July 25, 2008
By Peter Brookes
China and Russia are seeking to update the 1967 Outer Space
Treaty, which, in its new form, would serve to hinder the US's
space capabilities and ambitions.
This February, China and Russia introduced a draft treaty
entitled the 'Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space' at
the 65-member UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.
The two countries reiterated their support for the new accord in
late May during a summit in Beijing, saying: "The sides are in
favour of the peaceful use of space, but are against the deployment
of weapons in space or a space arms race."
Although the concept of a new agreement has support among some
arms-control advocates, the Bush administration rejected the notion
of a treaty, concerned about limitations on the United States'
access to, and use of, space.
The White House is right - and it is a policy that should be
carried through to the next US administration.
Currently, the issue falls under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty,
which bans the deployment of 'weapons of mass destruction', but not
conventional weapons, in space. It also forbids military
facilities, weapon testing or manoeuvres on the Moon or other
However, the current Sino-Russian attempt to expand the 41-year
old treaty has a slew of shortcomings. For instance, it disallows
the deployment and testing of space weapons, but incredibly does
not ban their research and development or production.
This huge lacuna runs the risk of allowing, even encouraging,
the development of a potential counter-space 'breakout' capability
- that is, a clandestine but untested anti-satellite (ASAT) system
- while still remaining inside the treaty's limits.
Moreover, in view of China's direct-ascent ASAT test in January
2007, this new treaty would only serve to bridle US space
capabilities, while giving the Chinese and Russians ample
opportunity to close the technological gap.
Indeed, considering their great power ambitions, it is feasible
that Beijing or Moscow would deploy space weapons today if they
could; the treaty could merely be a diplomatic gambit to buy time
to develop their own counter-space programmes.
To this end, a US official recently told a congressional
commission that Chinais "aggressively" developing abilities to
target satellites with (undeclared) space and counter-space
Other analysts are also concerned that Moscow and Beijing are
trying to put the brakes on the possible development of a
space-based missile defence system, too, which has been considered.
(This concept may be given a re-look in view of Iran's most recent
round of missile testing and the basing problems that have befallen
missile defence systems in Eastern Europe.)
In addition, there are other worries such as the definition of a
'space weapon'. While this may seem basic, in theory a satellite
could be used to attack another satellite simply by ramming it -
making it, in essence, a weapon.
Moreover, systems with real counter-space capabilities could
escape restriction, or even be included to the detriment of other
civilian space programmes, such as when the Soviets tried to
'capture' the US Space Shuttle as a 'space weapon' during the
Another concern is verification. The terms of the treaty must
provide for transparency, ensuring compliance with the accord - and
discouraging the establishment of a secret arsenal of ASAT
Furthermore, a tremendous amount of time, effort and cost would
be required to inspect every space payload. (This does not even
begin to take into account the risk of espionage against sensitive
space-launch vehicle and satellite systems.)
And what about terrestrially based systems, including
direct-ascent, radio-frequency and directed-energy weapons, which
are the future wave of counter-space capabilities, especially as
regards the Chinese? The Pentagon annual report on Chinese military
power cites Beijing's involvement in both kinetic and non-kinetic
In fairness, the Chinese and the Russians have admitted the
challenges of implementing such an agreement. In fact, some
Conference on Disarmament states are insisting on a discussion of
the Chinese ASAT test before agreeing to consider the draft
Treaty detractors point out the US has the most to lose in any
new agreement. As a leading space power, the US (and its friends
and allies) would be relinquishing much more strategic advantage
than China or Russia- for the moment, at least.
No nation relies more on space than the US. Space is the
ultimate military high ground and critical to maintaining the
ability of US armed forces to meet its security commitments to
friends and allies around the globe.
Potential adversaries know this, seeing space as the US's
Achilles' heel. As the US Director of National Intelligence noted
to Congress this year: "Over the last decade, the rest of the world
has made significant progress in developing counter-space
Beijing and Moscow are looking to challenge Washington for
pre-eminence in space. Both likely believe that if they have the
capacity to hold US space assets at risk, Washington will be
increasingly reluctant to challenge them militarily.
Protecting US space assets - and freedom of action on the high
frontier - must be central to US national security. A failure to
maintain space superiority would not only invite a debacle in space
for the US - but for its friends and allies, too.
Peter Brookes is a
senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation - a US policy think-tank -
and a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense
First appeared in Jane's Defence Weekly
China and Russia are seeking to update the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which, in its new form, would serve to hinder the US's space capabilities and ambitions.
Protect America Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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