The United States is opposing a new draft treaty submitted to the United Nations last week by China and Russia that seeks legally binding curbs on weapons in space amid concerns that both states are secretly building space arms.
The draft treaty—updated from a 2008 version—cannot be verified, according to Frank A. Rose, deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance.
“The United States believes that arms control proposals and concepts should only be considered by the international community if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the security of all,” Rose told a June 10 session in Geneva of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament.
The Chinese-Russian draft treaty “does not meet the necessary criteria,” Rose said, adding that the U.S. opposition is based on a preliminary assessment that the new draft fails to address “significant flaws” in the 2008 draft.
“Namely, there is no effective verification regime to monitor compliance, and terrestrially based anti-satellite systems posing the greatest and most imminent threat to space systems are not captured,” Rose said.
Rose instead said the United States favors a less formal “code of conduct” for space being promoted by the European Union. The code has come under fire from the Pentagon’s Joint Staff that stated in a 2012 assessment that the code would harm U.S. military space activities.
A U.S. official said the Chinese-Russian treaty proposal would effectively kill international efforts on a code of conduct for space.
China is engaged in a major space weapons development program that includes ground-based anti-satellite missiles, lasers and electronic jammers, and small maneuvering satellites that can attack orbiting satellites.
Beijing’s January 2007 test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile to blast an orbiting weather satellite left tens of thousands of pieces of debris orbiting the earth. The debris threatens both manned and unmanned spacecraft with destructive high-speed collisions.
Russia also is developing space warfare weapons.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon strategic analyst, said the administration’s opposition to the new space weapons treaty is one of the few times he has agreed with the administration on an arms control issue.
“All U.S. administrations have rejected space control because there are serious definitional problems, such as what is a space weapon,” Schneider said. “And there are serious verification problems associated with it.
Additionally, the space arms ban treaty is part of Russian and Chinese efforts to attack U.S. and allied missile defenses, which are heavily reliant on space sensors and weapons.
“At some point I believe we should put missile defense into space,” said Schneider who worked in the Pentagon on strategic defense, space, and verification policies.
Additionally, “Russia is certain to cheat on any space treaty,” Schneider said. “They have announced that they are developing ASAT weapons. Moreover, they may be developing space offensive weapons.”
The Soviet Union in the 1960s deployed a nuclear space weapon system called the fractional orbital bombardment system. It used an orbiting strategic missile in low earth orbit that was designed to de-orbit and attack the United States by transiting southward from the South Pole to avoid radar detection.
Russian military writings have indicated recently that Moscow may revive the orbiting southern polar missile attack system. Analysts have said that in addition to providing Moscow with a first-strike space nuclear weapon, the system could also be used in a devastating electro-magnetic pulse attack over U.S. territory that would destroy all electronics over a large area.
A State Department spokesman referred questions about the U.S. position on the space arms treaty to Rose’s statement.
Former State Department China specialist John Tkacik said the draft treaty appears to be a ploy by Beijing and Moscow.
“The Chinese and Russians have no interest in actually abiding by any international treaty that limits the militarization of space, but they are keen to get the United States to tie itself in knots over one,” Tkacik said.
The Obama administration’s critiera for a space treaty—that it be verifiable and contain precise definitions—is also faulty, Tkacik said.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that countries with a tradition of respect for the rule of law abide by such treaties, while countries with no respect for law—like Russia and China, to name but a few—see treaties as subterfuges with which to confound the gullible,” he said.
The draft treaty is formally called the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects. It was presented to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament on June 10.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing that the new draft incorporates unspecified “new developments” in recent years on space security.
“It reflects the two countries’ efforts to promote negotiation on and formulation of the treaty on arms control in outer space and prevent outer space arms race,” she said.
Hua said China is opposed to weaponizing space.
“We call on the international community to work out a legally binding international treaty through negotiation based on the draft treaty submitted by China and Russia as soon as possible, so as to fundamentally safeguard peace and security of outer space,” Hua said. “We hope that some of the countries can listen attentively to the appeal of the international community and deal with the proposal for negotiation with a constructive attitude.”
The official Chinese military newspaper, PLA Daily, stated June 12 that China wants the treaty to prevent upsetting the strategic balance and stability.
“Existing laws on outer space can neither prevent space weaponization nor effectively prevent using or threatening to use force against objects in outer space,” the military newspaper said.
Observers say the Russian and Chinese push for a legally binding space arms treaty are part of unconventional legal warfare, or lawfare, efforts designed to achieve the objective of limiting their adversaries military capabilities covertly.
A Pentagon-sponsored report on China’s use of lawfare predicted China’s use of the UN conference to limit U.S. military space capabilities.
“In the future, Chinese legal warfare could provide advantages in areas such as treaties regulating or abolishing the emplacement of weapons in space, or the fielding of anti-satellite systems,” according to the May 2013 report “China: The Three Warfares.”
“For instance, at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, China has favored a position that the U.S. must negotiate a new treaty banning the ‘weaponization’ of space.”
The report said the current 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits only the placing of weapons of mass destruction in space, with limits against harmful contamination of space.
“In a new UN space weapons treaty, “the Chinese would not be required to forego their arsenal of ground-based kinetic and non-kinetic antisatellite weapons,” the report said.
The Obama administration’s 2010 National Space Policy does not rule out the use of space weapons in support of U.S. defense and national security objectives.
“The United States will employ a variety of measures to help assure the use of space for all responsible parties, and, consistent with the inherent right of self-defense, deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them,” the policy, dated June 28, 2010, states.
A year later the Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence published the National Security Space Strategy that calls for promoting the peaceful use of space, but retaining the right to defeat space threats—an indication that space weapons could be developed and fielded in the future.