Commentary

Protect Satellites Against Harmful Interference

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By Sam Black – The longstanding impasse over how or even whether to pursue an international agreement to enhance space security will be handed off to the new presidential administration. The Conference on Disarmament (CD), the forum established to produce multilateral disarmament treaties, is stagnant. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has opposed a new treaty to enhance space security. Even if the incoming administration changes course, the content and forum for negotiations are far from settled. At the same time, there is widespread agreement that satellites are vital to U.S. national and economic security, and that both new diplomatic initiatives and efforts to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. satellites to attack are required.

While the CD has a mandate appropriate for the task, it suffers from structural difficulties. For one, it conducts work and adopts decisions by consensus, rendering it vulnerable to hostage-taking by obstructionists. Thus, the countries that desire a formal treaty banning space weapons at the CD will have to overcome significant obstacles to gain consensus – including difficulties in defining space weapons and designing robust verification procedures. The chances of concluding a space weapons ban in the CD now appear slim. A code of conduct for responsible spacefaring nations, on the other hand, is more promising, whether negotiated within the CD or outside of it by a small group of like-minded nations.

The key element of a code of conduct is a pledge not to interfere with space objects. Other important provisions include space traffic management, debris mitigation, radio frequency and orbital slot allocation coordination, and consultation mechanisms.

Harmful interference entails any interference with any orbiting object that creates debris or inhibits the use of satellites. Nations that subscribe to the code of conduct would thereby agree not to test or use anti-satellite weapons (A-Sats), lasers, or any other physical or electro-magnetic means to harm any object in space.

The idea that nations should not interfere with each others’ satellites is far from new. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower initially accepted this principle in the 1950s. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty reflects Eisenhower’s national space policy and contains a provision requiring nations to consult with other signatories if they are planning an activity that might harmfully interfere with others’ activities. The United States and the Soviet Union included bans on interference with satellites used for verification in no fewer than eight treaties.

Throughout the history of the space age, there has been no record of a satellite being interfered with during a crisis or in warfare. This norm is in need of reinforcement. The Bush administration and the Russian government have withdrawn from treaties that include pledges against harmful interference; other treaties with this provision have expired. Meanwhile, China and the United States have carried out destructive A-Sat testing.

The U.S. test in February employed a ballistic missile defense system converted for use against satellites. Major spacefaring nations already have multiple means to harm satellites, which can help deter the initiation of harmful interference against satellites in crises or warfare. No further A-Sat tests are required to prove this point.

The first case of satellite interference in times of crisis or war is unlikely to be the last. Latent A-Sat capabilities can serve as a deterrent against cheating. In the event that any state breaks its pledge not to engage in harmful interference, that state is likely to invite unfortunate consequences.

Satellites are a force multiplier and are invaluable to technologically advanced military forces. If satellite interference becomes the norm in crises and warfare, advanced spacefaring nations stand to lose the benefits that satellites provide. Satellites are used by militaries for communication and early warning purposes, both of which are vital for nuclear deterrence. If satellites are targeted in crises and warfare, breakdowns in deterrence could occur.

Interference with satellites would change the conduct of warfare. It is impossible to predict with certainty what the resulting consequences would be, but it is safe to conclude that the country that relies upon satellites the most, the United States, would suffer the most if satellites become acceptable targets. Furthermore, widespread interference with satellites would hinder the peaceful uses of outer space. If debris is created, the risk of catastrophic damage to satellites increases.

A multilateral space agreement is unlikely to improve space security if acts of harmful interference with space objects continue. The next administration has the opportunity to improve U.S. national and economic security as well as international security by pursuing a code of conduct for responsible spacefaring nations that reinforces the principle of no harmful interference established by President Eisenhower 50 years ago.

A version of this article was first published as an Op-Ed in Space News on July 7, 2008.

photo credit: NASA


Samuel Black is a Research Associate with the Space Security project at the Stimson Center.

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