Outer Space: Cloaked by a fog of peace

Analysis and Commentary, Featured, Ploughshares Monitor, Space Security

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 3 Autumn 2021

In his book On War, published in 1873, military analyst Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” Contemporary military theorists and planners still find this idea of the “fog of war” relevant.

But if war is cloaked in uncertainty and ambiguity, so, apparently, is peace. The notion of a fog of peace has been used to describe the chaos and failures of peacemaking and other military interventions in conflict. Based on Jean-Marie Guéhenno’s experiences as head of UN peacekeeping efforts, his book The Fog of Peace charts the international community’s inability to achieve its promise of protection.

I use the notion of a fog of peace differently. For me, it describes the use of the concept of peace to hide and disguise war and warlike activities. This fog creates a “grey zone” that hides and disguises the “hybrid” and “below threshold” activities so prevalent in today’s security landscape. This fog of peace, produced by shifting and ever-expanding definitions of peaceful purposes, has found its way to outer space, where it provides cover for a growing array of military activities, essentially blurring the states of war and peace.

Peaceful purposes and military activity in outer space

Shared, peaceful use is at the heart of the vision set out in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST). The OST recognizes “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes” and reserves the Moon and other celestial bodies exclusively for such use.

The concept of peaceful purposes has a long and complex history. Following the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, the United States argued that space should be used “exclusively” for “peaceful purposes” and that military capability should be subjected to oversight and even inspection. The Soviet Union countered with a proposal to place outer space under the control of the United Nations. Yet the space launch and satellite programs of both states were primarily military endeavours.

By 1959, the confidential “U.S. Policy on Outer Space” stipulated that the principle of peaceful purposes “does not necessarily exclude military applications.” This view was first stated publicly at the UN First Committee in 1962, when the United States defined “peaceful uses” as “non-aggressive” and “beneficial.” This interpretation embraced the passive use of military satellites.

In other domains, arms control agreements link the peaceful use of technology with restrictions on harmful or military use. No such agreement covers activities in space. As Major Jeremy Grunert of the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps recently pointed out, there is little to restrict military or even “non-peaceful” uses of space. And so, our understanding of peace has come to include a growing array of non-peaceful applications, making the imposition of such controls or restrictions more difficult. This “drift” is deliberate.

For example, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was established in 1959 to review and support international cooperation on legal issues related to the use and exploration of outer space. Its mandate is restricted to “peaceful purposes,” which in practice includes non-aggressive military uses. However, efforts to specifically discuss military activities in outer space are routinely blocked by member states who, in this venue at least, adopt a strict interpretation of the mandate.

It’s exceedingly difficult to control weapons that no one owns up to having.

As well, military satellites are treated differently from commercial/civilian satellites. The Registration Convention is intended to create transparency in space by identifying and maintaining an international register of launched objects. But few satellites are registered as having a military function. The result is that the assumption of peaceful use protects military activities, often allowing them to evade any control.

The fog of peace has descended on the United Nations First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, which has mandated the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to address the “prevention of an arms race in outer space” (PAROS) since 1981. This focus on prevention treats the need for arms control in outer space as urgent—but to control a possible future, not the present.

Illustrating a source of the fog, a working paper tabled by Canada at the CD in 1986 noted persistent conflicting interpretations by member states of “peaceful purposes,” including one that involved no military use. How can there be a fruitful discussion with no agreement on basic terms? Forty years and many weapons tests later, the PAROS debate continues, unresolved. And military activities in space also continue, obscured by a cloak of opacity.

It’s hard to hide a weapons test, but possible to obscure its purpose. China has commonly described its suspected ASAT tests as “scientific experiments.” U.S. Operation Burnt Frost, which intercepted and destroyed a non-functioning U.S. satellite in 2008, was explained to the world as saving Earth from ecological danger. Last year, Russia released a projectile from another object in orbit, in what it described as part of a benign “satellite servicing” experiment.

It’s exceedingly difficult to control weapons that no one owns up to having. Even today, when talk of warfighting in space has become de rigueur among militaries, the fighting part—the use of weapons—remains vague. The United States accuses Russia and China of weaponizing space, and they accuse the U.S. No one touts an aggressive weapons capability. Instead, states including France, Japan, and most recently Germany are pursuing military space units for “self-defence.”

Is the absence of peace an open secret today? It appeared that peaceful camouflage was not even necessary in 2019, when India publicly acknowledged that it had conducted an ASAT test and few states raised any concerns.

For a long time, I viewed the proclivity to hide and deny “aggressive” uses of space as a sign of the strength of the principle of peaceful purposes. But now I fear that the murky definition of “peace” is cynically and consciously used to conceal violence.

What’s to be done?

The fog of peace masks the growing aggressiveness of military activities in space and the proliferation of weapons capabilities. But it is more than 50 years too late to try to ban military uses of space. Instead, we must reclaim the integrity of the concept of peace.

We need to identify non-peaceful uses of space and implement appropriate controls and restrictions. This process will become more important as activity on the Moon expands. Although the OST strictly forbids military activity of any kind, we have seen firsthand the effects that a foggy notion of peace can have.

The fog of peace can hide the buildup of non-peaceful activities until the moment that catastrophe strikes. And when that fog is dispelled, we may find that we have been groping our way across a battlefield all along.

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