Editorial: Give the Code a Fair Shake

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U.S. lawmakers should keep an open mind as they consider the merits of adopting the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. The document, which has won tentative endorsement within the U.S. Defense Department, is designed to promote transparency and prevent potentially dangerous misunderstandings between nations engaged in space activity.

The main concern with the code, one that seems to resonate most strongly with Republicans, is that it would limit U.S. freedom of action in space. During a recent hearing on the topic, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, cited the U.S. military’s dependence on space systems and clearly signaled his nervousness about any agreement that might constrain the nation’s ability to defend its interests.

That’s a perfectly reasonable position. But as Gregory Schulte, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, pointed out, Europe’s draft code is not legally binding in any way. He also reassured lawmakers that while the White House is open to binding arms control agreements in space that are verifiable, equitable and enhance U.S. national security, “we haven’t found an arms control treaty that does that.” He specifically cited the space weapons ban proposed by China and Russia, which the White House has rejected as unverifiable and because it fails to cover some Chinese activities that have the Pentagon concerned.

Less reasonable are Sen. Sessions’ concerns about constraints on the use of kinetic-energy anti-satellite weapons that have the potential to create huge fields of dangerous orbital debris. The lawmaker suggested that because the code discourages debris-creating activities it would, in effect, prohibit the use of such weapons.

Never mind the code; the fact that kinetic-energy anti-satellite weapons create lots of orbital debris — as China demonstrated in 2007 — is reason enough not to test them, let alone use them operationally under any circumstances short of a full-blown war. Should the latter scenario arise, a nonbinding code of conduct is just about the last thing the U.S. military officials would have to worry about.

Some in the policymaking community have taken issue with specifics of the code, but generally support its goal of building confidence and trust among spacefaring nations. Any measures that succeed in this regard likely will lower the probability that anti-satellite weapons are used — in testing or in anger — in the future.