15 January 2020
Study raises prospect of space conflict if U.S. and Russia abandon nuclear arms treaty
By Sandra Erwin


Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a construction site of the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Credit: Russia's Presidential Press and Information Office

A study by the Aerospace Corporation says ending the New START Treaty could destabilize outer space.

WASHINGTON — The military and intelligence community’s space agencies may have to cope with growing instability in outer space if the United States and Russia don’t renew the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that is set to expire on February 5, 2021, experts warn in a new report.

A study released Jan. 15 by the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy notes that abandoning the New START Treaty could not only reignite a nuclear arms race but also destabilize outer space.

If U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin allow the treaty to expire, limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear arms will cease as well as prohibitions on interference with space-based “national technical means” that are used to verify treaty compliance, the Aerospace report says. Space-based national technical means include satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Department.

Michael Gleason, senior strategic space analyst at Aerospace and co-author of the paper, said the United States and Russia have for decades maintained a de facto ban on interfering with each others’ surveillance and military satellites but that could change in the absence of an arms control regime.

The United States might have to prepare for the possibility that Russia could try to interfere with both  U.S. government and commercial remote sensing assets, Gleason said Jan. 15 at an Aerospace Corp. news conference in Arlington, Virginia.

At stake is a “50 year legacy of prohibition on interference that helped establish legitimacy of overflight,” he said.

The study considers scenarios that could unfold if New START is not extended. A likely outcome is that “strategic stability in space may suffer,” he said.

The treaty was signed April 8, 2010 in Prague by Russia and the United States and entered into force on Feb. 5, 2011.

A key concern for the U.S. military — both for U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Space Force — is that if the treaty is not renewed there could be a higher demand for satellite surveillance of Russia’s nuclear capabilities because there won’t be on-site inspections, Gleason said. That would incur an “opportunity cost” if satellites have to be tasked to do additional imaging and pulled away from other areas.

Another concern is the possibility that Russia would try to interfere with military constellations like the Space Based Infrared System, the Global Positioning System and strategic communications satellites which are considered part of the national technical means that support treaty compliance. “If NTM overflight legitimacy is broadly challenged, space stability will be significantly worse than today,” the report says.

Neither the United States nor Russia have identified what satellites are considered national technical means but it might be worth rethinking that policy in the absence of New START, the report says. “Reaching a separate agreement on noninterference with NTM seems more likely if specific satellites, on all sides, are identified as NTM.” That does not mean specific spacecraft capabilities would need to be revealed, but “removing the ambiguity over which satellites are NTM might be judged worthwhile in order to proactively shape the future strategic context in space.”

Deterring aggression in space is “more important than ever,” says the report. It suggests that revealing the identity of NTM spacecraft might strengthen deterrence as adversaries have to know about one’s capability to be deterred by it.

The end of New START would give the United States the opportunity to reconsider the current policy of not attributing interference against U.S. satellites, the study says. “The current reasons for not publicly attributing incidences of interference has been the concern that attributing interference may divulge U.S. technological capabilities.”

Attributing interference could subject the United States to criticism by other countries, but the study suggests that public attribution of bad behavior could shape the strategic environment by reinforcing noninterference as an international norm of behavior. “The national security space enterprise could follow in the vein of the cybersecurity community, in which incidences of cyber interference and attacks are publicly ‘named and shamed’ comparatively aggressively,” the study says.

Gleason noted that different types of satellites may be considered national technical means. Imaging satellites and synthetic aperture radar satellites collect detailed imagery of things on the ground, such as inter-continental ballistic missiles and aircraft. Other satellites detect electronic signals, which may provide insights into a missile’s or missile launcher’s performance. U.S. missile launch warning satellites such as Defense Support Program and Space-Based Infrared System spacecraft detect the heat generated by a missile launch, and monitor Russian ICBM and submarine-launched ballistic missiles launch tests.

GPS could be put in the NTM category as well because of its nuclear detection capability, the study says. GPS detects the flash and radiation of nuclear detonations and may be used to verify compliance with the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The impact of not extending New START on space security also was addressed by CNA analyst Vince Manzo in a March 2019 report.

Without New START, the United States would “face an opportunity cost of diverting scarce national technical means, such as satellites, and technical analysts from other missions,” Manzo wrote. Neither the United States nor Russia “would have the same degree of confidence in its ability to assess the other’s precise warhead levels.”

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