Yuri Andropov's proposal for a mutual ban on further development of anti-satellite weapons offers an opportunity to negotiate an agreement which would enhance the security of both the United States and the Soviet Union and might pave the way for cooperation on other arms control issues as well.
Especially now, in the dark atmosphere following the Korean jetliner incident , progress on any arms control front would be timely.
The concept of a treaty in space is not new: in 1967 over 112 nations signed an agreement banning orbital nuclear weapons. The Outer Space Treaty set a precedent by stating that space is a domain reserved for peaceful and scientific purposes. Since signing this treaty, however, both the US and the Soviet Union have continued to test ASAT systems.
In the midst of disillusionment over the slow pace of progress in arms control talks, some analysts now suggest that perhaps it is better to have a nuclear war in space than it would be to have such a war on the earth. Such an argument ignores important scientific and political realities of a space-based war.
Recently, the well-known Soviet scientist Andrei Sakharov wrote that a ''high-altitude wartime nuclear explosion in space (particularly the thermonuclear explosion of ABM missiles and the explosion of attacking missiles whose purpose is to disrupt enemy radar) could possibly destroy or seriously damage the ozone layer protecting Earth from the sun's ultra-violet radiation. Estimates of this danger are very imprecise - if the maximal estimate is true then this factor is sufficient to destroy life.''
CHOIn February, American scientists Richard Garwin and Carl Sagen drafted a letter to the leaders of all nations calling for a ban on the military uses of space. This letter was endorsed by 17 other prominent scientists, demonstrating agreement among experts in both nations that a space-based nuclear war would cause unacceptable destruction.CHO
The desire to transfer nuclear war into outer space also overlooks the political realities of US-Soviet competition. Space-based weapons such as ASATs are merely components of the larger military aggregates of the US and the Soviet Union. They would not be used in isolation from the earth-based portion of the strategic arsenals. Since neither side could afford to lose a war, the instinct to escalate to more threatening systems, rather than accept defeat, would lead to the expansion of a space-based nuclear war into an all-out ground, air, and space war.
Another compelling reason to negotiate a ban on ASATs is that both the US and the Soviet Union rely on satellites to verify compliance with arms limitations agreements. This is particularly important for the US, since the Soviet system is closed to on-site inspections. By threatening national technical means of verification, ASATs would undermine attempts to halt the arms race.
Another advantage of a ban on ASAT technology is that the US relies more heavily on communication and navigation satellites than the Soviet Union. America's military depends on satellites to navigate its bombers and submarines, most importantly, the Trident II Submarine-launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) systems which are vital to American security. In contrast, Soviet lines of communication, which are shorter and tend to be over land, are less reliant on satellites. This asymmetry of dependence on satellites gives the Soviets an advantage if both sides move ahead on ASAT deployments.
Moreover, in a crisis, ASATs would heighten the chances of nuclear war through miscalculation. Any attempt by one side to sever lines of communication or to take out an adversary's satellite-based warning system would lead to a perception that the nation using ASATs was preparing to launch a surprise attack.
Opponents of the ASAT ban argue that the Soviets lead the US in ASAT technology, thus the US must ''catch up'' rather than ban these systems. Although the Soviets have progressed further toward the deployment of the ASAT system, American ASATs are more technologically advanced. However, since neither side currently is able to deploy a fully effective ASAT, an immediate ban makes irrelevant the argument about who is ahead. Indeed, the relative balance in the development of ASATs between the US and the Soviet Union makes this an optimal time to negotiate a ban, since neither side would be locked into a position of inferiority. American strategic interests would be better served by improving the survivability of communication satellites, making ASATs less valuable to the Soviets, while opting out of an expensive and destabilizing arms race in space.
Finally, the relative ease with which an ASAT ban could be negotiated makes it worth the effort. ASATs are not militarily essential to either side. Moreover , since they are still in an experimental phase, there is a small, albeit growing, degree of vested interests in their development. Opposition to such a ban would be less than resistance to broader treaties which attempt to limit systems after they have been deployed.
CHOThe successful negotiation of a US-Soviet Union arms control treaty would be the first step toward the negotiation of additional war prevention measures between the two nations. Such negotiation could lay the foundation for additional rules governing the peaceful uses of outer space or limitations on other high-technology weapons. In a broader context, cooperation in space may also defuse the current climate of fear and insecurity which pervades American-Soviet relations. Arms control need not fail, but neither can it be limited to traditional frameworks which focus solely on existing weapons. Small steps toward greater cooperation are necessary if the use of space, and of Earth , are to be preserved for the larger steps for all mankind.