International Order & Conflict

Weak Arguments Against a Space Code of Conduct

in Program

By Michael Krepon – Major
diplomatic accomplishments for space are as rare as triple crown winners in
baseball. The last year both occurred was in 1967, when the Outer Space Treaty
was finalized and Carl Yastrzemski, powered the Red Sox into the World
Series.  The Obama administration has now expressed its support for a Code
of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations, picking up where the Outer
Space Treaty left off.  The primary purposes of a Code of Conduct are to
affirm norms to mitigate debris, help establish traffic management procedures
and increase safety for space operations.  The European Union and the
governments of Canada, Japan and Australia have already expressed support for
an initiative along these lines.

the Obama administration’s declaration of intent, debate over a Code of Conduct
will pick up speed.   It is hard to make the case against
strengthening norms for responsible behavior in space, but domestic and
international criticism has already taken shape.  One set of arguments
finds the Code of Conduct lacking because it is insufficient.  In this
view, the Obama administration should focus on a treaty that bans weapons and
warfare in space.  This critique is voiced most strongly by Moscow,
Beijing, and some U.S. analysts who note that space warfare capabilities are
advancing, especially those inherent in U.S. theater missile defense

arguments are weak for several reasons.  A treaty banning weapons that can
be used in space is neither feasible nor verifiable, since many essential, multi-purpose
military capabilities can be used to interfere with, disable, or destroy
objects in space.  Some of these capabilities, such as land- and sea-based
ballistic missiles, have existed for over half a century.  Their number
has declined greatly, but they are not going to be eliminated any time in the
foreseeable future. 

capabilities that could be applied to space warfare, including theater missile
defense interceptors, are coming on line.  It does not, however, take more
than a few interceptors that blow satellites to smithereens to mess up low
earth orbit for all space-faring nations.  China demonstrated this folly
in 2007; adherence to a space Code of Conduct would effectively end this
particular practice. 

all military capabilities that can be directed against satellites isn’t
feasible.  Banning “dedicated” ASAT capabilities isn’t
consequential.  No agreement can foreclose wars of aggression or lesser
forms of deliberate mischief making in space.  But a Code of Conduct can
clarify wrongdoing and facilitate corrective responses, while setting norms
that reduce the likelihood of devastating accidents and grave

and Moscow are ramping up their space warfare capabilities as they call for a
treaty that they know won’t be negotiated.  The Pentagon is not sitting
still, either.  The relevant choice before us is whether to set norms for
responsible behavior by major space-faring nations, or to maximize flexibility
to engage in space warfare.

critics in the United States oppose a Code of Conduct because it seems too much
like a treaty that could impede U.S. war fighting in space.  For example,
Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation has argued in Space News that a
Code of Conduct “would jeopardize the U.S. ability to engage in testing of
both space weapons and space combat doctrines.”  In his view, a Code of
Conduct would “raise real questions about American security, while doing little
to create a widely accepted set of norms.” 

critique of the Code of Conduct dwells on potential rule breakers, especially
China.  If, as critics assert, a Code of Conduct would not be helpful for
norm setting, how would its rejection improve the conduct that they find most
objectionable in others?    An analogous argument could be made
against highway traffic regulations.  There are speeding limits and other
rules to promote highway safety, but not everyone abides by them.  Would
we be safer by dispensing with traffic regulations? 

be sure, rule breaking in space can be far more consequential than anarchy on
the highways.  As a practical matter, if China and Russia play by their
own rules, the United States will, as well.  A Code of Conduct will fall
short unless it includes the three most important space-faring nations. 

argument used by Dean Cheng against the Code is that it is unnecessary because
it is superfluous.  If, indeed, a Code of Conduct would merely reaffirm
what is widely acknowledged as responsible behavior, why oppose it?  In
actuality, an effective Code of Conduct would both reaffirm some existing
norms, such as debris mitigation, while extending them to the realm of space
traffic management. 

another argument against the Code is that it does not impose severe penalties
or sanctions for misbehavior.  Critics fail to clarify how their desire to
impose penalties or sanctions can be advanced by opposing a Code of
Conduct.  Without rules, there are no rule breakers. 

critics worry that a Code could lull the United States into a false sense of
security when China is increasing its military capabilities in space, on land
and at sea – especially China’s growing sea-denial capabilities against the
U.S. Pacific Fleet.  These concerns were also expressed in the 1970s, when
the Soviet Union placed satellites in orbit that could sometimes track U.S.
surface combatants. 

then, Washington and Moscow tested anti-satellite weapons infrequently before
shelving them.  During the Cold War, the notion of protecting surface
navies by preemptively engaging in antisatellite warfare was widely dismissed
as being extremely dangerous, especially because satellites were
intertwined with the nuclear deterrents of both superpowers. 

one Cold War receding in the rear-view mirror, it makes little sense to invite
a new one, if it can be avoided.  The United States and China have the
ability to interfere with or destroy satellites.  As was the case with the
Soviet Union, and is the case now with respect to China, mutual capabilities to
engage in space warfare constitute a basis for restraint and deterrence. 
This reality will exist with or without a Code of Conduct.  Existing space
warfare capabilities make a Code of Conduct all the more essential to affirm
responsible behavior and to facilitate appropriate responses if others act

critics of a space Code of Conduct from the Left want an ambitious new
treaty.  Critics from the Right want maximum flexibility to develop and
use space warfare capabilities.  Neither has made a persuasive case
against the Code of Conduct.  Nor have they offered a better alternative.

Photo Credit: NASA,

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