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Transparency Is Key to Avoiding Space Conflict

Brian Weeden's review ("Space Weaponization: Aye or Nay?" November 2008) succinctly analyzes the space weaponization debate. A central step to ensuring that space is used for the "peaceful benefit of all states," however, is to institutionalize cooperation in space. This, in turn, rests on the concept of transparency.

To bolster mutual confidence and decrease the likelihood of confrontation in space, states must develop institutions, rules, and procedures for transparency. "Transparency" describes a condition of openness through which states signal their intentions and capabilities by obtaining or exchanging information on items or activities of interest to all parties involved. States increase their confidence about whether an activity is occurring and receive early warning of suspicious behavior.

In practice, transparency builds from broader exchanges between political leaders as well as military-to-military contacts on defense spending, doctrine, plans and operations, and decision-making processes, among others.

In its most intrusive form, transparency involves full accounting of all declared activities, often through agreements. To encourage states to engage in reciprocal and observable activities that signal their commitment to behaviors that avoid miscalculation and war, we need mutually understood declaratory policies and doctrines-basic "rules of the road."

Transparency requires states to exchange sensitive information and share perceptions about risks and threats. As the superpowers realized during the Cold War that they could inflict extraordinary harm on each other with nuclear weapons, Moscow and Washington gradually learned that transparency improves security and thus developed standard operating procedures to avert confrontation and escalation.

Similarly, we need transparency because inadequate knowledge about intentions and actions in space increases fear and insecurity. Space-faring states should pursue policy initiatives to help them understand what others are doing and what those actions mean.

One step is to acknowledge that the absence of transparency in space is a serious problem. All future summit meetings between national leaders of space-faring states should discuss transparency in space. Bilateral and multilateral discussions provide opportunities to help policymakers discuss what space transparency means, why opacity is dangerous, and why conflict in space would be dangerous and unacceptably costly. Civilian and military officials need regular dialogues if they are to foster realistic expectations about each another and to develop policies for using space peacefully to enhance economic prosperity and technological progress.

Finally, states should discuss transparency within regional frameworks. High-level ministerial meetings could include China, the European Union, Japan, Russia, and the United States, plus such aspiring space powers as India, Iran, Malaysia, and South Korea. Regional discussions could address military-to-military deliberations and scientific exchanges while encouraging unofficial but candid dialogues among states on shared interests and concerns.

Such discussions will help space-faring states develop channels of communication that could prove helpful during a crisis. More importantly, such measures could lead to an informal or formal framework on space rules of conduct.

There is rightly skepticism whether "talk shops" will mitigate competition in space when the gulf in capabilities is so great. Consider the United States. With its tremendous technological lead and overwhelming dependence on satellites for military, intelligence, and commercial activities, states might doubt Washington's commitment to such discussions because it has the most to lose in any efforts to improve transparency. The problem was expressed by one military official, saying "We don't want to tell the world what our capabilities and limitations are, because that would help the enemy."

Mutual suspicion exacerbates misperceptions and compels states to make worst-case assumptions about others. It is vastly preferable for space-faring states to formulate their assessments in the open rather than wandering aimlessly in the dark.

Transparency for space depends on three interrelated questions.

First, can states build cooperation in space without transparency? What levels of knowledge of each other's capabilities do states need to develop cooperation?

Second, can true cooperation in space exist among states with widely unequal capabilities? Will states relinquish a commanding lead in space, and will more-capable states sacrifice more than they gain?

Finally, do disagreements between states-the United States and Iran, or between China and Russia and the United States-pose fundamental impediments to transparency in space? Can states cooperate in space despite other disagreements and tensions?

Despite these daunting policy challenges, optimism is in order because states have bridged deeply held differences before and can do so again with space.


William C. Martel, associate professor of international security studies at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, is author of Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy (2007).


Only the United States Can Lead the Way on Nuclear Disarmament

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Oct. 28 ("Bush Administration Sets Russian Arms Talks," November 2008) in which he addressed the future of nuclear weapons in the 21st century. The succinct argument he offers for maintaining an arsenal of nuclear weapons is based on two pillars, deterrence and assurance-an unstable foundation.

Gates said he worries about the "credibility" of our nuclear arsenal, based on the "safety, security, and reliability of our weapons." He makes a common inversion in placing greater concern on the safety and security of the weapons than that of the people they are intended to protect. In fact, nuclear weapons cannot provide security to their possessors; they can only be used to threaten or massively destroy an opponent. It also seems unlikely that a potential adversary of the United States would believe it could attack the United States with impunity because it calculated that the U.S. arsenal was something less than 100 percent reliable.

In the end, Gates believes the United States must rely on a "credible deterrent," as opposed to providing leadership to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. "To be blunt," he says, "there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program." He seeks a modernization program that would include the revitalization of the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure and the development of a new nuclear warhead, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, which Congress has turned down on several occasions. To follow the Gates plan would be to send a message to the rest of the world that the United States, although the world's most powerful state, finds nuclear weapons useful and will rely on them for the foreseeable future. Rather than contributing to U.S. security, this is a formula for promoting nuclear proliferation, which in the end will be harmful to U.S. and global security.

Secretary Gates summarizes his position in this way: "Try as we might, and hope as we will, the power of nuclear weapons and their strategic impact is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle-at least for a very long time. While we have a long-term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all, given the world in which we live, we have to be realistic about that proposition."

It seems clear that Gates' position is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In our current world, only the United States, due to its enormous military might, can provide the necessary leadership to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. If U.S. policymakers believe it cannot be done, that the genie cannot be put back in the bottle, it will not happen.

On the other hand, if U.S. policymakers adopted a different approach, one in which the United States sought to end its reliance on nuclear weapons and pressed the other nuclear states to come along, the prospect of a world with zero nuclear weapons would become realistic.

This does not mean unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament. It means a negotiated agreement for the phased, verifiable, irreversible, and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. It would not be easy, but the alternative is to continue with the status quo and drift toward nuclear catastrophe. Nuclear weapons do not and cannot protect their possessors. Retaliation is not protection. All countries, including the United States, would be more secure in a world without nuclear weapons. We can move cautiously, but we must move determinedly toward that goal. Only the United States can lead the way.


David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.



Posted: December 4, 2008