Commentary

Russia and China Propose a Treaty Banning Space Weapons, while the Pentagon Plans an ASAT Test

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By Michael Krepon – On February 12, the governments of Russia and China tabled a draft treaty banning space weapons in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.  This initiative will gain greater support as a result of the Bush administrations plans, revealed two days later, to demolish a failing intelligence satellite with a sea-based missile. The proposed draft treaty by Russia and China as well as the stated rationale for the upcoming Pentagon test are not credible.

Keeping space from becoming a shooting gallery is a critically important goal, as is evident by China’s test of a satellite weapon on January 12, 2007. This anti-satellite (ASAT) test created, according to computer models, over 150,000 pieces of deadly debris. The Pentagon’s ASAT test will be designed to mitigate debris, while raising international concerns that the Pentagon is using a failed satellite to hone its space warfare skills.  The ostensible reason for the ASAT test – to protect human beings from the satellite’s unused supply of deadly fuel – is unpersuasive. If this man-made object causes human casualties or fatalities, they will be the first in the history of the space age. 

Clearly, a comprehensive ban on space weapons would be an important accomplishment – but it has proven to be extremely difficult to negotiate. The Outer Space Treaty (1967) only bans orbiting weapons of mass destruction. The proposed treaty by Russia and China seeks to extend this prohibition to all other weapons in space.  But the proposed treaty would not prohibit the Pentagon’s ASAT test, or ones like it by Russia and China. 

Key Provisions

States would be obligated under the Russian and Chinese draft treaty to “undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kind of weapons, not to install such weapons on celestial bodies, and not to station such weapons in outer space in any other manner; not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects; not to assist or encourage other states, groups of states or international organizations” from carrying out prohibited activities.

The draft treaty defines a space weapon as “any device placed in outer space, based on any physical principle, specially produced or converted to eliminate, damage or disrupt normal function of objects in outer space.” 

The draft treaty proposes that “measures of verification of compliance with the Treaty may be the subject of an additional protocol.” In contrast, the draft treaty mandates an additional protocol setting up an executive authority to deal with questions of compliance.

Key Weaknesses

The proposed treaty has several significant weaknesses. First, its scope is limited only to weapons based in space.  It does not cover ground- and sea-based means that could be used to harm satellites, such as the Chinese ground-based anti-satellite weapon tested a year go. Second, even the proposed ban on space-based weapons is of limited scope, since it applies only to devices “specially produced or converted” to become space weapons. If a device is designed to have multiple purposes, its owner could claim that it is not covered under the treaty.

Another major weakness in the draft treaty is its relaxed approach to verifying compliance with its provisions.   Earlier presentations by its sponsors left a verification protocol for consideration after the treaty negotiations – an extremely unwise approach.  Without an ability to monitor implementation, the treaty’s proposed executive organization would not have much authority.

There are also significant negotiating and procedural hurdles. The 65-member Conference on Disarmament requires consensus to begin and conclude negotiations. And if a treaty were somehow to emerge from Geneva that seriously addressed the issues of scope, definition, and verification noted above, it would not enter into force until all five permanent members of UN Security Council had agreed to ratification. The United States and China still haven’t ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – more than a decade after its negotiation, which was forty years in the making.

A Way Forward

The draft space treaty proposed by Russia and China deserves extended discussion in the Conference of Disarmament. Its serious flaws need to be considered, along with proposed remedies. Proponents of a treaty banning space weapons have been stymied in the past because so many devices designed for other purposes could be used as space weapons, such as lasers, jammers, and missile defense interceptors. It would be impossible to capture all of these devices in a treaty banning space weapons, and a treaty limited to “dedicated” space weapons or those “specially produced or converted” would be woefully insufficient, especially if there are no means to investigate whether such weapons have been produced or secretly deployed.      

If the intent behind the Russian and Chinese draft treaty is, as they say, in “keeping outer space from turning into an arena for military confrontation, in assuring security in outer space and safe functioning of space objects,” there is a much more direct and more comprehensive way to proceed: Major space-faring nations could agree to a Code of Conduct that pledges “no harmful interference against space objects.” This pledge would not be confined to weapons based in space, as is the case of the draft treaty proposed by Moscow and Beijing. It would extend to any means of harmful interference, including those based on land and sea. 

The challenge of defining harmful interference is much narrower and simpler than defining what constitutes a space weapon.  The problem of scope would be settled in favor of comprehensiveness. The challenge of monitoring harmful interference would remain – with or without a treaty or a Code of Conduct. This is harder than it sounds, because sometimes a satellite will suffer operating problems for no apparent reason. But purposeful, harmful, and repeated interference of satellites will be known by operators in major space-faring nations.  These nations have the means to fight fire with fire. Because multiple means of satellite interference will continue to exist, they serve as a deterrent against opening this Pandora’s Box. 

A Code of Conduct can be negotiated among space-faring nations. It can take months rather than years.  It can take the form of an executive agreement or a political agreement among like-minded states that would reserve the sovereign right to determine and respond to instances of noncompliance. It can avoid all of the hang-ups that have stymied a treaty banning space weapons for so many decades. It could also prevent ASAT tests, like the one carried out by China and the one proposed by the Pentagon.

 


 

Michael Krepon directs the Space Security Project  and is the co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center. 

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