A new blogpost ‘Trust, But Verify' was published today:


I believe that there is a high degree of consensus, perhaps even universal agreement, that the best situation for space would be if there would be no weaponisation, and no anti-satellite weapons.

Yet, anti-satellite weapons proliferate and weaponisation might, alas, be in our future. This is horrible because we actually do not really know what the legitimate targets are in space in case of an armed conflict on Earth, thus putting even neutral states at risk. And it is even more horrible because war in space would most likely lead to masses of debris being created, threatening the use of many orbits by humankind as such – and that for many generations.

The reason that a consensus on the desirability of avoiding space and anti-satellite weapons has not been turned into a ban is the perennial issue in disarmament of effective verification. Yet, if we take the disarmament playbook there are prescriptions for a solution. Inspection is the Holy Grail!

Now, sceptics say that verification is impossible or would be imperfect. The rebuttal of this can be found in examples like that provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If states commit to a mandatory verification regime then tell-tale signs of violation will almost always be found. This has been true for nuclear disarmament and it would be true for a ban on weaponisation and anti-satellite weapons as well. Surely the building of space weapons would be detectable, even if this would require long and difficult initial discussions of what should be banned as a space weapon. But also in this respect there is no difference to disarmament in general. With anti-satellite weapons detection might be a bit more difficult, since some types of anti-satellite weapons do not require the development of actual new weapons. The existing missile armory can be used. Yet, new systems of target selection and interception are needed for existing missiles to be able to act as anti-satellite weapons, and this requires considerable development and installation effort. This should normally be possible to detect through inspection.

Inspection requires trust in the inspectors, of course. You may not want to open the books to potential competitors or enemies. Again, the example of the IAEA gives the answer. Inspection becomes palatable if a corps of inspectors is built within the frame of a trusted intergovernmental organization. In other words, for a ban on weaponisation and on anti-satellite weapons to work, a treaty is required, a dedicated international organization is required, and a corps of inspectors is needed, working to agreed standards and providing proper safeguards against abuse. This might sound like a tall order, but is not, when you consider what is at stake. What is ultimately at stake is the continued use of space by humankind both in times of peace and in times of war between some of the members of the international community. As most countries are always neutral in any given conflict, and as the global community, fortunately, is mostly at peace, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to take the appropriate steps to keep space free of weapons and the Earth free of anti-satellite weapons!

No inspection scheme can claim to be inherently perfect, and this is true also for the inspection scheme advocated here. Yet, we are all better off with an inspection scheme where some violations might go undetected, than with a situation where space will be stuffed with weapons or where space assets will be a target. Since space and anti-satellite weapons will not protect a country’s space assets, but only make retaliation possible, all peace-loving nations are better off trying to avoid the proliferation of such weapons, whilst building resilience into space systems and hardening satellites to become more capable of resisting illegal attack! Deterrence only works, if at all, when warring partners are equally vulnerable. Future wars might often be asymmetrical, also in terms of reliance on space assets, and in this situation those with most space assets have the strongest interest in trying to stop the development of space and anti-satellite weapons by those having few space assets to lose themselves!

In space the doctrine of overwhelming force is of very limited application. Bans and inspection are far more effective!


ESPI - European Space Policy Institute

Schwarzenbergplatz 6

A-1030 Vienna

(Entrance: Zaunergasse 1)

Phone +43 1 718 11 18 -0

Fax +43 1 718 11 18 -99

E-Mail: office@espi.or.at