Is the U.S. Negotiating a Secret Space Arms Control Agreement?

Republicans may be about to take the reins in the Senate but that doesn’t mean the administration is warming up its diplomatic muscles to cooperate and compromise with the Upper Chamber. Instead, it may look for ways it can push its agenda while avoiding Congress altogether. At least that’s what it appears to be doing with its arms control agenda.

On 12 November Senator David Vitter (R – LA), along with Congressman Doug Lamborn (R – CO), sent a letter to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose reiterating their disapproval of a treaty that would limit U.S. action in space, and asking for information regarding a possible agreement the administration is trying to negotiate with countries like China and Russia without consulting the Senate.

Space debris is a problem. In 2007 China tested an anti-satellite weapon, called an ASAT, that successfully hit an unused satellite, spewing thousands of pieces of debris in low earth orbit. This caused a practical problem, as space debris can be dangerous to U.S. and other countries satellites. The ASAT test also announced to the U.S. that China was serious about its space program, was willing to upset the international community in order to test its ASAT, and that its offensive space capabilities were formidable and could hold U.S. satellites at risk. Since then China has undertaken several “non-destructive” ASAT tests, and it conducted a similar test again this year.

The U.S. is the most dependent country on space systems, and so it has the most to lose if countries like China and Russia (which is also developing ASAT capabilities) operationalize the ability to target space-based systems.

Although the administration has embraced the EU Code of Conduct for Outer Space it has languished without the support of the Senate or, apparently, many in the U.S. military. But, in June of this year the administration, to its credit, did reject again a space treaty resubmitted by Russia and China and which they first proposed in 2008. This was encouraging, and also goes to show just how bad the proposed treaty is to have the administration so flatly reject it.

But now, according to this letter sent by Senator Vitter and Congressman Lamborn, the administration seems to be reaching out to various countries to negotiate an agreement that would aim to limit this capability. Without seeing the text, we can already bet it’s a bad deal. Why?

For starters, when it comes to who space treaties are supposed to restrict, the U.S. is sure to abide by it, while countries like Russia are almost certainly going to cheat—at least if history teaches us anything. Second, the U.S. has already used an essentially anti-satellite capability during Operation Burnt Frost in 2008 in which it temporarily converted the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System into an ASAT in order to hit and destroy a hazardous satellite careening toward Earth. The U.S. shouldn’t need approval to deploy a weapon system it deems necessary for its own protection. And third, no treaty can possibly be enforced without all parties to the treaty agreeing on the terms. The weapon systems that are needed to conduct an ASAT including sensors might be included in such an agreement, for example. Last, because the administration is doing it in secret it’s a sure sign it knows it could not get approval from the Senate.

Over the next two years this Congress must do extra work to track what the administration is doing, because if this effort is any indicator, the White House intends to continue making a mockery of its pledge to be the “most transparent administration in history.”


NB: A pdf of the letter sent to Frank Rose from Senator Vitter and Representative Lamborn is attached.

Partner & Fellow Blogs