Facing the Arms Control Challenges of BMD

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2004 Volume 25 Issue 3

In Canada the opposition to ballistic missile defence (BMD) has rightly focused on urging the Government to reject participation and certainly not go beyond the already agreed integration of NORAD’s missile launch detection and tracking system into the US BMD system. It is also necessary to face the fact that a strategic BMD system, albeit without proven capabilities, is coming to North America, that it will have serious implications for the strategic environment, and that the world has to find ways of dealing with those consequences.

The Clinton-era US National Missile Defense Act makes BMD part of American law and, in a word, inevitable. The Act provides that an “effective” missile defence system, designed to defend “the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack,” be deployed when it is “technically possible.”1 That wording leaves plenty of wiggle room – for Bill Clinton the Act was a delaying tactic, for George W. Bush it is a license to overstate the system’s capabilities and to accelerate deployment, and for John Kerry it would probably be used to slow down, but not reverse, deployment – but sooner or later the US will have an operational strategic BMD system.

In addition to rejecting participation in Washington’s deployment of strategic ballistic missile defence, the Government should now be working with like-minded states to define clear arms control measures to mitigate BMD’s negative strategic consequences and to halt the drift toward space combat. As well as a ban on weapons in space, Canada should be advocating for a ban on anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), and for strict limits on the numbers of strategic BMD interceptors allowed. Furthermore, Canada should commit serious resources toward mounting the arms control expertise and focused diplomacy needed for the credible pursuit of these objectives.

Canada’s unequivocal opposition to the weaponization of space, along with support for a global treaty to permanently prohibit the deployment of any kind of weapon in earth orbit, is a good start. However, without an ASAT ban, the objective behind the non-weaponization of space – that is, the preservation of space as a zone free of military combat – will not be achieved.

The advocates of anti-satellite weapons are not necessarily large in number, but they tend to be well placed in the militaries of the chief space-faring states and, in one case at least, imbued with visions of “counterspace operations” (i.e., attacks on the space assets – satellites – of adversaries) that lead to “space superiority.” This is how a newly articulated US Air Force doctrine, Counterspace Operations (2004), puts it: “U.S. Air Force counterspace operations are the ways and means by which the Air Force achieves and maintains space superiority. Space superiority provides freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack…. Space and air superiority are crucial first steps in any military operation.”2

The Air Force doctrine is at pains to put space warfare on the same level as air warfare and to reject any notion that space is a special environment – a doctrine that is obviously a long way from the 1958 proposal of President Dwight Eisenhower to the Soviet Union that space be preserved “for peaceful purposes” for all time.

But the objective to keep weapons and shooting wars out of space still has the global upper hand. The global stake in prohibiting attacks on what Canada’s Bill Graham (2004) called “the growing global public goods provided by communication, navigation and remote sensing satellites [that] are now central to all our economics,” is reflected in the annual UN General Assembly resolution on “the prevention of an arms race in outer space” (referred to as PAROS) that is almost universally supported, with only the US, Israel, and Micronesia abstaining. Mr. Graham, then the Foreign Minister, called on the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to finally begin work on a treaty to ban space-based weapons and preserve space for peaceful uses (see p. 6 of this issue of the Monitor for further detail on the CD’s work on PAROS).

In addition to a ban on space-based weapons, there is a broad consensus in support of a ban on attacks on satellites, from either space or terrestrial (ground-, sea-, or air-based) systems. A joint proposal by Russia, China, and five other countries, submitted to the CD on June 27, 2002, includes, in addition to its primary focus on a Treaty banning weapons in space, a prohibition on the “resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects.”

The principle against attacking satellites is already well established. The US-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972 (SALT I, which remains in force until 2009) includes the concept of non-interference with satellites used for verification of Treaty compliance. The same principle was written into the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty – and since it is a Treaty of unlimited duration the sanction against attacking verification satellites is essentially a permanent feature of international law. While the non-interference principle applies specifically to satellites used for the verification of these particular Treaties, former US Arms Control Ambassador Jonathan Dean (2002) points out that it is not “feasible to determine which satellites are being actually used or could be used for this purpose. Hence, all are protected.”

The challenge now is to universalize the ban against interference with any and all satellites to prevent a destabilizing ASAT arms race which would render all space assets of every space-faring state vulnerable to attack. An ASAT ban obviously needs to be negotiated in concert with a ban on weapons in space, since an ASAT ban without the latter would essentially create a sanctuary for space weapons.

A further objective of banning attacks on satellites is to protect space from the permanent debris that would result. While some ASATs are envisioned as using radiation and electronic jamming measures to disable satellites, rather than physically destroy them, most ASATs would be kinetic weapons, essentially the same design as BMD interceptors designed to collide with missile warheads in space. Kinetic weapons are designed to crash into the target – whether satellites or missile warheads – and given the extraordinary speeds of objects in space, the impact would result in clouds of debris, which would themselves continue in orbit indefinitely, becoming permanent hazards to those communication, navigation, remote sensing, and other satellites that now serve the public good. In very low earth orbit, much of this debris would gradually lose altitude and eventually burn up as it entered the earth’s atmosphere, but until that happened it would also pose major threats to objects in low earth orbit.

This threat makes a permanent ASAT ban an urgent environmental as well as security issue – or, put another way, makes the banning of ASATs an urgent environmental security issue. The same must be said, by the way, for a strategic BMD ban. While current US deployment of a mid-course ballistic missile defence system makes such a ban a fond hope for the moment, that does not alter the fact that the mid-course interception system now being installed in Alaska and California is intended to intercept attacking warheads in the same space neighbourhood as many of the satellites that now serve a broad range of civilian and military purposes. Attacking warheads would reach altitudes well within the range of satellites in orbit, which means that mid-course BMD interceptions represent the same threat to the space environment as do anti-satellite weapons. Current BMD testing is done in suppressed trajectories, at sub-orbital altitudes, to reduce the generation of space debris, but an operational system will represent a major threat to the space environment. (The fact that nuclear warheads that reach and destroy their target populations represent an infinitely greater environmental and human catastrophe only demonstrates the obvious: the tragic absurdity of deploying weapons of mass killing as security measures in the first place.)

It needs to be recognized, however, that there can be little hope of a universal ASAT ban as long as BMD systems without any numerical limits on interceptors are permitted. In an environment in which there are no legal constraints on the number of BMD interceptors that the United States is allowed to deploy, states such as China will conclude that their only defence is an asymmetrical one – in other words, they may well conclude that, because the costs involved in building up a strategic nuclear arsenal to exceed all potential US interceptors are excessive, their preferred option would be to turn their attention, as they have already signaled, to developing a capacity to attack vulnerable American satellites (the eyes and ears of America’s military might).

In spite of their current championing of an ASAT ban, we can be sure that China and Russia will respond to US BMD and ASAT capabilities, not only with increased offensive ballistic missiles, but also with accelerated ASAT development (Krepon & Clary 2003, p. 108).

The main reason for limiting the number of BMD interceptors that any one country, or group of associated countries, would be permitted to deploy is to ensure that any system remains a defence against limited attack and does not become the basis for future expanded defences designed to intercept major attacks and thus to undermine the deterrent forces of established nuclear weapon states. In the case of the United States – the only current case of deployment of a strategic BMD system intended to provide national cover – the number of permitted interceptors must be low enough not to induce any other nuclear weapon state to expand its forces, but high enough, from the perspective of America’s self-defined interest, to dissuade any aspiring nuclear states from thinking that they could easily mount a strategic missile force capable of overwhelming BMD systems.

American BMD advocates say their system will need about three interceptors for each attacking missile (to allow for multiple intercept attempts). The lowest level of limited attack, such as a single accidental launch or the deliberate launch of a few (two or three) missiles by an emerging nuclear state, would suggest the need for only three to nine interceptors, but even assuming that a limited attack might be as high as a dozen missiles, the need would only rise to about 36 interceptors. Even granting that BMD powers might want a few interceptors in reserve to address undetected additional capability, the maximum allowable interceptor force could still be limited to about 50.

Leaving aside the matter of their actual performance, a force of 50 interceptors would certainly be large enough to address the kind of limited attack that the US missile defence legislation refers to, but it would not be large enough to seriously destabilize the strategic nuclear environment. (Disarmament efforts would still suffer. Of course, China with its small strategic force could, and probably would, credibly argue that the maximum number of interceptors should be lower, or that China’s offensive arsenal would have to grow. As long as any BMD system is present Russia would obviously not allow its arsenal of offensive missiles to drop anywhere near a level that the deployed or potentially deployed BMD interceptors could theoretically shoot down. And, in both cases, significant forces would be retained on the dangerous high alert that increases the risk of launch in response to a false alarm.)

The principle of limiting the numbers of interceptors is also not new and was at the core of the now defunct Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972. The Treaty did not ban all missile defence. It prohibited broad territorial defence – precisely the kind mandated by the US National Missile Defense Act – but permitted limited point defence, namely the protection of a maximum of two sites within the territories of each of the parties (the US and the Soviet Union) – the national capital region and one strategic or intercontinental ballistic missile field, but limiting the number of interceptors permitted at each site to 100.

The ABM Treaty in effect followed a nuclear war-fighting doctrine. In theory, and in the context of an all-out nuclear exchange, the combined total of 200 point defence interceptors would be able to protect the two chosen sites and preserve two key capabilities: a national command and control centre and a post-attack retaliatory capability.

Current interests are the opposite. Current doctrine assumes that under an all-out attack no defence is possible, either of the total territory or of a small number of key sites. So the current BMD strategy is to mount a full territorial defence, not just point defence of key locations, against very few nuclear attack missiles – whether deliberately or accidentally launched.

While the ABM Treaty maintained a clear distinction between interceptions of strategic and theatre range attack missiles, the Bush administration has been determined to erase the distinction and to erect a seamless system to intercept any ballistic missile from very short-range theatre missiles (unlikely to be armed with nuclear warheads) to intercontinental-range missiles, (whose only military function is to carry nuclear warheads). But it is essential that the distinction be restored, since the strategic implications of each type are very different. Only the interception of long-range missiles affects the strategic nuclear equation involving especially Russian, Chinese, and American nuclear forces. There is, in this strategic sense, no particular need to limit interceptions of short-range missiles because they do not affect strategic calculations and arsenals. Of course, limits on the proliferation of missiles of any range should be promoted and advanced (as they now are through the Missile Technology Control Regime), but numerical limits on BMD interceptors should apply first and especially to those targeted for mid-course interception of strategic range attacks.

The international coalition, Global Action to Prevent War, has also called for limits on missile defences. Item 43 of their 2003 Program Statement (p. 29) says: “[W]hen even partially effective missile defenses are added to offensive missiles, other governments may conclude that they increase offensive capability and may as a result move to increase their own nuclear arsenals. To avoid this effect, if the U.S. or other nuclear weapon states insist on deploying national missile defenses, there should be a limit on deployed missile interceptors, as there now is on deployed U.S. and Russian offensive warheads and as there was in the ABM Treaty.”

Whatever the long-term fate of strategic ballistic missile defence, there is an urgent need for three permanent measures to mitigate the negative consequences of even the pursuit of a strategic missile interception capability:

  • A ban on weapons in space;
  • A ban on weapons, whether ground-, sea-, or air-based, designed to attack space-based objects; and
  • Strict limits on the numbers of deployed ballistic missile defence interceptors.

But the pursuit of these measures involves more than the occasional ministerial speech to the UN – as welcome as these still are. For Canada to make a serious impact on these questions – including critical attention to arms control compliance and verification mechanisms – it needs a new order of expertise and diplomacy. Although Canada’s diplomatic resources are stretched beyond limit they have made internationally recognized contributions to issues like missile technology control, to name just one example. But managing a sustained role in, for example, space security, missile controls, and non-proliferation compliance and verification requires a major infusion of additional personnel and resources. Otherwise, resources would have to be shifted and would undermine a host of other priority items related to conventional and small arms control, and chemical and biological weapons.

Furthermore, Canada is unique among G8 states in its lack of well-funded domestic centres of excellence in arms control and disarmament. Expanded diplomatic capacity needs to be coupled with an expanded capacity for research and international engagement at the level of civil society to help to build the foundation of expert knowledge and political will on which effective action toward the non-weaponization of space, the banning of anti-satellite weapons, and controls on strategic ballistic missile defences, along with all our other arms control priorities, depends.



  1. The Act is a simple one and its entire operational section is a single sentence: “It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate) with funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriations and the annual appropriation of funds for National Missile Defense.”
  2. Reviewed by Hitchens 2004.


Dean, J. 2002, “The Current Legal Regime Governing the Use of Outer Space,” Presented to the conference on Outer Space and Global Security, November 26-27, Palais des Nations, Geneva.

Global Action to Prevent War: A coalition-building effort to stop war, genocide, and internal armed conflict 2003, Program Statement.

Graham, W. 2004, Notes for an address by the Honourable Bill Graham, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, March 16.

Hitchens, T. 2004, “USAF Counterspace Operation Doctrine: Questions Answered, Questions Raised.” Center for Defense Information, October 4.

Krepon, M. & Clary, C. 2003, Space Assurance or Space Dominance? The Case Against Weaponizing Space, The Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington.

Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva 2002, Working Paper on PAROS, presented by the Delegations of China, the Russian Federation, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Syrian Arab Republic, June 27.

United States Air Force 2004, Counterspace Operations, Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1, August 2.


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