The Reconsidering the Rules for Space Project

A series of recent diplomatic and technological developments underscore the stark choice between competition and cooperation as the basis for space operations. This project explores operational rules and transparency measures that could be used to balance the interests of constituencies in the United States and other major space-faring countries.

For nearly fifty years, the United States promoted a vision of space as a place controlled by no country and meant to benefit all. Commercial activities and scientific exploration occurred freely as long as nobody else''s interests were harmed. To protect its use of space for reconnaissance, arms control verification, early warning, and other support for terrestrial security activities, the United States worked to gain international agreement on rules that stabilized deterrence, prohibited space-based weapons of mass destruction, and promoted informal, reciprocal restraint regarding other types of weapons in space and anti-satellite activities.

Since the 1980s, the United States has shifted from trying to protect its satellites through rules and mutual restraint to seeking space dominance as a way to protect increasingly important commercial and military space assets. The Bush administration's efforts to deploy U.S. missile defense systems, its rejection of any new space arms control, and its quest to achieve total U.S. military space dominance underscore a fundamental shift toward a situation where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must unless they can find an asymmetrical way to protect their interests.

Of the major space-faring countries, China has said most explicitly that such U.S. policies would become intolerably threatening and would require a countervailing response. Even a limited missile defense could threaten China''s minimal nuclear deterrent, and U.S. use of space for highly intrusive surveillance and force-enhancement, let alone force application or coercive diplomacy short of war, would have serious implications for the China's relations with Taiwan. Chinese officials have indicated that their preferred response to an aggressive, imposing U.S. military program is not to enter a classic arms race, but to put pressure on points of weakness, such as vulnerable space assets. International law currently provides some protections for military support activities and commercial services under the supposition that their purposes are fundamentally peaceful. Yet, China is effectively warning that U.S. attempts to weaponize space would jeopardize commercial and military support activities. The result would not be U.S. space dominance, but a chaotic situation that would leave everybody less secure.

The alternative is to develop a more refined and robust set of rules for space that balances the interests of commercial, civilian, and military constituencies in the United States and abroad. Any attempt to use traditional arms control methods to control offensive space capabilities quickly runs into two dual-use problems:

  • hitting a satellite is much easier than hitting a fast-moving missile, so even a rudimentary missile defense system will have more powerful ASAT capabilities; and
  • any country that can place an object in space has at least residual capabilities to threaten the space activities of others.

Thus, protective rules will have to place more emphasis on operational practice than on denying inherent capability and will have to provide a clear understanding about how far space-based military support and force enhancement capabilities could go and still be considered "peaceful" under the Outer Space Treaty. A host of transparency issues also need to be considered when balancing commercial, civilian, and military interests, such as whether there should be international agreement regarding the sale of commercial satellite imagery in conflict situations, and how international cooperation on commercial space launch activities can proceed without raising concerns about the proliferation of advanced ballistic missile technology.


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