Deterrence as the MacGuffin: The Case for Arms Control in Outer Space

82 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2019 Last revised: 14 Aug 2019

See all articles by David A. Koplow

David A. Koplow

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: August 12, 2019


This Article examines the theory and practice of two partially-contrasting policy approaches to U.S. national security and global stability: deterrence, which has long been regarded as virtually the “Holy Grail” of post-World War II U.S. strategy, and arms control, which offers alternative goals, procedures, and structures.

In the realm of nuclear weapons, both approaches have been regularly employed: the United States has developed and deployed a diverse array of weapons, devoting time and treasure to assembling the tools of deterrence, but it has also simultaneously pursued successive generations of SALT, START, and other diplomatic initiatives to limit and reduce those inventories. In contrast, when it comes to outer space – where there is currently a widely-shared perception of starkly rising security threats from Russia, China, and elsewhere – it is deterrence, and deterrence alone, that has been marshaled. Arms control, even relatively modest, preliminary, and non-legally-binding variants, has consistently been categorically ruled off the table, by Republican and Democratic leadership alike.

The Article posits that this exclusive American reliance upon deterrence for ameliorating the security problems of space is misguided. This is because deterrence in all its various forms and variations is systematically less applicable to the special circumstances of exoatmospheric competition, and arms control would be particularly valuable and successful in that milieu. The Article therefore concludes that U.S. national policy should be promptly re-aligned, to draw strategically upon both concepts for resisting the further degradation of the security and sustainability of critical space operations.

Keywords: deterrence, arms control, disarmament, nuclear, outer space, treaty, satellite

Suggested Citation

Koplow, David A., Deterrence as the MacGuffin: The Case for Arms Control in Outer Space (August 12, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

David A. Koplow (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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