A long-standing argument in American foreign policy holds that arms control for space is not worth the effort. This would be true if the only choice is between a surly quest for dominance or a timid pursuit of peace. But there are other options. It is possible to reduce military risk in space through negotiation, but this requires both strategy and leadership.

For many years, the
negotiating position for space security was simple – whatever the question, our answer was no. There was merit to this in the distant past, when the principle actors in space were the
United States
, when there were implicit understandings and a symmetry of vulnerabilities that limited risk. They had almost as many satellites as we did, allowing for an exchange of hostages. Satellites were linked to strategic warning, and an attack could be interpreted as a precursor to nuclear war – a powerful disincentive to interfering with the other side’s space assets. Parity, hostages, strategic linkages, implicit understandings – all of these worked well in the Cold War and made the question of negotiation moot.

None of these conditions continue to hold, however. Space is crowded and potentially hostile. Many nations operate satellites, 10 nations can reach orbit and many more nations have the ability to develop and use other modes of attack against satellites. There is a complete asymmetry of risk – we depend on space, others do not. The environment for space security is so changed that while our previous answer was no, our answer now should be yes – with conditions.

The failure to engage has let our opponents (yes, we have opponents) damage
interests and set the security space agenda. We have the most at risk, we are the most dependent on space and we have the most to gain from constraining other nations’ offensive capabilities. In fact, limitations on offensive capabilities are really not in our opponents’ interest and our failure to exploit this, to turn the tables on them and put them in the position of always having to say no (instead of us) is embarrassing.

Some of this we have brought upon ourselves. American pronouncements of space dominance, space weaponization and a policy to deny space to others energized our opponents and scared our friends. That there was little ability to implement these ideas did not affect foreign perceptions or diminish support for proposals that are hostile to

Some is the result of the inadequate diplomacy of the previous administration. Cold War policies, no matter how successful they were at the time, are no longer a useful guide. An approach to international relations based on unilateralism, force and a refusal to engage (the negotiations with
North Korea
, where the
United States
apparently relied on mime for a number of years, as it refused to talk to the other parties, is a salient example) is insufficient for security.

Context is important. There are many ways to attack space assets and an agreement that covers only space-based weapons or anti-satellite missiles will be pointless, yet it will be hard to get meaningful agreement on programs people will not admit to possessing. Our opponents are untrustworthy, have a penchant for deceit, and in important instances, lack experience of arms negotiations. Their intent is to constrain U.S. abilities to create new capabilities without hampering the full range of their own abilities to attack U.S. space assets – this will complicate any serious negotiation. There is no adequate venue for discussion – the United Nations is overpopulated with straphangers who have no real security interest. We lack a common vocabulary for negotiation. Given this, despite the long history of security negotiations for space, it is better now to approach the multilateral arena as terra nova.

There is political risk. If the previous administration failed to engage, its predecessor could at times seem gullible. The United States cannot approach negotiations as if it was a nongovernmental organization. A good precedent for space arms control is the Washington Naval Convention, where we observed treaty limits and others did not. The U.N. Arms Registry, where nations either fail to report or falsify their reports, is another precedent. Our goal in negotiation must be to hamstring and annoy nations that plan to attack U.S. space assets. This is, after all, our opponents’ intent in negotiating, and the point of foreign proposals to date has been to tie
programs in knots.

What would good agreements look like? At a minimum, they should look like nothing China or Russia could easily accept. We have advantages that U.S. negotiators must exploit. We are more transparent when it comes to budgets, programs, capabilities and oversight. Asking other nations to match this transparency puts them in an awkward place. We can gain advantage by demanding transparency from nations that throw reporters in jail for publishing government budgets. The most important problem for negotiation is the ease with which a treaty could be circumvented. We can all think of well-meaning treaties that had no real effect or were observed by nations with open political processes and ignored by those with closed. China spent years denying it has anti-satellite programs, only to blow up this line of discussion (along with an elderly satellite) in 2007. Verification is critical. An agreement that lacks strong verification procedures will be worthless. Determining the level and mechanisms for verification we could accept, identifying potential “trades” and then asking other nations to match this is essential. Asking for greater transparency and credible verification for all modes of attack will let us negotiate from a position of strength.

It is in our national interest to use negotiation to constrain other nations’ ability to attack our space assets. This will require developing a serious negotiating strategy and identifying the strategic trades and linkages that would give us leverage in negotiations. The most important question for the
United States
is when to protect existing assets by giving up future capabilities, but we should never agree to give something up without obtaining equal or greater concessions from our opponents. Self-imposed restraint in an environment where others are unconstrained does not show leadership by example, it shows an inability to recognize the national interest. We need to consider linkages to other space activities – those with hostile intent should not become partners without some concession on their part. A step-by-step approach could be useful – gaining agreement on debris mitigation or space situational awareness, for example – but only if we make these agreements in the context of a larger strategy that has considered and identified goals, tradeoffs and leverage points. An approach that does not look at the full picture for space is amateurish and potentially harmful.

Obtaining agreements that safeguard
space assets will be neither easy nor fast, but as in the past, a hardnosed approach that uses engagement and agreement to put
interests first and uses engagement and agreement can improve our security in space.

James Lewis is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.