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Outer Space

Threat of Weapons in Outer Space

In the past 15 years, while the Conference on Disarmament has stood at a frustrating standstill, many countries have expressed concern over plans of the United States to weaponize space. The U.S., while denying plans to place weapons in space, has invested considerable amounts in technology that would be useful for such purposes. Various government documents outlining space and national defense policies clearly indicate the government's ideas for military capabilities of fighting enemies. Apart from calls to begin negotiations on a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT), most countries have underlined the importance of also beginning negotiations on a treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). The General Assembly for over 25 consecutive years has voted on such a treaty with results as great as 175 to zero against space militarization.

Outer space holds enormous amounts of both real and potential benefits to humanity in efforts to solve the most pressing problems and to achieve challenging goals. Space is critical for one of today's most important technological assets, telecommunications. It also facilitates our ability to manage resources, respond effectively to natural disasters, and to observe environmental trends and events. The United Nations realizes the potential space technology offers to its efforts in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Space is also critical to the security policies of nations, specifically with respect to early warning and verification of arms control agreements. The preservation of space for peaceful uses is in the interest of all nations. Logically, then, any impairment in the ability to benefit from space assets are a common threat to us all.

The emphasis by most nations is based on the necessity of protecting space from becoming the next battlefield. Introducing weapons into space is not only impractical, based on the laws of physics and the enormous costs implied by a functioning space weapons program, but it also poses a grave threat to all space assets. Debris in space destroys space assets indiscriminately, due to the immensely greater speed at which objects move in space. Even an object the size of a marble could have disastrous effects on a space vessel. With such serious damage almost sure to beset the U.S.'s own space-faring capabilities, the plans to weaponize space appear especially short-sighted. Even if in the short term one country does gain an immediate advantage by destroying other nations' space assets, the resulting debris would inevitably restrict its own ability to utilize space - to the detriment of all humanity.

The physical limits to the utility of space weapons are well established and well known. Scientists Laura Grego, Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright in The Physics of Space Securityidentify four specific military functions that space weapons serve:

  • Space-based ground attack;

  • Space-based missile defense;

  • Space-based satellite defense;

  • Attacking other nations' space assets

Of these four functions, only the last is physically and economically practicable. Attacking ground targets from space is both more costly and less effective than ground-, sea- or air-based means. Space-based missile defense, in order to be effective, would require placing hundreds more satellites in orbit in order to ensure that one is within range of the target at any one time. More importantly, satellites are extremely vulnerable to ground-based attack, because their orbits are highly predictable. Space-based missile defense can easily be destroyed by, for instance, using a less expensive missile to "punch a hole" in the defense, through which an Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) could then be sent. For this same reason, the third mission - defending space assets - is also impractical. "Asymmetric" means of destroying satellites include space mines and nuclear-weaponized ICBMs, which would easily destroy any satellite, regardless of its function.

In determining that space-based satellite attack is the only military function to which space is physically conducive, Laura Grego elaborates that those countries with the greatest ability to pursue this mission are the same ones that have the most to lose from a weaponized outer space. Not only do space weapons bring with them the threat of generating huge amounts of debris - an ASAT fired at a satellite would generate more than 250 pieces of space debris[1]. Just as many view missile defense as an attempt to attain first-strike capability, they would most likely view space weapons as an extremely offensive maneuver. Without any binding international agreements against the weaponization of space, other countries would almost surely begin developing their own ASAT technology in an effort to retain some sense of political balance.

One would wonder why the U.S. appears increasingly determined to weaponize space. After evaluating the positive and negative aspects of space weapons, it becomes clear that the only ones who stand to gain would be those employed to research, develop and potentially use such technology. The world's largest weapons manufacturers -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman -- all play major roles in developing and promoting space weapons technologies. The Department of Energy (DoE) laboratories and the U.S. Air Force have both been especially vocal in promoting space weapons as a potentially imperative element of U.S. national security.

The Status of International Law in Outer Space

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty outlines the principles governing outer space: most importantly that the use of outer space should benefit all nations, outer space is not subject to national appropriation, space should be open to all countries for exploration, and all space activities should be carried out for the sole purposes of maintaining international peace and security. The treaty includes the following:

  • In conjunction with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, Article IV prohibits testing, orbiting, and placement of nuclear weapons in space

  • Article VI establishes national responsibility for all activities carried out by corporations and any other non-governmental agencies of a given nation, thus providing the legal context in which actions may be challenged.

  • Article VII establishes liability for damage to another country's property in space, now institutionalized by the 1972 Liability Convention which further establishes procedures for determining the liability of a country that damages or destroys the space objects of another country.

  • Article IX provides for consultations if any signatory to the treaty believes another treaty member's actions or plans would cause "potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space."

The glaring omission of the Outer Space Treaty is, of course, the legal status of space weapons. Recognizing immediately this weak spot in the treaty's language, Egypt and Sri Lanka since 1982 have annually taken turns in the First Committee of the General Assembly to present a draft resolution on the Prevention of An Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). With its annual adoption in the General Assembly, the resolution calls on the Conference on Disarmament to commence negotiations on a legal, integrated and binding instrument to address the shortages in the legal regime on outer space. Unfortunately, such action has been consistently blocked by the United States.

U.S. Policy

The main driving force behind today's calls for a PAROS treaty is international concern over the apparent determination of the current U.S. leadership, prompted by an overeager Pentagon and despite the physical and economic limits, to deploy weapons in space. U.S. space policy remains, for the time being, interpreted as respecting the preservation of space for peaceful activities, but it does not actually rule out the option of placing weapons in space[2]. They write in the Conference on Disarmament document 1680 from July 10, 2002, "But the peaceful exploration and use of space obviously does not rule out activities in pursuit of national security goals." The U.S. is currently reviewing its National Space Policy, last updated in 1996. Many experts are predicting an enlarged mandate both to protect U.S. space assets and to attack the space assets of enemy states. In addition, the U.S. withdrew from theAnti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signaling its intention to further develop such technology. High-profile reports, such as that of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (the Rumsfeld Commission), which warned of an imminent "space Pearl Harbor" attack by China, "seek to codify U.S. intentions to conduct space warfare both for defensive and offensive purposes and to establish "space control" at least in wartime if not in peacetime.[3] The Space Command's Star Wars-esque "Vision for 2020," for instance, is now a familiar document, a blueprint for achieving "full spectrum dominance." The Space Command warns that space assets are bound to become targets in the future, given the growing recognition of the value of outer space. Therefore the U.S. should develop the ability to "dominate space," explicitly through the use of space-based earth strike or anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons[4]. One can only hope that a purpose is never found for such weapons.

[1] CDI Fact Sheet: Space Debris
[2] Union of Concerned Scientists - Comments on Context of Anticipated New National Space Policy 
[3]CDI - Update on U.S. Military Space Policy and Strategy
[4] Vision 2020

The Future: Possible Ways Forward

In the face of such spirited advocacy for space weapons by U.S. public officials, and the time spent without making progress on a PAROS treaty, the international community has still managed to achieve significant accomplishments and possess important alternative resources for ensuring security in outer space.

While concerns about China's capacity to quickly develop a space weapons program of its own are not completely unfounded[1], they are possibly misplaced given that China has been the most vocal, along with Russia, in the call for a PAROS treaty. For years, both countries had steadfastly demanded that negotiations on both an Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) treaty and a PAROS treaty be conducted simultaneously. In 1995, at the prospect that consensus could be reached on FMCT, China and Russia dropped their insistence for linkage. China went one step further in 2002, downgrading its demand for negotiations on PAROS to simply a request for discussion of the issue, to which the U.S. finally agreed.

China, Russia and five other states (Viet Nam, Indonesia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Syria) submitted a working paper in 2002 outlining the basic elements of an international legal agreement on prohibiting the deployment of any weapons in outer space. It included language prohibiting the threat or use of force against space objects, and thus ASATs would also be outlawed.

Most significantly, Russia has done much in the way of confidence-building by unilaterally declaring a no first use policy on space weapons. Confidence building is the area of greatest potential for progress. Declarations such as those from Russia, help to reduce the incentive for developing a robust space weapons program by discrediting the claim that a country's space assets will inevitably become targets for attack.

Numerous noteworthy proposals made by civil society demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of the world, including those most capable of developing space weapons, is in agreement on keeping space for peace.

As of the last relevant meeting of the Conference on Disarmament, a number of possible elements were proposed for addition to the PAROS working paper. These include periodic review conferences, a speical provision banning anti-satellite weapons, and specific technical measures to mitigate andprevent debris creation.

In October 2005 a draft of a PAROS treaty was released by many of the nations involved in earlier agreements. It once again reaffirmed the belief that space should be used for peaceful purposes.

[1] U.S. Defense Report: China Working on Anti-Satellite Systems