Private Eyes in the Sky
How Commercial Satellites Are Transforming Intelligence
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union spent decades negotiating over how to control the competition in nuclear arms. The resulting agreements kept the peace by limiting the number and type of nuclear weapons each side deployed and by establishing norms and practices of transparency that increased confidence that the other side was adhering to its promises. Today, however, the arms control regime is crumbling, and with it the remaining barriers to unbridled nuclear competition.
One reason for this erosion—a reason frequently invoked by the Trump administration—is that current agreements apply only to the United States and Russia, leaving out China, which is growing its own nuclear arsenal. Washington argues that future arms control negotiations should include Beijing along with Moscow. Chinese officials, however, have shown no interest in participating, and neither the United States nor Russia has leverage to force them into an agreement. This deadlock gives rise to both panic and fatalism—panic because traditional approaches are decreasingly effective, fatalism because new and better approaches seem out of reach.
Breaking this impasse will require a significant recalibration. Rather than focusing on the brass ring of nuclear arms limitations and reductions, policymakers should try for something broader yet more modest: a global treaty that includes China, Russia, and the United States and prohibits interference with both commercial and government satellite operations during peacetime. Such a satellite noninterference treaty would ensure that each power could maintain a basic awareness of the growth and movement of other powers’ nuclear and conventional forces—allaying mutual fears of arms racing, deterring military adventurism, and stabilizing military competition. Until there is once again an opportunity to pursue more ambitious and comprehensive deals, it offers the best chance of strengthening global stability and stopping arms control from collapsing entirely.
The most enduring principle in modern arms control agreements is that of noninterference with “national technical means” of verification, including satellites. In practice, this means that each side agrees not to take actions that would destroy, degrade, or otherwise inhibit the other sides’ satellites and other sensors from collecting information necessary to verify treaty compliance. These noninterference provisions have contributed to a once unimaginable level of transparency, helping to calm nerves and slow arms racing over many decades.
Early in the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought to thwart transparency, including by stalking or shooting down planes that carried out intelligence overflights (such as the U-2 piloted by Gary Powers in 1960). The principle of noninterference was first established in the early 1970s by the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, as satellite photography and space-based intelligence became more powerful. It has been included in every major arms control agreement since, including the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
A world of routine interference with satellites would be extremely unstable.
Today, noninterference is at risk—particularly the principle of noninterference with satellites. One of the only remaining arms control agreements that upholds the principle, New START is on track to expire in February 2021, unless Washington and Moscow overcome disagreements on whether and how to extend it. And even if New START is extended, current prohibitions on interference are too limited and narrow. They apply only to the United States and Russia, at a time when China is expanding both nuclear and antisatellite capabilities. And they apply only to state-owned satellites, at a time when commercial satellites are becoming increasingly significant.
With U.S. companies such as Planet and SpaceX launching new constellations of hundreds to thousands of satellites, commercial satellites are likely to complement and in some ways exceed their state-owned equivalents, collecting vast amounts of data that could, for example, offer confidence that competitors are not building up their stockpiles of dangerous weapons or conducting threatening military activities. Although these new constellations are being designed primarily to support commercial activities, governments could apply new artificial intelligence techniques to the data they collect to monitor arms buildups and military movements with unprecedented persistence and insight.
Precisely because of their potential for monitoring nuclear and other military activities (and perhaps also because they could be used to offer people living under repressive regimes open access to the Internet), Russia and China may come to view large commercial satellite constellations as a threat. Russian and Chinese military planners already consider antisatellite (ASAT) weapons as a key means of reducing U.S. and allied military effectiveness; they are deploying an array of ASAT weapons, including jammers that interfere with satellite communications, lasers that blind imagery satellites, and weapons that physically intercept and destroy satellites. In a conflict, Russia and China could use these weapons to disable satellites, undermining U.S. military advantage. But even in peacetime, they could use ASAT weapons to obscure arms buildups and troop movements—which would undermine transparency, increase the risk of misperception, stoke arms competition, and generally degrade strategic stability between the world’s nuclear powers.
An effort to extend and modernize the principle of noninterference should be the starting point for a new era of multilateral security agreements—both because it would preserve a key component of nuclear stability and because it would lay the foundation for more comprehensive agreements in the future. A global treaty on noninterference with all satellites, both state-owned and commercial, would build on decades of U.S.-Russian consensus on noninterference; reflect the potential of commercial satellites to augment traditional intelligence; dramatically enhance transparency; and correct a major limitation of existing noninterference provisions by including China, which is not covered by any arms control or limitation treaties.
The United States, Russia, and China would all benefit from such an agreement. Enhancing transparency by prohibiting interference with satellites in peacetime would increase the barriers to war by reducing uncertainties about arms buildups and troop movements, by equipping states with information to better prepare defenses, and by arming diplomats with tangible information about aggressive enemies to better rally international interventions, all in the service of deterring hostility. Unimpeded and increasing flows of satellite data could also help leaders on all sides push back against internal pressure to pursue unnecessary arms buildups or aggressive military actions driven by mistaken impressions of a competitor’s activities or the belief that they can create a fait accompli for a competitor through sudden and aggressive military action.
The most enduring principle in modern arms control agreements is that of noninterference.
Russia or China might seek to challenge such an effort. Neither country has a commercial space sector as strong as that of the United States and its allies. And both might oppose a new treaty on satellite noninterference because it would take focus away from their deeply flawed space arms control proposal—the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space—which would impose an unverifiable ban on space-based weapons while ignoring the ground-based ASAT weapons that these nations already possess. But there is reason to hope that such opposition can be overcome. China’s nascent commercial satellite market, for instance, could provide Beijing with its own growing capabilities, overcoming concerns about relying on data from foreign companies for monitoring and verification.
Critically, efforts to advance the treaty would not have to wait on acquiescence from Moscow or Beijing. The United States and its allies and partners will launch vast commercial satellite constellations over the coming years, as will China, creating common economic incentives for keeping satellite interference from becoming routine. If Russia or China attempted to kill the proposal, the United States could move forward with a narrower group of like-minded partners to establish a global norm of noninterference supported by a legal framework for punishing violators. Eventually, this effort, with the majority of the world’s economic and technological might behind it, could break down Russian and Chinese reluctance to join.
Even in the absence of a formal agreement, there are actions the United States could undertake to advance the cause. It should begin working closely with allied governments and the private sector to equip new satellites with low-cost warning sensors that can detect potential interference. The result would be a global monitoring network that would detect and record suspected interference events, cross-correlate sensor detections with actual instances of degraded or denied satellite operations to determine whether interference occurred, and transmit notification of confirmed interference events in real time either to an open website (operated by an independent international treaty organization) or to a professional organization of commercial and government satellite operators, ensuring that violators could be identified and shamed. In either case, this new organization could publicly address interference attempts while protecting the privacy of satellite operators and potentially consider and pursue responses ranging from warnings to sanctions, depending on the severity of the incident.
There almost certainly is no way to make the provisions of a noninterference treaty enforceable in wartime. The immense benefits that our nations’ militaries reap from satellite information and communications may make these targets too tempting to resist during a conflict. But a prohibition on satellite interference during peacetime would at a minimum raise the bar for targeting satellites early in a crisis, because once broader noninterference norms are established, any such attack or interference would send a strong signal of the attacker’s intent to escalate and offer an aggrieved party legal justification to retaliate. This could help to stabilize the emerging military competition in space and generally restrain escalation in future crises.
A world of routine interference with satellites would be extremely unstable. By limiting insight into the actions of competitors, such interference would open the door to dangerous arms races, increase the risk of misperception, and provide strong incentives to strike an enemy first. Establishing a comprehensive norm of transparency, by contrast, would inject new hope into a struggling arms control agenda—one that reflects the realities and addresses the dangers of nuclear competition today. Only those who seek to derive and hold on to their power through secretive arms buildups, military adventure, and repression would need fear this new era of transparency.
Why Washington and Moscow Must Extend the New START Treaty