The final frontier: non-proliferation in space

Computer generated image of objects in low Earth orbit (Image: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)Guest post by James Acton, Senior Associate, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Coming just a couple of weeks after the Obama administration announced its intention to work with the European Union on developing a space code of conduct, the special session of the EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference on space and missile proliferation was highly topical.

To ensure freedom of access to space – not least in the face of the increasing problem of space debris – the need for enhanced space governance is widely recognised. However, there is a debate about whether the EU’s draft of a non-binding code of conduct or a formal treaty-based approach would be preferable. Sergio Marchisio, chair of the European Centre for Space Law, discussed legal aspects of the draft code and argued that the EU should be willing to discuss the Russian and Chinese proposal for a treaty in spite of its significant definitional problems. Götz Neuneck, Deputy Director of the University of Hamburg’s Institute for Peace Research and Security, welcomed the draft code as an important step forward but argued that it lacked key arms-control characteristics. He urged the EU to engage emerging space powers, to include ballistic missile defence in discussions about space security, and to study joint monitoring and surveillance. An EU official, however, cautioned against overloading the draft code.

Missile defence systems, which are spreading because of missile proliferation, can have important implications for space security. They can have an anti-satellite capability and, by threatening early-warning assets, can undermine crisis stability. Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, argued that Russia and NATO have fundamentally different perceptions of the threat from missile proliferation. Moscow, he said, did not discount the possibility of Iran developing an ICBM but believed Tehran could not deploy robust systems in sufficient numbers to be significant. By contrast, Washington and its allies believed that even one Iranian ICBM would be highly significant.

In any case, Podvig argued that because the long-term goal of US missile-defence efforts is territorial defence of the United States, only Washington and Moscow can resolve their current disagreement. Cooperation between them might be useful in demonstrating to Russia that US missile defence systems are technically incapable of threatening its deterrent. The EU, he argued, had only a limited role to play, but cooperation with Russia on space situational awareness could be useful.

James Acton is Senior Associate with the Nuclear Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; he is also the author of the recent IISS Adelphi book Deterrence during Disarmament: deep nuclear reductions and nuclear security. Views in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the IISS.


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