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The Ultimate High Ground and Space Arms Control

Obama’s National Space Policy promises to consider arms control proposals if they are equitable, verifiable and increase the national security of the US and its allies, in an about face from the Bush administration’s opposition to new agreements imposing restrictions on US use of space.

Over the past two decades, the absence of a peer military competitor has tempted US warfighters to seize the ultimate high ground and place weapons in space. The Russians and Chinese have vehemently opposed this effort and recently drafted a space arms control treaty. Although the previous administration disregarded the Russian-Chinese proposal, President Barack Obama expressed the will to come to the table and discuss preventing a potential arms race in outer space.

Obama’s space policy emphasizes international cooperation in scientific research and commercial use of space. National security receives somewhat less importance and has been limited to defense and intelligence operations. This differs from the 2006 space policy, which considered space an important tool to advance US foreign policy objectives and did not oppose the idea of space weaponization.

The so-called Rumsfeld Space Commission Report, which had a strong influence on the 2006 National Space Policy, ascribed orbital weapons significant importance that would provide the US with an extraordinary advantage in military conflicts. The Commission also came to the conclusion that it is a “virtual certainty” that there will be a military conflict in space in the future and urged America to pursue superior space capabilities.

A product of Rumsfeld’s militaristic vision of space, the X-37B Unmanned Space Vehicle (USV) that has been in orbit since April 2010 may serve as a test-bed for space-based weapon technologies. If left unrestrained, US military ambitions to dominate space will compel Russia and China to accelerate their Anti-Satellite (ASAT) efforts and eventually ignite a new arms race. 

The international community needs to seriously delve into space arms control negotiations. There has been a lack of legal agreements banning weapons in outer space. Presently, no restrictions exist on placing weapons in space other than WMDs that have been prohibited since 1967 by the so-called Outer Space Treaty.

Using ASAT weapons has not been restricted either. Indeed, China and the US displayed their ASAT capabilities by shooting down their own orbiting satellites in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

As statements of Russian senior military officers indicate, Russia does not want to fall behind and will continue to invest into reinforcing its counter-space capabilities.
Besides the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, UN endeavors to ban placement of weapons in outer space have been so far unsuccessful due to the US reluctance to negotiate any space arms control agreement.

Since the early 1980s, the UN has been engaged in an initiative called the Prevention of an Arms race in Outer Space (PAROS). In conformity with the Outer Space Treaty, PAROS calls upon member states to actively contribute to the prevention of a space arms race with the prospect of forming an international agreement. PAROS had a rough road to fruition mainly because of the George W Bush administration that either abstained or voted against the annual resolution. From 2005 to 2008, America represented the only state that successively cast a negative vote. In 2009, however, after President Obama took office, the US changed its previously negative vote to abstention.

Meanwhile, at the 2008 Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, China and Russia introduced an actual space arms control treaty entitled the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). The treaty bans placement of any type of weapons in outer space, but it allows for deployment of ground-, sea- and air-based ASAT systems as an inherent right of self-defense embodied in Article 51 of the UN Charter. 

At first, this provision may appear bizarre, but in fact, the treaty strives to curtail a prospective arms race in space, while imposing no limits on defensive programs such as ballistic missile defense. In the US, missile defense has become a strong bi-partisan effort that could hardly be restrained by an outside party; however, sacrificing deployment of space-based missile defense elements with destructive power – such as kinetic interceptors and high-power lasers – in exchange for a comprehensive weapons placement ban in outer space might be a reasonable tradeoff.

Although the previous administration responded to the PPWT proposal rather unwillingly, the Obama administration’s change of negative vote to abstention for the PAROS resolution signifies a change. Obama has no interest in reviving an arms race. Indeed, arms control and disarmament are high on his agenda. Having just signed the New START Treaty that currently awaits ratification in the Senate, one may expect his genuine effort to engage in the PPWT negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament.

But Obama will have to confront political opposition. Missile defense advocates will argue that space is the best domain for pursuing boost phase intercept initiatives, and prompt global strike proponents will assert that orbital weapons will give the US an unmatched military capability greatly enhancing its national security.

Some arms control critics have already pointed out that the PPWT would be unverifiable. But one must remember that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which bans the “placement” of WMDs in outer space and on celestial bodies, includes no verification mechanism and has been known to work well. It appears that it is rather the intrinsic peer-pressure of signatories not to violate an international treaty of strategic importance that provides for a strong guarantee of compliance.


After all, the sophisticated US Space Situational Awareness (SSA) system would certainly be capable of detecting most if not all prospective attacks originating from hostile spacecraft. While the “placement” of weapons in outer space would continue to be unverifiable, a violation of the PPWT would most likely be detected by the US and also by Russia and China as they continue to improve their space surveillance capabilities.

President Obama stands at critical juncture of space arms control. Living up to the challenges outlined in his space policy will surely pose a challenge; however, if he manages to overcome domestic political restraints, he could make a true difference by agreeing to the first legal agreement banning placement of any types of weapons in outer space.

By. Peter Pindjak

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