Is It Time for 'Space Arms Control'?

Is It Time for 'Space Arms Control'?

An idea whose time has come?

There is no question that arms control helps our military strategy to counter nuclear and conventional threats. The question now is how to tailor arms control measures to counter the specific novel threats that will inevitably arise from robotic spacecraft. These threats will be with us by the early 2020s and forever thereafter.

China, Russia, the United States, European Union and other countries will deploy robotic servicing spacecraft to remove space debris or to refuel, repair or upgrade satellites already in orbit. These supposedly peaceful robotic spacecraft from China and Russia can be readily re-tasked in space to threaten and disable our critical satellites.

I have been developing counters to these robotic threats since 2015, and in August 2018, Henry Sokolski joined me to present a SafeSat military strategy that has two key elements: self-defense zones and bodyguard spacecraft. Space policy planners are now discussing what types of arms control measures can supplement this SafeSat strategy. Their interest is enhanced by Joel Gehrke’s, a foreign affairs reporter for the Washington Examiner, report that “Pace [Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council] respects Chow’s proposal as an example of how negotiations should focus on regulating ‘behaviors’ in space.” In November 2018, the Economist reported that “Erwin Duhamel, who was until earlier this month head of security strategy at the European Space Agency (ESA), observes that officials in several places are now studying the idea of defending important satellites with ‘bodyguard’ spacecraft.”

At the outset, it is critical to note that no combination of arms control measures can possibly replace the military strategy. Instead, the aim should be designing best measures to supplement the SafeSat strategy.

Aims of Arms Control

In 1961, Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin penned a treatise on arms control and its relation to military strategy. They concluded that

arms control is essentially a means of supplementing unilateral military strategy by some kind of collaboration with the countries that are potential enemies. The aims of arms control and the aims of a national military strategy should be substantially the same.”

This classic was reprinted without change in 2014 and remains foundational today.

These two most-authoritative arms control scholars defined military strategy as all unilateral measures, which can be carried out without the necessity of the consent of any other country. Their arms control is meant to “include all the forms on military cooperation between potential enemies in the interest of reducing [1] the likelihood of war, [2] its scope and violence if it occurs, and [3] the political and economic costs of being prepared for it.” These are the three benefits of arms control. It should be emphasized that arms control includes both multilateral legally-binding measures and voluntary measures. Examples of the former are treaties; examples of the latter are transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) and guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities sponsored by the United Nations.

Legally-Binding Space Arms Control Measures for Especially the 2030s and Beyond

While the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans weapons of mass destruction in space, there has been little success in controlling conventional space weapons in spite of substantial efforts led by Russia and China over five decades. The United States has yet to offer a viable alternative proposal and has been relegated to a naysayer position with diminishing support from other countries, including its allies and friends.

Today, the world has essentially reached a consensus that there is insufficient time to reach a legally-binding space arms treaty by the early 2020s. Still, to reap the three benefits of arms control in countering robotic and other threats for the longer-term, say, in the 2030s and beyond, the United States should start now with proactive proposals of space treaties with effective provisions for monitoring, verification and reinforcement. For example, as a participant, the United States can make proposals to the ongoing Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), which was established in December 2017 to “consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space, including, inter alia, on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space.”

China and Russia have long aimed that “States Parties to this Treaty shall not place any weapons in outer space” as stated in Article II of the latest version (2014) of their treaty proposal of the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space. To this day, they still call for “a multilateral treaty on space arms control based on the draft proposed by China and Russia as early as possible.” On the other hand, they recognize that the de facto space-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons from robotic spacecraft are a certainty. I believe that they are willing to make changes to their treaty proposal, as evidenced by their active participation in the above GGE for recommending modifications. Therefore, the switch from banning to limiting placement of weapons in space has a silver lining. Now with a similar goal of limiting space weapons, China, Russia, the United States and other countries are far more likely than before to unite in devising a space arms control treaty for keeping peace in a weaponized space.

Also, by proposing and actively pursuing legally-binding space arms control measures, the United States can regain leadership in shaping such measures to maximize the three benefits of arms control for the entire global community.

Voluntary Arms Control Measures Especially for the 2020s

Since a legally-binding treaty cannot be attained in time to deal with the robotic threats by the early 2020s, the United States has no choice but to use unilateral measures in its military strategy to deal with the rapidly approaching robotic threats. As Schelling and Halperin said, “arms control is essentially a means of supplementing unilateral military strategy.” The voluntary measures proposed by the United States would be an element of arms control. Furthermore, as the United States lacks any viable alternative proposal at this time, the best and only option is to assume that SafeSat, including bodyguard spacecraft and self-defense zones, will be the unilateral military strategy for the following reasons:  

First, when it comes to defense, the United States prefers passive defense such as maneuvering and resilient constellation. However, attackers can out-maneuver our satellites. In the 2020s, many critical satellites will have yet to be replaced by resilient constellations and the U.S. will need to use bodyguard spacecraft to actively defend these vulnerable, large, expensive and few-in-number legacy satellites.

Second, some countries are concerned that once the United States uses defensive weapons, these weapons can be readily re-tasked for offensive purposes. Moreover, an arms race of better and more weapons may ensue. Actually, this concern is one of the key reasons that the same peaceful robotic spacecraft or something similar in lethality and range are recommended to act as bodyguards. Since defenders (the American robotic spacecraft) and attackers (adversary’s robotic spacecraft) are the same type of spacecraft, this type of defense is a far more justifiable proportional response than an arms race.

In June 2018, the U.S. delegation to the Working Group on the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities established by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) in 2010 agreed that multilateral measures are needed for the safe conduct of “proximity space operations.” However, consensus was blocked by Russia, who sought more time to reach agreement on several guideline proposals including “precautionary measures aimed at precluding events that may compromise safety and security” of other countries’ satellites during “close-proximity space operations.”

Once differences with Russia and others are ironed out, some sort of UN COPUOS guideline on proximity space operations will likely be established. On the one hand, guidelines derived from consensus involve give and take and will not be perfectly tailored to U.S. national interests. On the other hand, any proximity guideline is still highly beneficial, because U.S. allies, friends and potential enemies can understand well in advance of crisis that stalking U.S. satellites with robotic spacecraft is an aggression and that the United States has the right to keep potential adversaries’ spacecraft away from its critical satellites. The United States should also focus on convincing the international community to support us in justifiably taking unilateral measures.


President Donald Trump has declared that “the United States will seek to deter, counter, and defeat threats in the space domain that are hostile to the national interests of the United States and our allies.” Therefore, the goal of arms control offices such as the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance is to convey to the international community that placing spacecraft, for either peaceful or ASAT purposes, too close to a potential adversary’s satellites is an aggression and disallowed, and that the target country has the right to counter this threat even before an attack has begun.

I believe that the military strategy and the arms control proposed here will keep prosperity and peace in space far better than the status quo. For those who have different proposals at this eleventh hour, please speak now so that the United States can adjust its military strategy and arms control and be prepared within the next few years to counter these rapidly approaching robotic threats.