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« Bad Losers | Main | The Arab-Persian War »

Growing Consensus?

It looks like a lot of people are starting to agree with me that we need more responsive military space systems:

Peter Hays, a Science Applications International Corp. employee and senior policy analyst supporting the plans and programs division at the Defense Department's National Space Security Office, said that small, distributive space-based systems could particularly benefit compared with larger satellites - speeding up a shift that already started. The new attention could even re-energize the U.S. aerospace industry, he said.

"It could be a fire under people that was lacking," Hays said. "I wouldn't be surprised if other things get energized."

Of course, as I predicted (hardly a feat worthy of Kreskin) we have the usual foolishness from the usual suspects:

"American satellites are the soft underbelly of our national security, and it is urgent that President Bush move to guarantee their protection by initiating an international agreement to ban the development, testing, and deployment of space weapons and anti-satellite systems," said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), House telecommunications and Internet subcommittee chairman.

Yes, as I noted in my article, this is exactly what they'd like. If Congressman Markey (and others like him) actually were on the side of the Chinese, how would they behave differently?

[Update late afternoon]

Useful comments in the comments section. It seems to me is that what we want is not a treaty to ban ASATs, which is certainly impractical (and would be to our great disadvantage). A much better model is a convention, similar to Geneva, in which we stipulate the manner in which anti-satellite warfare is to be conducted, in order to eliminate, or at least minimize, collateral damage. I haven't thought about it much further than that, but it's what Theresa Hitchens et al have in mind, we're probably on the same page. But I suspect that's a different page than Rep. Markey.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 25, 2007 06:20 AM
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Distributive systems is basically the point I was trying to make with the major differences is that I don't see the absolute requirement that such a system be space based.

Posted by Leland at January 25, 2007 07:39 AM


This whole subject was discussed extensively in Colorado Springs a couple of weeks ago at the Space Power summit. Pete Hays is one of the leaders of that effort.

The problem with any treaty in this area is that they are completely unverifiable. That is what killed these treaties in the past. No posturing by anyone is going to change that fact.


Posted by Dennis Ray Wingo at January 25, 2007 09:07 AM

The other reason why it won't succeed is b/c the whole business of arms control starts from a false premise.

The whole "the US has more to lose, therefore it should negotiate an arms control treaty" forgets the key point of WHY the US has more to lose: We use space to allow our military to fight the way it does.

By contrast, China has NO (okay, limited) incentive to abide by an arms control treaty b/c its military is currently outclassed by the American military. Eliminating the ability to threaten US satellites permanently puts the Chinese in a position where they are reactive/will lose the next war.

Why would they be willing to do this? This is something that Krepon, Kulacki, Hitchens, etc. have never addressed.

Posted by Lurking Observer at January 25, 2007 11:27 AM

Well, even Hitchens seems to agree that such a treaty would be unverifiable.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 25, 2007 11:33 AM

Yes, but she makes it sound like a feature, rather than a bug. (Or, more precisely, that verifiability was optional and "nice to have," rather than an essential prerequisite.)

Posted by Lurking Observer at January 25, 2007 12:03 PM

My apologies for commenting about the first half but missing the overall point of the post.

Posted by Leland at January 25, 2007 01:31 PM

The Indian take on this?:

Maybe some of us Brits should have stayed there longer - at least until they could write better English...;-)..

Anyway apart from the horrid writing, once decoded, I guess that's what the Indians think. No surprises.

Posted by Toast_n_Tea at January 25, 2007 01:52 PM

A lot of you seem to misunderstand the position that has been advocated by Hitchens and several others concerning this issue. Their primary push has not been for a "treaty" to "ban" ASATs. Instead, they are more interested in establishing codes of conduct. In other words, agreement on how to behave. A good example would be to establish a code of conduct to not create substantial amounts of debris in LEO by testing weapons. This, in fact, is already the US position on ASAT weapons. Such codes of conduct are verifiable simply through observation and don't require things like on-site inspections. (And it is worth noting that such codes of conduct exist in other areas of international law, particularly the sea. For instance, there are established rules for how ships maneuver when close to each other, who has the right of way, etc. It's a long-established field of maritime law.)

Their argument is that had such a code of conduct been agreed upon ahead of time, China would have felt pressure _not_ to conduct the kind of test that they did. That doesn't mean that they would not have built an ASAT, but it may have changed their behavior.

There's available information on this stuff out there on the web. You can do some research and find it.

Posted by Dev Klyger at January 25, 2007 02:12 PM

Maybe some of us Brits should have stayed there longer - at least until they could write better English...

It's not just that write--the whole web site is a mess in that regard. In fact, maybe it was actually well written before an editor got hold of it. ;-)

I thought about linking that when I saw it a couple days ago, but couldn't see the point.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 25, 2007 02:14 PM

A lot of you seem to misunderstand the position that has been advocated by Hitchens and several others concerning this issue. Their primary push has not been for a "treaty" to "ban" ASATs. Instead, they are more interested in establishing codes of conduct. In other words, agreement on how to behave.

I actually agree with that, and am thinking about an article about it. But I suppose I need to go read what they're saying, to see what ideas they already have. The problem is that I haven't given military space stuff much serious thought for a quarter of a century or so, since I left the Aerospace Corporation.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 25, 2007 02:17 PM

Well if you're going to write about it, then why not contact Hitchens and ask her about it? Ask for suggestions about where to read up more. She's not an unreasonable person, even if you disagree with her. In fact, that's what differentiates her from people like Bruce Gagnon--you can dismiss Gagnon as a loon, but you have to take Hitchens seriously.

There are people who disagree with her position. And it is worth noting that the proposals made at PAROS by the Chinese and Russians are essentially treaties and _not_ what Hitchens has proposed.

Hitchens' argument has essentially been that by refusing to discuss the issue at all, the United States has given up the ability to influence the discussion. She and others have argued that the US should be in there, leading the debate, rather than claiming that there is nothing at all to discuss. There are military officials who take a different tack on it, saying that the US has to figure out its own position before it gets into such a debate. But that's struck me as somewhat of a disingenuous claim. After all, how long does it take to formulate an opening position? The US has been getting bashed in PAROS for years, so claiming that "we need to think this out first" makes it seem as if either the US is incapable of forming a policy position to discuss in less than a decade, or doesn't really want to discuss it at all and is simply hiding behind that excuse.

Posted by Dev Klyger at January 25, 2007 04:05 PM

Well if you're going to write about it, then why not contact Hitchens and ask her about it?

Good question. Simple answer.

Because I haven't been paying much attention to the issue...

I won't write about it without doing so.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 25, 2007 04:36 PM

Theresa makes an interesting argument about rules of the road but some thing should be intuitively obvious to the casual observer. She has written a chapter about this for the National Defense University Space Power Theory book that is in process. I heard her speak on this a couple of weeks ago in Colorado Springs.

Ok here is a test. What are the "rules of the road" for space?

What are the enforcement mechanisms? What punishment would China have suffered if the rules of the road that you advocate were in place?


Posted by Dennis Ray Wingo at January 25, 2007 06:25 PM

This rules of the road business would, of course, preclude US development of ASAT capabilities, tests or no tests, even if there were only minimal debris.

Theresa and her co-author Michael Krepon said as much, at CO Springs.

More to the point: where is the outcry in the wake of the test that did produce debris? Do we see Europe trying to limit trade with China? Any move for Japanese sanctions? Any American move, even from the arms control community, to do more than "express disappointment"? No?

Gee, I'm sure the Chinese have learned what it means to violate their own proposals, never mind any "code of conduct." Or would that somehow be taken more seriously than, say, the Iranians take the issue of nuclear weapons development?

But, as ever, arms controllers are like third-marriages---this one will undoubtedly work out right. This isn't even the triumph of hope over experience. It's the triumph of delusional thinking (the PLA will happily keep itself second-rate to the US military) over reality (Chinese military and political writings that discuss the need to improve their capabilities to fight in space).

Posted by Lurking Observer at January 25, 2007 09:13 PM

I think the error in comparing the rules of conduct in space to maritime conventions (or any other rules of the road) is that the latter emerged only after a long period of relative anarchy. They are more the codification of the practical behaviour that evolved from trial and painful error in the field. They're not derived from a committee somewhere sitting down and deciding, on a pretty purely theoretical basis, what "ought" to work.

Why does this matter? Because when international committees sit down to think out what should theoretically work, without the background of a great deal of (often painful) empirical experience of what does, and does not actually work, the result is at best useless (the League of Nations, the UN) and at worst an obnoxious and impoverishing interference with getting reasonable things done (Sarbanes-Oxley, "net neutrality").

So I'd say there's a good argument to be made for leaving LEO as anarchic as possible. There will be unpleasant surprises, therefore, but I think men only learn from experiences like this. Those nasty surprises are necessary for the formulation of effective and reasonable "rules of the road" in the next century. If we try to put them in place now, we'll regret it.

An analogy can be made to networked computing: had national bodies attempted to set out in 1985 what the "rules of the road" should be on the Internet, it seems very likely the result would have been to stifle and constrict its growth. The Internet became as useful as it did so fast in part because it was pure anarchy -- there were no rules, except what people worked out between themselves on a purely practical basis. Did that lead to unpleasant surprises? You bet, e.g. spam. But now we know, from unpleasant experience, what the things we should regulate and should leave alone are. No theoretical consideration of these things done 20 years ago could possibly be as useful.

And, no, the problem can't be solved by pointing out that agreements and treaties can always be re-negotiated. The problem is that, once in place, and enforced, these things change the facts on the ground, acquire constituencies, and otherwise become increasingly hard to alter. The best (worst?) prior example is, of course, Social Security, the Frankenstein monster that threatens to devour us all unless we heartlessly send gramma and grandpa to the poorhouse. But even in this field, I suggest the massive government intervention in space development post-WWII created hard-to-alter facts on the ground that differentiated space exploration from the early history of aviation exploration -- with deplorable contrasts in what later happened. Early aviation history was like early Internet: chaotic, anarchic, filled with disasters -- and also rapid growth, innovation, and successful adoption. We'd like to get back to that for space exploration.

Posted by Carl Pham at January 26, 2007 12:38 PM

Oh, and I didn't comment on Rep. Markey's asinine, if not downright traitorous, comments because he so self-evidently has his head thoroughly up his ass (assuming he really means what he says, and is not merely grandstanding).

A treaty can only be made between equals, and serves no purpose unless it merely states formally a practical agreement that serves every party's interests. I can see no interest whatsoever of the United States that would be served by an ASAT treaty. So screw Ed Markey, or deport his sorry ass to some People's Paradise like Cuba or Venezuela, where he can continue to hold forth on such delusional, theological goals as the greatest good for the greatest number, right up until they come to take him to the re-education camp.

Give me instead representatives who so zealously defend our national interests that we may need to hold 'em in check -- but need never fear being sold out.

Posted by Carl Pham at January 26, 2007 12:46 PM

Excellent posts Carl. Post of the Week material IMO.

Posted by Mike Puckett at January 26, 2007 05:39 PM

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