Countering Co-Orbital ASATs: What the Winning National Collegiate Debate Team Has to Say

Due to no planning at all, a key topic of NPEC’s current research — what U.S. space arms control policy should be — was this year’s national collegiate debate topic. Slightly less accidental is who won the national competition (which includes 80 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities). Michael Cerny, Raphael J. Piliero, David Bernstein, and Brandon W. Kelley turned in the winning debate submission, "Countering Co-orbital ASATs: Warning Zones in GEO as a Lawful Trigger for Self-Defense." It's a genuine contribution to U.S. space policy. It makes the case for creating zones in space to help protect key satellites from hostile spacecraft. It builds on NPEC’s research and improves on it. 

How did I find out about the competition? In late February, NPEC cohosted a debate with the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on National Security and the Law on space self-defense zones between space expert Brian Chow and Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. Word of the private debate apparently caught the attention of the collegiate debating teams. One of the teams contacted me and volunteered to transcribe a recording of the event and shared the transcript with their colleagues. 

The result is the attached winning debate submission, which reinvents space self-defense or keep-out zones as space “warning” zones. Self-defense and keep-out zones have been criticized for running astride the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits states from asserting their sovereign to appropriate territory in space. The proposed warning zones avoids this problem. Rather than being prohibitive redlines designed to trigger the use of force, warning zones are “informational” and designed to deter conflict in space. The proposed warning zones clearly recognize the increasing threat posed by co-orbital rendezvous satellite operations and suggest a useful diplomatic, legal way forward. The winning team clearly deserves our thanks and their work, our attention.


Jun 30, 2020
AUTHOR: Michael Cerny, Raphael J. Piliero, David Bernstein, Brandon Kelley
Countering Co-Orbital ASATs- Warning Zones in GEO as a Lawful Trigger .... (PDF) 571.62 KB

Countering Co-Orbital ASATs:
Warning Zones in GEO as a Lawful Trigger for Self-Defense

By Michael Cerny, Raphael J. Piliero, David Bernstein, and
 Brandon Kelley


The existing literature on space arms control is plagued by a notable gap. Despite widespread acknowledgment of the potential threat posed by co-orbital counterspace operations, particularly in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), one of the most promising solutions remains undertheorized: the declaration of safety zones around satellites. After four decades of debate, proponents and critics have persistently failed to synthesize arguments for and against such proposals in a comprehensive and systematic fashion. The result has been predictable: critics have given unduly short shrift to such proposals, while advocates have failed to sufficiently address their greatest shortcomings. One prominent advocate recently noted regarding a critic of zone proposals that “we agree on all the facts, yet our conclusions are often opposite”. This paper demonstrates that both sides of the debate have merit, and that there is a path to agreement that navigates these contradictions. Critics are correct that, as currently framed, most zone proposals violate international law or are undesirable on policy grounds. However, this need not be true. Framed solely as an information-gathering mechanism supporting the conditional and preemptive use of force in self-defense, “warning zones”—distinguished herein from both “self-defense zones” (SDZs) and “keep-out zones” (KOZs)—are a lawful and effective solution to co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) threats in GEO. Designed properly, such warning zones also avoid the most salient policy objections to SDZs and KOZs, while constituting the only presently effective means of addressing a potentially catastrophic threat to space security. They also offer a rare opportunity for truly cross-ideological agreement, and a way forward for international space arms control discussions—something sorely needed in this current political moment.


To read the entire paper CLICK HERE.