Arms control beyond Earth? Talks related to space weaponization and the prevention of an arms race in outer space are not gaining traction

Cesar Jaramillo Space Security

Cesar Jaramillo

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 33 Issue 3

The nature of outer space activities has changed dramatically in the more than five decades since the dawn of the space age. The end of the Cold War, the emergence of a highly profitable space services industry, and a sharp decrease in the financial and technological barriers to entry have all contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of actors with space-based assets and to the range of benefits derived from space applications. Hundreds of satellites provide social, scientific, and economic benefits to hundreds of millions of individuals. From satellite navigation to weather forecasting, treaty verification to news and entertainment broadcasts, international reliance on outer space has been steadily expanding and will continue to grow.

While many space assets have peaceful applications, some also support military activities. Satellite-based applications such as reconnaissance, intelligence, and surveillance are integral to the military strategies of a growing number of states. Moreover, ground-based anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) have been tested; several communications satellites have been deliberately jammed; missile defence systems have been used as ASATs, and precursor technologies that would allow space-to-space offensive capabilities continue to be developed.

Yet the prospects for an effective arms control multilateral governance mechanism to protect the physical and operational integrity of space assets from hostile action remain remote.

One domain, different challenges

There is widespread agreement to pursue measures that minimize the likelihood of unintentional interference with space assets during normal operations. However, discussions related to space weaponization and the prevention of an arms race in outer space have yet to gain traction.

In the past decade, orbital debris has damaged active satellites, nations have conducted anti-satellite tests, and satellites have accidentally collided with each other. In 2007 China used a ground-based anti-satellite weapon to destroy one of its own satellites, creating thousands of pieces of orbital debris. The following year the United States used a modified missile to destroy satellite USA-193. A year later Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 collided accidentally with U.S. satellite Iridium 33. By 2012 the U.S. Space Surveillance Network—the most advanced Space Situational Awareness system in the world—had cataloged approximately 17,000 pieces of orbital debris 10 cm in diameter or larger, which pose an indiscriminate threat to spacecraft of all nations.

To minimize the risk of unintentional interference with space assets and better coordinate operations among space actors, the European Union has proposed an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. Although the proposed Code would serve as an important mechanism to codify much-needed transparency and confidence-building measures in space, it is decidedly not an arms control agreement. Its provisions conspicuously skirt matters related to the militarization and potential weaponization of space.1

The United States argues that environmental threats such as the risk posed by space debris should be the top concern at international forums on outer space. Countries including Russia and China view arms control in space as most pressing. The reality is that environmental threats and arms control are both priorities that merit separate policy instruments.

Throughout human history, attempts to regulate weapons have occurred only after the weapons have been used in combat. The international community now has the unique opportunity to proactively control the use of arms in space.

A one-state critical mass: the U.S. position

Space arms control initiatives have failed to gain the necessary traction largely because of U.S. opposition. As the most advanced spacefaring nation, the United States can seriously undermine any space arms control measures put forward by the rest of the international community.

Every year the United Nations General Assembly (2011) votes on a PAROS (Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space) resolution, which notably states:

  • The “prevention of an arms race in outer space would avert a grave danger for international peace and security”;
  • “The legal regime applicable to outer space does not in and of itself guarantee the prevention of an arms race in outer space, that the regime plays a significant role in the prevention of an arms race in that environment”;
  • All states, particularly those with advanced space capabilities, should “contribute actively to the objective of the peaceful use of outer space and of the prevention of an arms race in outer space and to refrain from actions contrary to that objective”;
  • The Conference on Disarmament (CD) “has the primary role in the negotiation of a multilateral agreement or agreements, as appropriate, on the prevention of an arms race in outer space in all its aspects.”

   The PAROS resolution is overwhelmingly supported by the international community. But every year, the United States abstains or votes against the resolution. In December 2011 the PAROS resolution received a vote of 176 in favour and two abstentions (the United States and Israel) (Reaching Critical Will 2011).

As the most advanced spacefaring nation and, arguably, the state most reliant on space assets, the United States should see clearly defined norms for space weapons to be in its best interests. But it has taken the position that it will only “consider space arms control proposals and concepts that are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States” (Rose 2012). Not only does it seem that the United States is not ready to lead on this issue, but it appears that U.S. engagement with space arms control discussions is conditioned on the unlikely scenario that another state will draft a proposal tailored to U.S. national security concerns.

Multilateral forum wanted

The Conference on Disarmament, the main multilateral disarmament body within the UN architecture, has the primary responsibility for PAROS. However, for more than a decade the CD has been mired in a deadlock and unable to conduct any substantive negotiations. Because of the requirement to proceed only by unanimous consensus, the CD has been unable to agree even on a Program of Work.

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) might be an alternate forum to address arms control in space. However, any efforts to discuss such issues at COPUOS are routinely dismissed as falling outside the jurisdiction of this body. For example, the Report of the 2010 COPUOS Plenary Session included the following items, which underscore the difficulty of undertaking substantive negotiations on space arms control:

45. The view was expressed that the conclusion of PPWT [Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects], which had been presented by China and the Russian Federation to the Conference on Disarmament in 2008, would prevent an arms race in outer space.
46. The view was expressed that the Committee had been created exclusively to promote international cooperation with respect to the peaceful uses of outer space and that disarmament issues were more appropriately dealt with in other forums, such as First Committee and the CD.

    In effect, the prevention of an arms race in outer space has been relegated to a multilateral diplomacy limbo. COPUOS is inappropriate, the major spacefaring nation (the United States) at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) First Committee is not interested, and the CD is ineffective.

    Not surprisingly, the European Union has decided to pursue its proposed Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities through an ad hoc process outside of the UN infrastructure. Oddly enough, the two consultations this year coincide (in time and venue) with the COPUOS and UNGA plenaries.

The dual-use problem

Other concerns abound. The lack of a precise definition for “space weapon” is often cited as a primary obstacle to an effective space arms control agreement. Space policy analyst Michael Krepon (2010) has said that the lack of a satisfactory definition “is one of many reasons why a treaty banning space weapons is not in the cards.”

The difficulty in defining space weapons relates to the potential dual-use nature of space assets. A satellite not specifically designed to be an offensive weapon can be used as one. Otherwise innocuous civil or commercial spacecraft, for example, could be rammed against an adversary’s space asset. On-orbit servicing vehicles (still in the early stages of development) could also be used to deliberately damage or destroy a satellite. If it can get close enough to fix it, goes the argument, it can get close enough to harm it.

So, while there may be obvious space weapons (designed and deployed only to be used offensively), the prospect of a broad weapons ban faces the seemingly insurmountable problem that a space weapon cannot always be readily identified as such.

A starting point

There is an alternative to banning certain hardware: prohibiting certain conduct. From this perspective, spacefaring nations could pledge:

Not to be the first to use any space- or ground-based capabilities to disable, damage or destroy space assets.

Such a pledge—which should be codified in a multilateral policy arrangement—would not require a precise definition of space weapon. The primary focus would be on protecting the physical and operational integrity of space assets. Verification of compliance, which is a typical stumbling block in space policy discussions, would be resolved with existing technical means that would make the destruction of space assets without clear attribution virtually impossible.

There would still be matters for subsequent negotiation, of course. Perhaps most notably, a state could research and develop offensive and/or dual-use space capabilities that might be used against an adversary’s space assets and still be in full compliance with this arrangement. This scenario is less than ideal, being akin to accepting a pledge not to use nuclear weapons, even when the overarching goal of their elimination has not been reached. Nevertheless, few would argue against the desirability of an official moratorium on their use, such as the one prescribed by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. So an explicit norm enshrined in international law that precludes harmful interference against space assets may not be perfect, but would certainly be preferable to the status quo.

The growing tension between the concepts of outer space as a peaceful global commons and as a strategic military domain underscores the urgent need for agreed-upon norms of behaviour that fully account for both aspects of space activity.


1. For an analysis of the EU’s proposed Code of Conduct, Jaramillo 2011.


Jaramillo, Cesar. 2011, Limited rules of engagement, The Ploughshares Monitor, Winter 2011.

Krepon, Michael. 2010. What is a space weapon? Arms Control Wonk, 18 March.

Reaching Critical Will, 2011. Draft Resolutions, Voting Results, and Explanations of Vote First Committee.

Rose, Frank. 2012. Remarks by Frank Rose, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Policy and Verification Operations, Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation (U.S.), Laying the Groundwork for a Stable and Sustainable Space Environment. UNIDIR Space Security Conference, 12 May.

United Nations. 2010. Report of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, 53rd Session, document A/65/20.

United Nations General Assembly. 2011. 1st Committee Sixty-sixth session, Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, document A/C.1/66/L.14.

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