By Michael Krepon and Alex Stolar – A code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations received an important endorsement on September 27, 2007 from General Kevin P. Chilton, whom the Senate recently confirmed as the next Commander of U.S. Strategic Command. In advance of his confirmation hearing, Gen. Chilton, a former astronaut, volunteered that, “I think as a government, we should examine the potential utility of a code of conduct or ‘rules of the road’ for the space domain, thus providing a common understanding of acceptable or unacceptable behavior within a medium shared by all nations.”
Chilton’s support, in principle, for a code of conduct continues the gradual evolution of the Bush administration’s stance, which was previously hostile to multilateral discussions on space security. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker exemplified this “Hell, No” approach to multilateral discussions on space security when he told reporters at the Conference on Disarmament in 2003 that, “there is simply nothing to negotiate in this area because the matter of outer space arms control is already adequately and fully addressed in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.”
There is still a long way to go before a code of conduct becomes reality. After testing an anti-satellite weapon in January, 2007, Chinese diplomats have balked at a package deal that would enable discussions on space security alongside negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. China and Russia have proposed instead a treaty banning space weapons – notwithstanding the Chinese ASAT test that produced over 40,000 space weapons in the form of lethal debris.
The Conference on Disarmament is also hobbled by Pakistan’s opposition to a fissile material cutoff treaty. India, Israel, and China are also wary of negotiations that may cap their ability to produce additional bomb-making material. Without a consensus approach on the cut-off treaty and space, the Conference on Disarmament will remain tied up in knots. Pursuit of a code of conduct will then need to happen in another forum.
Another potential problem in concluding a code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations is reaching agreement on its key elements. There is already general agreement that a code should include provisions on space traffic management and debris mitigation. But the utility of these elements, as well as the overall objectives and purposes of a code of conduct, can be undermined if space-faring nations continue to test anti-satellite weapons. Unless space-faring nations pledge to refrain from harmful interference against space objects, a code of conduct can be vitiated.
Coming almost fifty years after the launch of Sputnik, General Chilton’s support in principle for a code of conduct is a welcome step in the right direction. Members of Congress, the European Union, Canada, Switzerland, trade publications such as Aviation Week and Space Technology and Space News, and the newsweekly, The Economist, have also endorsed this idea. The time has now come to begin discussions on particulars.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center.
Alex Stolar is a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Space Security Project.