Forsaking Space Weapons Would Spur Peace

March 26, 2008

Op-ed by Rhianna Tyson

Tensions, it seems, between the US and Russia heighten daily. Increasingly hostile rhetoric is slung from both sides in a tactical volley best characterized as dumb and dumber. One side’s foolhardy plans to deploy missile defense sites in Eastern Europe are met with even dumber threats to withdraw from key arms control treaties. Add to this the continued existence of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons- thousands of which are still on high-alert status-and a cold war re-run seems just around the corner.

Thankfully, though, the peoples of the two countries are not interested in another arms race. According to the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), a vast majority of both Americans and Russians believe that they can better attain security through treaty-based cooperation than through unilateral aggression.

According to PIPA’s newest poll, 80% of Americans and 72% of Russians favor a treaty that bans all weapons in outer space, that crucial arena of economic, military, and political security. Majorities in both countries also support a prohibition against systems that attack or interfere with satellites, even when it was suggested such interference could be militarily useful. This attitude reflects a broader concept of security than is touted by either government.

Current US policy blatantly opposes treaty-based cooperation in space, and views it as an infringement of its “rights” to develop and test weapons in or through space. Since 2005, the US is the only country in the United Nations General Assembly to vote against the non-legally binding resolution calling for negotiations on a treaty to prevent an arms race in space. (Prior to that, it had been adopted each year since 1990 without any votes against it.)

Russia, on the other hand, has offered a pledge not to be the first to place weapons in outer space. They have even prepared a draft treaty banning space weapons, and they hope to circulate it at the disarmament negotiating forum in Geneva. However, while they have yet to release the treaty text, it is rumored to exclude missile defense systems (which, like some theorized anti-satellite weapons, will be earth-based but can target space-based objects). Further, the Russians say their treaty will exclude verification provisions, a necessary element of any effective arms control measure.

Thus both the US and Russia fall short of what their populations want, and what civilization needs to continue to flourish. Humanity’s reliance on space applications for communication, weather tracking, disaster relief, treaty verification and other civilian and military applications continues to grow exponentially. The number of space-faring actors-both states and private companies-is destined to parallel our growth in technological capability. As our reliance on outer space increases, so does our need to protect our outer space assets from anything that can interfere with, interrupt, harm or destroy them. And in the zero-gravity arena of outer space, even a dislodged bolt from a discarded rocket has the kinetic kill capacity of a safe dropped from a five story building’s roof.

Should the US and Russian governments heed the desires of their populaces and negotiate such treaties, the cooperation that it would engender would have a “trickle down” effect to other regimes. Other arms control and security initiatives-such as those jeopardized by recent dumb and dumber moves-would receive a major boost from a robust arms control regime in space. President Gorbachev, for instance, recalls that his and Reagan’s failure to agree on outer space security was the primary reason why their talks at Reykjavik did not result in total nuclear weapons abolition. Imagine our world today if we had managed to cooperate in space back then.

We cannot risk, once again, losing such an opportunity to create a more secure planet. To lose this chance could just bring us back to the brink, towards a mutually assured destruction as mad as its acronym warned. The peoples of the world, apparently far more in tune with the interdependence of our 21st century planet, have already figured out that our continued existence is dependent on our continued cooperation. Our security needs in space and on Earth demand such cooperation, and the people of the planet demand it, too.

Rhianna Tyson is the Senior Officer for the Global Security Institute.

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