Following a campaign promise, the Barack Obama administration plans to seek a total ban on space weapons. In so doing, Barack Obama is going down the largely discredited path of national defense by arms control treaty.
Previous attempts at arms control have proven daunting, due to challenges of inspection and verification as well as the tendency of nations unfriendly to the United States to cheat on such agreements. An example of this type of cheating occurred in the 1980s when the Soviet Union was caught building an ABM capable radar system north of the Mongolian border in violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty.
Verification would be an even more immense challenge for the implementation of the space weapons ban. Something that looks like a weather satellite could very easily be a space weapon, ready to destroy military satellites in the event of war. An inspection regime that would allow the examination of every satellite launched in the world would be all but impossible to negotiate, considering the desire of sovereign countries to keep their military satellites secret and private companies to protect proprietary knowledge of their satellites.
The number of countries capable of developing space weapons is likely to increase, especially if the rise of a commercial launch allows for inexpensive deployment of those weapons. One cannot imagine that a country such as Iran or North Korea would ever agree to a space weapons ban or would adhere to it once agreed to.
A total ban on space weapons would likely not only disallow the deployment of offensive weapons, capable of taking out military and commercial targets in space, but also defensive weapons. These defensive weapons would include those designed to defend space assets against attack and the space based portion of a potential anti ballistic missile defense system.
Barack Obama would do well to adopt the strategy that Ronald Reagan pursued. He should order weapons capable of defending America’s space assets as well as those capable of shooting down ballistic missiles in flight developed and deployed, warning potential enemies that any attempt to attack American space assets would not be tolerated and would be considered an act of war. Only when the United States has achieved a crushing and insurmountable advantage in space base weaponry will it be safe to even entertain an arms control regime for such weapons.
Otherwise, if Barack Obama follows the pattern of arms control agreements of the 1960s and 1970s, he is very likely to approve agreements with inadequate verification that would place the United States at a military disadvantage. The danger to American national security that would result would not be worth whatever political or diplomatic benefit that Barack Obama thinks he can game by entering into a treaty forcing a ban on space weapons.
Sources: Challenges loom as Obama seeks space weapons ban, Andrea Shalal-Esa, Reuters, January 25th, 2009
Soviet SALT Cheating: The New Evidence, Manfred R. Hamm, The Heritage Foundation, August 5th, 1983