Some of the crucial breakthroughs in satellite reconnaissance were even more basic, involving our very understanding of outer space. To support its burgeoning satellite reconnaissance capability, the United States government invented the normative and legal prescription that outer space was an international realm distinct from sovereign airspace. While today we take for granted the idea of space as an international zone, in the 1950s it was not at all clear that sovereign airspace would end at a given altitude, allowing for the innocent overflight of satellite reconnaissance capabilities. Indeed, given the Soviet Union’s insistence on the illegality of high-altitude aircraft overflights, some within the American government were concerned that the Soviets might also object to satellite reconnaissance, and take steps to shoot down passing satellites.
To support its reconnaissance program, the American government led a coordinated effort to define sovereign airspace as ending at an altitude of approximately sixty miles, while insisting that international outer space would be open to all peaceful use. A major part of this public-relations program involved American support for the United Nations International Geophysical Year of 1957, a project of international scientific cooperation intended to improve understanding of earth sciences. As part of this program, the United States won the approval of numerous countries (including, crucially, the Soviet Union) to recognize international space as open to peaceful earth reconnaissance. The Soviets themselves strengthened this precedent when their Sputnik I satellite flew over the United States in October 1957. Despite significant public outcry, American leaders intentionally avoided issuing a formal objection, preferring to wait for American overhead reconnaissance capabilities to mature. Despite these early precedents, the idea of space as an international zone was not formally established until the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, while the legality of reconnaissance satellites (euphemistically known as “national technical means of verification”) was only established in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. There was nothing natural or inevitable concerning the development of satellite reconnaissance. The technology, the organizations, even the very idea of international space were created by arms controllers with an eye towards making the problem of nuclear technology more manageable.
These advances in technology, organization, and norms are not panacea to the problems posed by nuclear technology. The problem of nuclear weapons remains one of the most daunting challenges confronting world leaders, intelligence analysts, military planners, and the international community. In a world of competitive states and disruptive non-state actors, nuclear weapons remain the ultimate nightmare requiring the utmost political and strategic skill to control. The threat will only grow as the dangers posed by nuclear weapons are compounded by emerging cyber and machine learning technologies. Absent the abolition of nuclear weapons—a utopian proposition—the problem cannot be cured and must instead be endured. The great success of the nuclear-arms-control regime has been the tools it provides leaders in managing this threat.
Previous struggles to control dangerous nuclear technology show us that success in arms control is not inevitable. The key characteristics of cyber technology are obviously very different from those of nuclear technology, and solutions to cyber threats, if they exist, will no doubt also be different, too. But as we look to the future, it is important to remember that the ability to address nuclear-arms-control issues today is not derived from the technical characteristics of nuclear weapons themselves. Once upon a time, the prospect of controlling and monitoring nuclear weapons seemed as daunting as the prospect of controlling cyber weapons seems today. In their development of satellite reconnaissance and seismic sensing, the founders of the contemporary nuclear-arms-control regime literally moved heaven and earth to increase the transparency of nuclear activities and render them more responsive to international controls. We ought not to take their monumental successes for granted. In their example, we might find some hope for the future.
John Maurer is the Henry A. Kissinger Postdoctoral Fellow at International Security Studies and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. His work draws on the Kissinger Papers at Yale to examine how academic ideas on the nature and purpose of arms control shaped U.S. arms-control policy. He has a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.
Image: A man types on a computer keyboard in front of the displayed cyber code in this illustration picture taken on March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration