16. Information Memorandum From the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Slocombe) to Secretary of Defense Brown1


  • Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Arms Control Negotiations—INFORMATION MEMORANDUM

During the past several weeks, extensive interagency effort has been underway on initial studies to form a framework for possible arms control negotiations with the Soviets on limiting anti-satellite activity.

The current NSC timetable for future work on this issue proposes a meeting of SCC principals on Thursday, 22 December. Its purpose would be to (a) review the definition of “interference with space objects,” which would be banned under an ASAT regime, (b) set forth our current understanding of the verification/monitoring issue, (c) consider a proposed public release, Congressional approach and security policy, (d) discuss the appropriate negotiating forum, and (e) decide on the manner and timing of an initial approach to the Soviets.

Initially, the ASAT arms control problem seemed to be one that would lend itself to rapid consideration within the interagency process, involve a clear definition of choices and explanation of their effects, and allow early discussions with the Soviets, with an understood, if not unanimously supported U.S. position in hand. Our subsequent work on this issue, as well as that of the intelligence community, continues, however, to turn up unforeseen complexities. Many of them are in the area of verification/monitoring while others involve equally significant problems created by the current asymmetries between the Soviet and U.S. programs, by the inherent complexity of space technology and its application, and by the relationship of negotiations planning to our own developing ASAT program. To insure that the technically complex problems are understood as well as possible and innovative solution proposals advanced (and understood), the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering has engaged the assistance of DARPA and its contractors for technical backup as the interagency work progresses.

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Broadly, the work so far has shown that, as we all expected, monitoring is tough—and, in contrast to many areas, there are potentially large payoffs from small violations. More surprisingly to me as a layman, the concepts of banning ASAT capabilities and even interference with satellites has proven very hard to operationalize. While there may be some in the military and intelligence space business who resist all ASAT limits in principle, I remain impressed with the widespread agreement that ASAT bans would be very useful if attainable, but very hard to get in technically reliable ways, not to mention ways that would command political support.

From this, I conclude that a reasonable prospect of a responsible and successful outcome requires that interagency planning proceed at a deliberate pace, that insures that all associated issues are thoroughly examined. Until that process is complete, I believe that the pressure for immediate negotiations with the Soviets would not serve our national security needs over the long term—nor, indeed, the President’s commitment to the most comprehensive, effective ASAT agreement we can get. Other agencies involved, namely NASA, CIA, OJCS, and IC Staff, also believe that a more orderly and deliberate process is required, particularly as we would be negotiating with the Soviets from a position of relative inferiority in this area.

Because of these concerns, it may well be that the 22 December SCC meeting will be postponed.2 In any event, the interagency effort clearly will not be in a position to present information and analysis necessary for decisions that soon. The meeting could serve an educational function and lead to development of a work plan for the interagency effort in coming to grips with this issue on an orderly basis. Clearly, doing the job right will take time—but a hasty proposal would only give us time to repent (and fight off critics of the process as well as the substance) at leisure.

Walter Slocombe
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–80–0017, Box 56, 471.96 (11 Nov–Nov) 1977. Secret. Coordinated by Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Ross N. Williams. A stamped notation at the top of the memorandum reads: “SEC DEF HAS SEEN.” Under the date stamp, Brown wrote “12/17 Dep Sec should see. HB.”
  2. The SCC Meeting scheduled for December 22 was ultimately postponed until February 15, 1978. See Document 17.