The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has begun to press for the acceptance of an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, based upon the European Union’s draft space code of conduct. Arguing that space is already congested, administration spokesmen contend that such a code of conduct would enhance U.S. national security, ostensibly by encouraging responsible space behavior. Supporters of such a move suggest that this code of conduct would apply only in peacetime, and would therefore not prevent the United States from acting to preserve its space interests in event of conflict, yet would create norms that would forestall potential competitors and adversaries from acting in ways that would either pollute the heavens or threaten U.S. access to space.

Unfortunately, the proposed international code of conduct would, in fact, raise real questions about American security, while doing little to create a widely accepted set of norms.

The proposed guidelines outlaw things that already have international rules opposing them. Yet states violate those rules with little evidence that they fear sanctions, or indeed that other states actually impose them in a meaningful way. China’s 2007 ASAT anti-satellite generated an enormous amount of debris, yet not one contract was canceled or one sanction imposed for this irresponsible act. It is not at all clear what an additional code of conduct adds to the mix.

Even more important, though, the proposed international code of conduct appears to have failed to take into account developments elsewhere in the security arena — in particular in Asia, in the context of the Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy.

As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have emphasized, it is in the fundamental interest of the United States to preserve stability and uphold its commitments in the western Pacific. Conversely, as the 2011 Defense Department report on Chinese military power highlights, Beijing is making major investments in capabilities designed to prevent American operations in the Asian littoral. This includes such systems as anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, diesel electric submarines and strike aircraft. For such systems to be effective, however, requires a C4ISR — command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — network capable of detecting and tracking American air and naval forces at long distance. Space-based systems will necessarily play an essential role, since they are the easiest way of providing extended surveillance over the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean.

For the United States to meet its security requirements, then, requires the ability to deny the Chinese People’s Liberation Army the ability to provide tracking and targeting data for its naval and air assets. While some of this may be achieved through a variety of terrestrial and cybernetic means, it almost certainly will also entail the ability to hold Chinese C4ISR systems at risk, and even destruction. This is elemental, not only to American military strategy but also to deterrence. If the People’s Liberation Army believes that it can always observe American forces with impunity, it likely will also believe that it will have the option of deciding whether to go to war — a form of escalation dominance.

Yet, the proposed code of conduct would jeopardize the U.S. ability to engage in testing of both space weapons and space combat doctrines, since this could be interpreted as failing to “minimize the possibility of harmful interference” and engaging in “actions that damage or destroy space objects unless reducing debris.” Even cyber activities might be seen as violating the code’s demand to “commit to ITU [International Telecommunication Union] regulations and recommendations.” If the U.S. military is going to fight the way it trains, then denial of peacetime training opportunities of weapons and doctrine is a sure path to failure. Worse, it also signals the Chinese that their intentions to secure space dominance will not be met by a firm American response.

Moreover, given the Chinese pursuit of legal warfare (“lawfare”) and public opinion warfare, American accession to such a code of conduct will make the U.S. vulnerable to the Chinese global, state-run media complex, regardless of whether China joins such a code of conduct or not.

The need to deter China through demonstrated capabilities, the need to deny the Chinese the easy opportunity to engage in legal and public opinion warfare, the need to reassure allies by clearly countering Chinese A2/AD capabilities — none of these considerations appears to have been factored into the administration’s effort to push this international code of space conduct. Thus, far from deterring aggression in space and reassuring U.S. allies, the code of conduct threatens to realize the exact opposite; it places at risk nascent U.S. abilities to counter Chinese A2/AD capabilities and raises questions among U.S. allies about our ability to fulfill our commitments, while vitiating our deterrent capacities vis-à-vis China’s growing military capabilities.


Dean Cheng is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.