Today's date:
Spring 2004

A Sane Time Past: History Has Already Tried to Teach Us This Lesson

There was a time when the USSR and the US had enough sense and enough will to keep the arms race out of space. The US conducted nine nuclear tests in space from August, 1958 to November, 1962.

The Soviet Union, too, conducted four nuclear tests in space in 1961–62. The goal of this and other testing was to perfect the use of nuclear explosions in space to neutralize the ballistic missiles of a supposed opponent. These and other experiments significantly disturbed the Earth’s magnetic field and littered the space around our planet with junk. Both the US and the USSR realized that continued testing could interfere with the normal operation of near-Earth satellites and seriously damage the civil and military communications systems that used them. Worse, it could distort electronic transmissions and knock out nuclear early-warning systems. During the Cold War this posed a dire threat. Nuclear explosions in space would have closed off huge zones to manned space flight.

At that time, the US and the USSR agreed to a mutual moratorium on nuclear testing in space, opening it up instead to scientific and commercial use. The passive military use of space was not excluded: for example, putting into orbit intelligence-gathering satellites and tracking and monitoring equipment. In 1963 the US and the USSR signed the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water. In 1967 the Soviet Union and the US concluded the Outer Space Treaty, which banned the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space and was open to signing by other states as well. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaties broadened these restrictions: We agreed not to interfere with each other’s space-based monitoring systems and not to place into space or to test in space national missile defense systems. As a result, our two states continued to put satellites—including military satellites—into orbit.

But to this day weapons have not been deployed in space, which has remained, like Antarctica, a demilitarized zone.

However, attempts to turn space into an active military environment did continue, even progressing beyond the planning stage for partially space-based National Missile Defense (NMD). In January, 2001, the second Rumsfeld commission (the so-called Space Commission)—headed by Donald Rumsfeld, now US secretary of defense—published a report for the US Congress urging a reevaluation of space-based deployment of US weapons “for the defense of our satellites and space assets.” The commission’s recommendations opened the doors for an arms race in space and could constitute serious obstacles to national and international scientific and commercial space programs.

The Rumsfeld commission’s recommendations drew wide criticism even from within the US, with some Democratic senators speaking out sharply against its findings. American plans to militarize space slowed, ostensibly for technical and financial reasons. But this does not mean the issue is no longer an urgent one; the time is now to reach agreement on keeping space free of weapons.

The answer lies not, it seems, in simply banning NMD outright. Clearly, we must undertake consultations on NMD research and development that would allow us to restrict the active use of space for military purposes. We have already had some success in this direction. In the 1990s, Russian and US specialists meeting in Geneva were able to agree on a demarcation line for low-speed strategic and tactical NMD. In 1997 in Helsinki, I participated in an effort to identify criteria to be used for establishing barriers to the development of strategic NMD.

Among them was a ban on space-based interceptors. The US and Russia adopted in Helsinki a methodology for dealing with the inevitable scientific and technological advances that await us. This important agreement stipulated that as each side made certain technological breakthroughs, it would consult with the other to reach agreements appropriate for the new conditions.

Apparently, the solution also does not lie in banning the passive military use of space. The train, as they say, has left the station on this one.

Anyway, banning the deployment of military monitoring systems would undermine the system of restraint. We must come up with ways not to destroy but to adapt this system to reflect both the familiar threats and the new threats we so clearly face after the Cold War. Among the means of accomplishing this that Russia has proposed is the collective development of antimissile systems to protect not just the US but also other parts of the world—Europe and Asia—from possible nuclear attack.

Developing these systems collectively would take advantage of the intellectual resources and technology possessed by countries other than the US and, extremely important, it would eliminate the suspicion that NMD would be used in the interests of only one country.

At the same time, it would be worthwhile to concentrate on developing non-nuclear, non-space-based measures to protect military space assets used for tracking and monitoring from attacks aimed at destroying them or at interfering with their operation. Such measures could include a ban on anti-satellite systems based not only in space, but on land, at sea and in the air as well.

Yevgeny M. Primakov