National Security

Putin cannot match America’s space weapons so he's changing the rules of the game

When President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from their summit talks, both men exuded an all-is-sweetness and light mien. Putin spoke first at the joint press conference and suggested, among other things, a proposed ban on weapons in orbit, "the agenda of non-placement of weapons in space." 

The diplomatic gambit is an obvious response to Trump's proposed Space Force. One would hope that if the proposal came up during the talks, Trump gave his Russian counterpart a one-word answer: "No."

Trump has expressed the desire to make Russia an ally and friend, mainly against mutual enemies such as ISIS and China, an effort doomed to failure due to its leader's desire to recreate the Soviet Union. However, Putin's proposal is something right out of the old Soviet playbook. During the Cold War, when Moscow felt threatened by the prospect of an American arms buildup, it proposed arms control agreements, preferably advantageous to Russia at the expense of the United States.

 

A classic example was a proposal by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1987 summit in Reykjavik to abolish all nuclear weapons. The only price for this remarkable proposal would be for the United States to give up its SDI missile defense program. Then-President Reagan told Gorbachev no deal and theatrically walked out of the summit, much to the consternation of the media and his political opponents.

Reagan knew that Gorbachev was negotiating from a position of weakness. The Soviet economy, strained by an arms race with the United States and the inherent inefficiencies and corruption of Communism, was teetering on the brink. The canny 40th president of the United States, who had negotiated pay and benefits contracts as head of the Screen Actors' Guild, held out for a better deal.

Reagan got the better deal in the form of a ban on all intermediate-range missiles in Europe, a great source of contention in the 1980s. Reagan's proposed START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) finally came to fruition in 1991 under his successor, President George H. W. Bush. More important, the United States kept SDI. Unfortunately, President Clinton all but canceled the program in 1993, accomplishing what Gorbachev could not.

Trump is faced with a similar situation with Putin's proposed ban of weapons in space. Russia, along with China, is feverishly trying to build weapons that can strike at American space assets. However, Russia is hampered by a moribund economy that would tend to inhibit the development of a Russian Space Force. Putin, knowing that he cannot match America's capacity to develop and deploy space weapons, is trying to change the rules of the game.

As the New York Times reported last year. Russia is in breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with the deployment of a cruise missile called the SSC-8. If Putin is willing to cheat on an arms control treaty signed over 30 years ago, he will surely be willing to cheat on a space weapons ban if and when he has the ability to do so.

The Russian leader is a proven liar, as his denial of Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 election indicates. Trump may have given a vague non-answer when pressed on the matter, but he knows the truth. Putin is not to be trusted to keep any agreement.

Also, one might wonder if China would be willing to go along and scrap its space weapons program. Beijing regards space as another realm for war fighting and would be unwilling to give up on developing the ability to strike at American space assets. If China were to go along with a space weapons ban, it would likely cheat, as well. The first solid indication of Chinese treaty violations could be the destruction of American communications, navigation, and reconnaissance satellites.

Let us not neglect rogue countries such as Iran, which might be tempted to detonate an EMP nuclear weapon above the United States, taking down the power grid and everything electronic, sending the country back to the 18th century. Weapons in space would likely be needed to prevent such an attack.

The proper response to Putin's Cold War-era gambit is to not only for Trump to say no but to forge ahead with the establishment of a United States Space Force strong enough to keep the peace in the heavens. Peace through strength is far more credible and durable than peace through scraps of paper.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies "Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as "The Moon, Mars and Beyond."

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