Major diplomatic accomplishments for space are as rare as triple crown winners in baseball. The last year both occurred was in 1967, when the Outer Space Treaty was finalized and Carl Yastrzemski powered the Red Sox into the World Series. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has now expressed its support for a code of conduct for responsible spacefaring nations, picking up where the Outer Space Treaty left off. The primary purposes of a code of conduct are to affirm norms to mitigate debris, help establish traffic management procedures and increase safety for space operations. The European Union and the governments of Canada, Japan and Australia have already expressed support for an initiative along these lines.
With the Obama administration’s declaration of intent, debate over a code of conduct will pick up speed. It is hard to make the case against strengthening norms for responsible behavior in space, but domestic and international criticism has already taken shape. One set of arguments finds the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities lacking because it is insufficient. In this view, the Obama administration should focus on a treaty that bans weapons and warfare in space. This critique is voiced most strongly by Moscow, Beijing and some U.S. analysts who note that space warfare capabilities are advancing, especially those inherent in U.S. theater missile defense systems.
These arguments are weak for several reasons. A treaty banning weapons that can be used in space is neither feasible nor verifiable, since many essential, multipurpose military capabilities can be used to interfere with, disable or destroy objects in space. Some of these capabilities, such as land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, have existed for over half a century. Their number has declined greatly, but they are not going to be eliminated any time in the foreseeable future.
Other capabilities that could be applied to space warfare, including theater missile defense interceptors, are coming on line. It does not, however, take more than a few interceptors that blow satellites to smithereens to mess up low Earth orbit for all spacefaring nations. China demonstrated this folly in 2007; adherence to a space code of conduct would effectively end this particular practice.
Banning all military capabilities that can be directed against satellites isn’t feasible. Banning “dedicated” anti-satellite capabilities isn’t consequential. No agreement can foreclose wars of aggression or lesser forms of deliberate mischief-making in space. But a code of conduct can clarify wrongdoing and facilitate corrective responses, while setting norms that reduce the likelihood of devastating accidents and grave miscalculations.
Beijing and Moscow are ramping up their space warfare capabilities as they call for a treaty that they know won’t be negotiated. The Pentagon is not sitting still, either. The relevant choice before us is whether to set norms for responsible behavior by major spacefaring nations, or to maximize flexibility to engage in space warfare.
Some critics in the United States oppose a code of conduct because it seems too much like a treaty that could impede U.S. war-fighting in space. For example, Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation has argued in Space News that the EU’s proposed code of conduct “would jeopardize the U.S. ability to engage in testing of both space weapons and space combat doctrines” [“Of Codes of Conduct and Credible Commitments,” Commentary, Dec. 5, page 17]. In his view, the code of conduct would “raise real questions about American security, while doing little to create a widely accepted set of norms.”
This critique of the code of conduct dwells on potential rule breakers, especially China. If, as critics assert, a code of conduct would not be helpful for norm setting, how would its rejection improve the conduct that they find most objectionable in others? An analogous argument could be made against highway traffic regulations. There are speed limits and other rules to promote highway safety, but not everyone abides by them. Would we be safer by dispensing with traffic regulations?
To be sure, rule breaking in space can be far more consequential than anarchy on the highways. As a practical matter, if China and Russia play by their own rules, the United States will as well. A code of conduct will fall short unless it includes the three most important spacefaring nations.
Another argument used by Mr. Cheng is that a code is unnecessary because it is superfluous. If, indeed, a code of conduct would merely reaffirm what is widely acknowledged as responsible behavior, why oppose it? In actuality, an effective code of conduct would reaffirm some existing norms, such as debris mitigation, while extending them to the realm of space traffic management.
Yet another argument against the code is that it does not impose severe penalties or sanctions for misbehavior. Critics fail to clarify how their desire to impose penalties or sanctions can be advanced by opposing a code of conduct. Without rules, there are no rule breakers.
Some critics worry that a code could lull the United States into a false sense of security when China is increasing its military capabilities in space, on land and at sea — especially China’s growing sea-denial capabilities against the U.S. Pacific Fleet. These concerns were also expressed in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union placed satellites in orbit that could sometimes track U.S. surface combatants.
Back then, Washington and Moscow tested anti-satellite weapons infrequently before shelving them. During the Cold War, the notion of protecting surface navies by pre-emptively engaging in anti-satellite warfare was widely dismissed as being extremely dangerous, especially because satellites were intertwined with the nuclear deterrents of both superpowers.
With one Cold War receding in the rear-view mirror, it makes little sense to invite a new one, if it can be avoided. The United States and China have the ability to interfere with or destroy satellites. As was the case with the Soviet Union, and is the case now with respect to China, mutual capabilities to engage in space warfare constitute a basis for restraint and deterrence. This reality will exist with or without a code of conduct. Existing space warfare capabilities make a code of conduct all the more essential to affirm responsible behavior and to facilitate appropriate responses if others act irresponsibly.
Domestic critics of a space code of conduct from the left want an ambitious new treaty. Critics from the right want maximum flexibility to develop and use space warfare capabilities. Neither has made a persuasive case against the code of conduct. Nor have they offered a better alternative.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and author of “Better Safe than Sorry” (2009) and “Rummaging in Shoeboxes” (2011).