Force Maj. Gen. William Shelton said recently to Inside the Pentagon, “As the capability evolves on the part of the people [who] would want to do us harm in space, you've got to stay ahead of them.” But because the United States may not be able to stay ahead technologically and cannot always protect its satellites, it would benefit from agreements that limit the military space capabilities of all countries.

Unfortunately, international discussions that might produce new understandings on maintaining the peaceful use of space have been stymied until, perhaps, now. For years, China and Russia have called for talks at the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) on “prevention of an arms race in outer space.” Until very recently, the Bush administration had been opposed to even discussions on space weapons, favoring negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would halt production of nuclear material for bombs.

But on March 23, the president of the CD presented states with a package that would allow for nonbinding discussions on space weapons issues, as well as long-overdue negotiations on an FMCT. The proposal has the support of a wide majority of countries, including the United States .

Leaders in Washington , Beijing , Moscow , and elsewhere should seize the opportunity for cooperative solutions. First, member states at the CD should explore options for limiting the testing or use of ground-, sea-, air-, or space-based weapons, including lasers and projectiles, against satellites or other space-based objects, as well as for legally binding standards for the mitigation of space debris.

A formal agreement through the CD, which works by consensus, would be difficult to achieve. Congress could help improve prospects by denying proposed funding for space-based missile interceptors. These are not critical to U.S. missile defense needs and could prompt Russia and China to accelerate work on less-costly countermeasures and retain more of their offensive nuclear-armed missiles.

If talks at the CD do not begin or become deadlocked, the nearly 100 signatory states of the Outer Space Treaty could seek to formally clarify that the treaty was also meant to ban non-nuclear Earth-orbiting weapons designed to strike satellites or missiles—weapons that would undermine space security for all. The treaty clearly allows states-parties to establish interpretations of the original treaty to take into account developments not anticipated in 1967.

As an interim step, like-minded states might also establish a less formal “code of conduct” for space security, whether or not all governments choose to participate. The goal would be to establish stronger norms against dangerous activities in space, including flight tests that simulate hostile attacks against satellites and the deployment of anti-satellite and space weapons.

It is foolhardy to deny that an offensive-defensive space arms competition is in the offing and could have unwanted consequences. The international community stands at a critical space-security crossroads that requires responsible and visionary global leadership.