Give Peace a Chance—in Space

Yet it's becoming increasingly clear that the existing international legal framework is ill-equipped in dealing with the most immediate, realistic -- and, therefore, worrying -- possibility of space combat. It's currently illegal to nuke the surface of the earth from outer space. But what can multilateral diplomacy and the international legal system do to prevent a future where countries shoot down each others' satellites, or ram their satellites into one another?

"As soon as you tweak a satellite to allow it to bump into another satellite -- which is easy to do -- almost immediately it would enter into the realm of weapons," says von der Drunk. And defensive war in space is absolutely legal -- if two space-faring countries were ever at war, one would have a legally valid justification for taking out the intelligence or communications satellites of its enemy. The vast majority of satellites have some kind of dual military and civilian use. Space has already become militarized. Does that mean that it's inevitable that space will also turn into a battlefield?

The Obama administration isn't building a Death Star, but it also isn't treating this question as the crucial, perhaps civilizational issue that it is.

* * *

In 2007, China successfully tested an earth-to-space anti-satellite weapon against an aging orbital weather station. The results of that weapons test, and of an accidental collision between satellites in 2009, now account for most of the hazardous debris in low earth orbit, according to Harvard's Jonathan McDowell.

Debris is worrying enough at low orbits, where the intentional destruction of an enemy satellite could wreak havoc on existing global communications and navigation systems. Luckily, there are plenty of usable orbits around the earth. There is, however, a single narrow five-to-ten mile band, roughly 23,000 miles above the earth's surface, where satellites can orbit in lockstep with a fixed point on earth, completing a single revolution around the earth once every 24 hours (rather than once every hour and a half, the speed at which the International Space Station orbits). This thin ribbon is the only point where a satellite can achieve what is known as "geostationary orbit" -- where it can function as a "tower 23,000 miles high," as McDowell puts it. Satellite dishes never have to angle to pick up the signal of a satellite in geostationary orbit. The line of communication is always open -- it's why receivers for satellite television and radio don't have to constantly be adjusted.

The destruction of geostationary orbit would have worrying consequences for humankind. "Geostationary orbit is vulnerable because it's a very precise orbit and it's relatively crowded," McDowell says. There's always the possibility that a satellite's fuel ignites, or that there's some other mishap in space. "If you add to that the danger of deliberate action then [geostationary orbit] is a resource that we could easily lose if a large explosion were to occur." And once it's gone, it's gone until humankind can invent some kind of orbital garbage-truck.

The surest way of foreclosing on the possibility of this all-too-plausible doomsday in space is through the same kind of multilateral efforts that have stanched the spread of nuclear arms, stigmatized the use of chemical weapons, and all but stricken catastrophic inter-state warfare from the face of the earth. The world needs a system of multilateral checks and balances that relegates war against space assets to the same political and psychic space as World War III: something that humanity, by dint of mutual self-interest and robust international institutions, has successfully turned into a geopolitical boogeyman, a bandied-about but nevertheless distant worst-case scenario.

That work has already begun. There is an international effort underway to create a "rules of the road for space" -- an update to the Outer Space Treaty that would establish guidelines for conduct in space. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed the process, if not every aspect of the still-to-be determined treaty, in a January, 2012 press release. The new treaty would be what international legal experts refer to as a "soft law:" a measure that would enshrine a set of shared principles and that might eventually gain the status of "hard" customary law, given enough time and enough precedent within the international system. For instance, the U.N. Security Council could sanction a country that violates the "rules of the road." But until such sanctions are passed, the treaty would exist without any solid coercive force -- it would be a declaration, rather than a piece of law; unspecific, and largely toothless.

In the Star Wars universe, space is a place of danger, a domain where the powerful subjugate the weak, where Executors and TIE Fighters and Death Stars impose fascistic order.

Luckily, the rules of the road aren't the only space war treaty under discussion. Both China and Russia have expressed their support for a proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space treaty, a multilateral agreement that would be more like the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty -- a document that places very specific restrictions on the actions of its signatories. Right now, the biggest obstacle to the treaty's passage is the United States.

The U.S., which has obstructed or simply ignored the PAROS process, is concerned that the treaty could work against its interests. Russia and China might view the accord as a means of reigning in the U.S.'s future capabilities; the U.S., meanwhile, doesn't want to give its potential rivals a veto over the development of those capabilities. As von der Dunk puts it, the U.S. doesn't want to enter into "a treaty which would hurt the most powerful nation the most."

This is a legitimate concern, especially if the U.S. observes the PAROS treaty while other, less scrupulous actors attempt to undermine it. By preventing the U.S. from developing space weaponry, PAROS could theoretically shield future actors that are actually the most dead-set on weaponizing space. Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College, who is broadly supportive of a PAROS-like treaty, says that arms control issues in space are a "series of Catch-22s. It becomes difficult if not impossible to get over definitional hurdles and verification hurdles, or it can be made to seem that way by people who don't want to get things done."

But these are problems that lie at the heart of nearly every multilateral arms treaty. The U.S. has signed quite a few of those over the years. As the country with the most assets in space, the U.S. also has the most to lose from a future space conflict.

The Obama administration should use the Death Star petition -- a rare and all-too-fleeting excuse to focus on space war -- to begin to engage in the PAROS process in earnest. Officials should use this week's Death Star mania to publicly voice their issues with a treaty that could harm U.S. national security interests -- while also affirming the importance of an outer space arms control accord, and explaining its benefits for both the U.S. and humanity at large.

In the Star Wars universe, space is a place of danger, a domain where the powerful subjugate the weak, where Executors and TIE Fighters and Death Stars impose fascistic order, and where planetcide is an official state policy. Popular culture offers fewer more vivid examples of the potential costs of treating space like a battlefield or a frontier, rather than a shared resource or a common heritage. A modified version of the PAROS treaty, or a treaty modeled after it, could stave off our own all-too-possible version of that dystopia. The Death Star petition was a high-profile practical joke. But it's also an ideal opportunity to talk about an issue that deserves to be taken very seriously.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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