Research Pages

Improving Prospects for Space Diplomacy

in Program

Those who
still seek an ambitious military space diplomacy initiative during the Obama
administration would do well to dwell on New START.  President Obama, already
tackling half a dozen outrageously hard problems, has to work overtime to
convince two-thirds of the Senate to consent to ratify a modest but essential
treaty. Senate Republicans (including deficit hawks) have held him up for
ransom, and Republican presidential hopefuls have been Palinized. Republican
Senators will be more numerous after November 2nd, and any Republican
who claims to be worried that New START confines U.S. missile
defense options would be apoplectic about a treaty banning weapons in

Moscow and Beijing can read these tea
leaves, so will they continue to champion an unverifiable space treaty whose
scope far exceeds the ABM Treaty? Here is the key provision of their proposed
treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat
or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT):

Parties 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 to participate in
activities prohibited by the Treaty.”

The PPWT’s
definition of “weapons in outer space” is “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, on the Earth or in
its air, as well as to eliminate population, components of biosphere critical to
human existence or inflict damage to them”

As for the
“use of force” or “threat of force,” the PPWT defines these as “any hostile
actions against outer space objects including, inter alia, those aimed at their
destruction, damage, temporarily or permanently injuring normal functioning,
deliberate alteration of the parameters of their orbit, or the threat of these
actions.  The PPTW makes no mention of ground-based ASATs.  Verification
measures are not integral to the proposed treaty, but may be considered later in
an additional protocol.

Beijing and Russia stick to
their guns, they would doom a rare opportunity to accomplish something modest
but essential and doable. The Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, is
willing to engage seriously on military space diplomacy. The necessity to do so
is obvious: Major space-faring nations have experienced four wake-up calls in
close succession between January 2007 and February 2009 — a successful Chinese
“hit-to-kill” ASAT test; another major debris-causing event, the break-up of a
Russian missile body; a U.S. shoot down of a dying satellite, ostensibly for
safety reasons; and a collision between a dead Russian and a functioning U.S.
satellite. The need for rules of the road relating to debris mitigation –
including ASAT tests — and space traffic management, have never been clearer. 
More ambitious approaches, such as a complete ban on ASAT testing or “weapons”
in space, would be desirable, but are impractical and unverifiable.  (How would
you deal with “shoot-to-miss” ASAT tests?)

The last
Really Big Space Treaty — unless you want to count the ABM Treaty, which banned
the development, testing and deployment of space-based ABM systems or components
— was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. To understand how the Kennedy administration
wisely laid the groundwork for the OST by means of a UN General Assembly
resolution, check out the inestimable Ray Garthoff’s article in the Winter
1980/1 issue of International
, “Banning the Bomb in Outer

The OST,
which is known as the Magna Carta for space, codified some essential norms, but
is greatly in need of updating. This is hard to do because Presidents always
have higher treaty making (i.e., nuclear) priorities. As I have written here
before, problems of scope, definition and verification related to military
capabilities in space are damn-near intractable. And when, on those rare
occasions when negotiations begin, somebody overreaches badly.  The last time
the United States was ready to discuss ASATs, during the Carter administration,
one of the Kremlin’s opening gambits was to define the space shuttle as an

European Union has an alternative to the PPWT.  It is placing the finishing
touches on a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations that would
update the OST’s norms.  The previous draft of the EU’s Code of Conduct,
released in December 2008, included the key principles of “the responsibility of
States to take all the appropriate measures and cooperate in good faith to
prevent harmful interference in outer space activities,” and “the responsibility
of States, in the conduct of scientific, commercial and military activities, to
promote the peaceful exploration and use of outer space and take all the
adequate measures to prevent outer space from becoming an area of

The EU Code
of Conduct’s “general measures” include:

  • “The Subscribing States will establish and implement
    national policies and procedures to minimise the possibility of accidents in
    space, collisions between space objects or any form of harmful interference with
    other States’ right to the peaceful exploration and use of outer
  • “The Subscribing States will, in conducting outer space
    activities: refrain from any intentional action which will or might bring about,
    directly or indirectly, the damage or destruction of outer space objects unless
    such action is conducted to reduce the creation of outer space debris and/or
    justified by imperative safety considerations”
  • “Take appropriate steps to minimise the risk of
  • “When executing manoeuvres of space objects in outer
    space, for example to supply space stations, repair space objects, mitigate
    debris, or reposition space objects, the Subscribing States agree to take all
    reasonable measures to minimise the risks of collision”
  • “The Subscribing States resolve to promote the
    development of guidelines for space operations within the appropriate fora for
    the purpose of protecting the safety of space operations and long term
    sustainability of outer space activities”

respect to debris mitigation, the EU’s draft Code of Conduct calls on
participating states to “refrain from intentional destruction of any on-orbit
space object or other harmful activities which may generate long-lived space

publishing its draft Code of Conduct in December 2008, EU officials went on the
road to solicit comments from countries not directly involved in the drafting
process.  A final version of the EU Code incorporating some of these inputs
should be approved this fall.  Then what?

The EU Code
needs to be “de-regionalized.” But how?  The Obama administration is likely to
look kindly on the EU’s efforts, but if other major space-faring nations outside
of Europe – especially India, Japan and Brazil – are not on board, Russia and
China will have cover to remain holier than thou. The steps taken by key
European capitals and Washington between the release of the EU’s
final product and a UN General Assembly resolution will matter greatly. The
challenge for Tokyo, New
and Brasilia will be to step up to their
responsibilities as major space-faring nations. The challenge for Beijing and Moscow is to agree to the essential rather than
to insist on the impractical.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices