Looking Out for Peace from the Sky

A. Walter Dorn

Originally published in Peace Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 5  (Oct/Nov 1987) pp.17-18.



The Globe and Mail in 1987 called the PAXSAT initiative a "metaphor for everything that Ottawa is doing right—but getting credit for—in the arms control field." While PAXSAT, a study just completed this year, is already familiar to the world's top arms control negotiators, most Canadians have not heard of it. There have been diplomatic PAXSAT briefings in Europe and at the United Nations, but most members of the peace movement do not know what PAXSAT is.

PAXSAT is a study of the feasibility of using satellites operated internationally to verify certain arms treaties. These are treaties, currently under negotiation by countries like Canada, under which two satellite types, PAXSAT A and PAXSAT B, could become very central. The first type of treaty is one banning the use of weapons in outer space. Talk along these lines is going on in Geneva both bilaterally (between the U.S. and the USSR) and multilaterally (in the forty-nation U.N. Conference on Disarmament). PAXSAT A could spot weapons in space.

The second type of treaty is, for example, the Mutual Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR), which would reduce conventional forces in Europe [later named the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty]. PAXSAT B could count the number of tanks and other equipment covered by such an agreement.



From the peace movement's point of view, PAXSAT may have great significance. The control process has been dominated too long by the superpowers and has often been used for propaganda purposes. Every nation has a stake in world peace and security and should have the right to contribute to the success of arms control and disarmament. Individuals and non-governmental organizations (NG0s) can also claim such a right. Though many nations participate in some disarmament negotiations (e.g., those in Geneva and Stockholm), few are able to contribute after an agreement is reached. One area that is now ripe for a strong "middle power" contribution is precisely the area of treaty verification.



At present, the superpowers alone verify most of the arms control treaties in existence, both the and the multilateral ones. They use "national technical means" of verification--a vague term borrowed from the SALT treaties–to monitor each other from a distance. These are preferred over "on site inspections," which are seen as too intrusive. Despite some advantages, these national technical means are highly secretive operations controlled by the superpowers' intelligence agencies and military establishments. National technical means are mainly reconnaissance satellites, which orbit the earth at altitudes ranging from 150 km to 36,000 km. They collect scientific data on weapons development, missile testing, and a host of other activities. But the conclusions drawn from the data obtained so are often adjusted to serve political ends. Often the data are said to support allegations of non-compliance: the super-powers have accused each other of violating many treaties. There is no way at present for a third party to check on these accusations, since no "international technical means" of verification yet exist.



The Canadian government realizes that multilateral verification needs exploring and Canada is ideally suited to make such a contribution. The PAXSAT initiative potentially can move beyond bilateral arms control by bringing other nations, including Canada, into the verification process.

Several peace groups enthusiastically endorsed a precursor to the PAXSAT project–the proposal for an International Satellite Monitoring Agency (ISMA). The ISMA proposal was made by France at the first U.N. Special Session on Disarmament in l978. Several teams from Science for Peace, including professors John Polanyi, George Ignatieff, Lynn Trainor, and Eric Fawcett visited Ottawa to urge the Canadian government to support ISMA. Canada cosponsored one of the ISMA resolutions at the UN General Assembly, but then, when the French enthusiasm waned, Canada did not take the lead, as the scientists had urged. Science for Peace can take some credit, however, for sensitizing the government to the possibilities of satellite surveillance for arms control verification. PAXSAT is, in a sense, a scaled down version of ISMA, more acceptable in the current international political climate.

PAXSAT A and B would be placed at the service of many nations, superpowers, and would monitor armaments in certain areas of die world and in outer space. "Pax" is the Latin for peace and Sat is short for satellite. The study for PAXSAT, done by SPAR Aerospace of Montreal and others, was primarily a technical report on the feasibility and the required hardware and software for surveillance. PAXSAT A is a satellite concept that could help verify the Outer Space Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, any anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) treaty and any other treaty prohibiting the militarization of outer space. The satellite would "sniff out' hostile machinery in space. It would then send any collected data back to earth to determine whether, for example, "there is in orbit a satellite wolf in sheeps' clothing." PAXSAT A could be used to detect kinetic energy and beam weapons, such as those proposed in the Star Wars plan, should they be deployed in space--God forbid.

The study concluded that the capability to monitor these agreements did exist outside the superpowers. It was found possible to determine, with considerable certainty, the type of satellite in orbit or the type of weapon on the ground. To do this, sensors are needed including visible, infrared and multispectral sensors, as well as sensors based on radar.

The Globe & Mail called the PAXSAT A proposal "bold, constructive and forward looking." The newspaper noted, however, several problems with the initiative. The problems need to examined and discussed since the issues they introduce are fundamental not only to arms control verification but also to the peace process itself. The problems, as described in the Globe & Mail article, along with some reflections, are as follows:

Issue 1: Timing. Since at present there is no treaty prohibiting the militarization of space, why should efforts be made to verify such a measure? A great deal of research is currently being carried out to develop new space weapons. The technology to detect these weapons must develop at the same pace. Fortunately, it is often easier to detect the presence of a class of weapons than to hide them. This is especially true in outer space. And even if a treaty is not signed, it will be important to detect the presence of these weapons so that international pressure can be brought to bear on wrong doers. In addition, no nation should be given the opportunity to mount a surprise first strike using space weapons.

Early U.N. debates on disarmament were hampered by the question of the timing of disarmament. The USA advocated implementing an international control system for atomic energy (Baruch plan) before nuclear disarmament occurred. The USSR called for disarmament first, then verification. Now the Soviet position on verification has changed dramatically. Soviet leader Gorbachev has stated his willingness to implement various means of verification, "even die most radical," including international and on-site verification anywhere anytime. At the U.N., the Soviet Union has proposed the creation of a World Space Organization, which would have as one of its man the verification of space weapons.

Issue 2: For many peace activists, sophisticated technology such as that which PAXSAT A, would use, seems to be what the world needs less of. They feel that the superpowers should sign an agreement to scrap missiles -- and that's all. While there is merit in their argument as to the simplicity of disarmament it remains true that surveillance technology is needed to monitor compliance and build confidence or sound the alarm about new violations! In a disarmed world, one side or a third party, such as a terrorist body or nation, could use a limited superiority in weapons to threaten parts or persons of the world. Surveillance is necessary to observe such activity and give the international community some to respond. Surveillance also acts as a deterrent to cheating, and as a confidence building measure, a means of reassurance.

Issue 3: For those who despair that the arms control process is too slow, that Canada should try some other means of promoting world disarmament, the answer is that there are few alternatives for governments. Long, hard negotiating periods are still the best way for the Canadian government to contribute to the arms control process. PAXSAT, if accepted and developed, could help quicken negotiations, since the major stumbling block for decades has been verification. Though PAXSAT will not solve all the verification problems, it is a concrete step toward a verification regime.

There remain some very important challenges to the development of PAXSAT, not the least of which is the development of a political atmosphere in which PAXSAT could be accepted by both superpowers and other nations. Methods of data acquisition and interpretation need to be developed, along with a system for the distribution of the data. Should the data be available to everybody? Such sensitive questions need to be explored further by governments and also by individuals and peace groups.



PAXSAT is an innovative concept with great potential to contribute to arms control; it may even become a necessity. Despite poetical obstacles, the project is progressing well. Canada is ideally suited to lead in this area, with its respectedplace in international negotiations, its commitment to peacekeeping, and its unique experience in cooperative remote sensing projects (such as the Landsat and SPOT satellite projects). Ambassador Alan Beesley, Canada's disarmament ambassador in Geneva, said "I have never previously been involved in anything, so long-term, so low-key and so ultimately rewarding."


Walter Dorn [in 1987] is a Ph-D. student at the University of Toronto. He also serves as U.N. representative Science for Peace and is the author of Peace-Keeping Satellites, a l82 page review of ISMA, PAXSAT and related concepts.