Op-ed | Why the U.S. Should Be a Leader in Space Arms Control

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A SpaceNews opinion article by a graduate student at George Washington University argued that the United States should “lead the charge in space weaponization.” The article asserts that if the nation doesn’t deploy space weapons now, it risks falling behind in an impending space arms race against China and Russia. One can almost hear big military contractors cheering to the beat of the space war drum.

Further, the op-ed “U.S. Space Supremacy Now Critical” published a week later argued that the United States “must seek to totally outgun [potential adversaries] by obtaining a radical technological advantage” through space supremacy.

Perhaps more troubling than suggesting that the United States lead the world into a space arms race is the lack of mention of a regime to keep these weapons holstered. Where is the push for a space arms control agreement?

Of course, the United States should be able to defend its space systems. In 2001, the Rumsfeld commission warned of a possible “space Pearl Harbor,” explaining that the United States, though the most space-dependent country in the world, lacks capabilities to defend its space assets. The 2007 Chinese antisatellite weapon test did not ease U.S. concerns of possible space threats. This is why the United States has the Defense Department, and it should most certainly do its job. So, develop space weapons.

But also push for an arms agreement.

The United States is strategically positioned to show leadership in this area. Both the pro-weaponization and pro-arms-control camps want security. They differ on how to best achieve it — and this is not new.

Having spent the past three days in the U.N. archives laboring over historical documents on this topic, I’m humbled by the deliberation, coordination and cooperation that went into avoiding a Cold War space arms race to accompany the arms race on Earth. Hundreds of letters and pieces of correspondence on this topic show a heated debate over how to ensure the safety of citizens in the United States and rest of the world during the second half of the 20th century. They chose to avoid a space arms race, and though the United States and Soviet Union could have monopolized activities in space at the time, they even chose to bring in the voices of the international community. This gave us the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty.

Less than a decade later, rather than weaponizing space, the two adversaries decided that cooperating on a manned spaceflight mission would better protect the safety of both nations. This led to the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz détente mission. During a recent visit to the Oxford Union, Buzz Aldrin explained that this mission helped warm Cold War tensions and resulted in future U.S.-Soviet space cooperation. This sort of political willpower and skillful diplomacy paved the way for the International Space Station. Aldrin went on to say the U.S.-China space relationship could use a healthy dose of this kind of diplomatic acumen today. For some reason, he forgot to mention that the United States should lead the world in a space arms race.

COPUOS second meeting
The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space meets in September 1962. Credit: U.N.

It is no mystery that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty needs updating. To ensure the safety of American citizens and the world as a whole, U.S. leadership in space historically has taken the form of developing the best technology, and then knowing when and how to use it. The United States should develop space weapons, but it should also use this opportunity to coordinate with China, Russia and the international community to develop an equitable arms agreement.

The United States keeps withholding its support for U.N. arms agreement proposals that others seem to agree on — see the years 2000, 2003, 2008 and 2014. Right now, the United States has slashed space ties with China and Russia, due to security concerns in 2011 and tensions over Ukraine in 2014, respectively. No, it should not neuter itself by signing an inequitable arms agreement. And, yes, cutting space ties shows the United States disagrees with the policies of China and Russia. But if the United States could find agreement with the Soviet Union in 1967 in the midst of a nuclear arms race, no doubt it can find agreement with Russia and China today.

The short history of human activity in space has proved that despite disagreements and rhetorical battles on Earth, cooperation is possible in space. Banning space cooperation and leading a space arms race is not the U.S. leadership that beat the Soviets to the moon. Nor is this the U.S. leadership that willingly disclosed classified space intelligence to cooperate on the Apollo-Soyuz mission. The strongest showing of leadership today would be using diplomatic channels to reach an equitable and well-toothed space arms control agreement.

Further, the United States could lead updates to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, especially the orbital debris and (ahem) space weapons sections. As private companies increasingly access space and the costs of orbital debris are increasingly felt on Earth, pressures to improve the treaty will come from outside groups — Elon Musk; environmental activists; anyone? For the time being, however, the U.S. government remains the strongest space power and is strategically positioned to take a leading role in finding a solution to the space arms issue.

Even if control-less space weaponization does not lead to conflict in the near term, it will leave future generations of policymakers and space users with even more problems to tackle.

The previous generation sent the first humans to outer space. It would be a shame to leave the next generation with a debris-clogged orbit, full of weapon-ready satellites and ground-based lasers pointed at those satellites. Rather, I hope future students will labor over U.N. archival documents telling the story of the United States, Russia and China finding cooperative grounds to control our shiny new weapons.
And I hope other students of space policy agree.

Caleb Pomeroy is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, focusing on the U.S.-China space relationship, and a member of the Space Generation Advisory Council.