You Can’t Get Blood From A Satellite

By Mark Stout

Note: this article originally ran in Air University’s The Wright Stuff

Perhaps the closest metaphor to an actual space-zombie is an ideological one; the undead desire of the arms control community to ban space-based weapons.  The iron logic goes something like this: space weapons will lead to a space arms race; a space arms race will destabilize international security; since stability is the desired end-state (disregarding “stability” in Cuba, 1959 to present, the USSR, 1922 to 1991, Libya, 1969 to early 2011, and others), space weapons must be banned.

So to quote Albert Wohlstetter, “All this is familiar, but is it true?”

Arms races can be characterized as exaggerated or mistaken fears, magnified by technological change, which drives an inappropriate action-reaction cycle.  In the Cold War, some thought the U.S and the USSR each provoked “the other into piling up arms endlessly, wasting scarce resources, increasing the indiscriminate destructiveness of weapons, lessening rather than adding to their security” and in the case of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, “moving the world closer to nuclear holocaust.”  While Wohlstetter unpacked plenty of arms race myths back in the day, the likelihood of a space arms race in the present is approaching absolute zero: a race costs too much; it creates too little value; there are no clear and compelling adversaries.

Based on the evidence (that is, what hasn’t happened), you could draw the conclusion the space-faring community worries very little about space weapons, let alone a space arms race.  In fact, the only recent space arms control action has been posturing about who cares the most about space.  Some of these assertions have ironically (or is it hypocritically?) even been made by nation-states that create massive space debris fields and feature repressive and freedom-opposing governments.  So what are the issues contributing to a lack of traction regarding arms control for “space weapons”?

First, space weapons have never been adequately defined.  Second, space weapons are costly, impractical, and they make a mess.  Third, you don’t need space weapons to create space warfighting effects (like taking out space capability with frequency jamming or laser dazzling).  Fourth, arms control has a mixed record of success (OK, I’m being generous here) in actually accomplishing what it’s set out to do.  Finally, there’s the fundamental issue of whether a space war would be worse than an earth war: after all, satellites aren’t alive whereas earth war actually kills people.

A proposed space weapons ban, 2008’s Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat of Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (that’s really its name but because that would create an unwieldy and unpronounceable acronym, it’s referred to as the PPWT) has been hailed by some of the leading voices in the arms control community.   While it’s been described as a “welcome step toward the non-weaponization of space” which fills a “normative void in the current space security treaty regime,” the reality is the PPWT is wholly inconsistent with the National Space Policy in three ways: it isn’t verifiable, it isn’t equitable, and it isn’t in the best interest of the United States or its allies.

Why isn’t the PPWT verifiable?  That’s because the PPWT’s Article VI calls for ‘transparency and confidence-building measures’ which are to be practiced on a voluntary basis.  First, it’s perhaps a self-evident disconnect that if you’re going to do something on a voluntary basis, there’s little purpose served in having a treaty to direct you to do the very thing you’ve already agreed to do.  Next, these sort of vague arms control provisions have been well-characterized as ‘dangerously empty’ and ‘too imprecise to be tested.’  The result of this sort of unverifiable language makes it exceedingly difficult to reach conclusions about arms control violations.  This means violators are free to pursue their miscreant behavior effectively unimpeded.

Why isn’t the PPWT equitable?  The PPWT’s Article I says a weapon in outer space is anything that’s designed to eliminate, damage, or disrupt the normal function of objects in outer space.  Since North Korean and Iranian ICBMs will function in (that is, fly through) outer space, the PPWT would prohibit space-based missile defense.  The PPWT, as with much arms control, tries to make us all equal by making us all equally vulnerable rather than allowing us to move towards assured survivability.

For these reasons (along with its unlimited duration which might constrain space-using technological breakthroughs in other significant and yet wholly unknown ways), the PPWT is not in the best interest of the United States or its allies.

Consider the fact there are no known or claimed space weapons today, and the conclusion that can be drawn is this: there is no arms race in outer space.  As such, there’s no problem for the PPWT or its intellectual heirs to “solve.”  Even the asserted significance of keeping space a “weapons-free” environment is itself unproven.  How so?  Well, let’s slide all the way down the slippery slope and ponder the significance of arms control to make the seas, land, and airspace weapons-free as well.

Instead of viewing space as a museum or sanctuary, it should instead be held to be a traditional operating environment like land, sea, and air, which are all largely used to provide resources for mankind and to make people’s lives better, to include increasing their security.  Agreeing to the PPWT (or agreeing to follow many of the principles therein), is to self-limit a possible U.S. space future that does not need to be ceded away.  Honoring the PPWT might well prevent prudent future space investments that could provide huge national security benefits but would be blocked under the guise of arms control.

Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at Air University’s National Space Studies Center and runs its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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