How to keep outer space weapons-free

Jessica West Featured, Ploughshares Monitor, Space Security

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 4 Winter 2019

The history of arms control in outer space reads like a success story. Outer space is one of the few domains of human activity in which the focus has been on prevention. Although military satellites that provide communications, remote sensing, navigation, and timing services once dominated space and continue to provide essential military services, their operations have long been considered peaceful. Those of us working in space security say that space is “militarized but not weaponized.”

More the product of good luck than good management, our luck could be about to run out. A growing focus on space as a domain of warfare is eroding the wall between militarization and weaponization.

Restraints on space weapons fade

Most humans have long believed that outer space is too important to us to become the venue of war. To that end, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty focused on preventing the Cold War from extending into outer space by promoting the principle of peaceful use by all and banning weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies. Bilateral agreements dealt with sensitive communications and arms-control-verification satellites, while there were voluntary moratoriums on the testing of anti-satellite weapons.

At the same time, a belief in outer space as the “ultimate high ground” was held by Cold War military planners, who exercised unlimited imagination in developing such weapons as space lasers, fighter satellites, and space planes. U.S. President Reagan’s Space Defense Initiative (Star Wars) aimed to create a system of space-based interceptors for missile defence. Fortunately, none of these systems were developed, because of real-life limits imposed by the laws of physics, financial restraints, and the end of the Cold War. But dreams persist.

There are few rules to prevent the pursuit of such phantasms. The Outer Space Treaty was silent on the use of conventional weapons in outer space; on the distinction between celestial bodies specifically reserved for peaceful use and the rest of outer space, where most activities take place; on what “peaceful use” means; and on what happens if the use of outer space is not peaceful.

And now the restraint that has governed space activities is fading as a new era of space activity dawns.

An incident in 2007, in which a Chinese anti-ballistic missile intercepted a Chinese orbiting satellite, might be considered the first shot over the bow. Other countries have also demonstrated their abilities to target satellites. Most recently, this past March India intercepted one of its own satellites with an anti-ballistic missile. Russia is reviving Soviet weapons systems and testing the Nudol anti-ballistic missile, which could strike objects in orbit.

The new domain for warfare

To the best of our knowledge, no “space weapon” has officially been launched. And “shots” have yet to be fired against adversaries. However, in a crucial shift, outer space is increasingly viewed, not as too important for war, but as a domain of warfare.

Outer space as a warfighting domain is the guiding principle behind the Trump administration’s push for a new Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military. In recent years, both Russia and China have reorganized military units that incorporate space into more traditional warfighting functions. In the last year, the United Kingdom, France, India, and Japan have taken steps to create new military units, commands, or departments that incorporate defensive capabilities in space. In November, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) declared space an “operational domain,” underlining a need to protect civilian and military assets in space.

Ironically, space, once preserved from war because of its value, is now viewed as a war-fighting domain because it has become MORE important. Space is vital to military command and control of personnel and weapons, for communications, for intelligence, and for targeting. And space is full of vulnerable targets: satellites, which are easily identified and travel without protection in predictable orbits, use the electromagnetic spectrum and computer networks to send and receive information, and are difficult to move out of harm’s way.

In conflicts today in Syria and Ukraine, electronic interference with satellites is a core feature of warfighting. Public GPS signals around the world are frequently jammed. Increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks threaten to escalate from targeting computers networks to attacking satellites. Kinetic and laser anti-satellite capabilities are developing steadily. New multi-purpose capabilities on-orbit allow satellites to maneuver through space, and to approach and even physically manipulate other satellites, for a variety of protective, but also possibly harmful purposes.

A new agenda for arms control

If the new reality is that outer space is being treated as a domain of warfare, then we need to think differently about arms control.
For almost 40 years, the United Nations First Committee has concerned itself with the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Several initiatives have been proposed over the years, the most recent a draft treaty proposed by Russia and China on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). However, obstacles related primarily to the definition of a space weapon and the lack of verification mechanisms have prevented any progress.

Now some states, including Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, are contending that a focus on weapons is antiquated. They make some good points.

Arms control has traditionally focused on specific classes of weapons, like nuclear weapons or landmines. There is no category of “space weapon.” Outer space could be exposed to the entire gamut of tools that states bring to bear in conflict, from electronic attacks to conventional weapons, directed energy, and cyber. Some of these weapons could be in space, but some of the gravest threats to space assets could come from weapons systems on Earth.

If outer space is to be treated as a domain of warfare, then binding rules that restrict the most harmful activities and protect essential services that operate from space are critical. The current focus to develop “rules of behaviour” or norms is essential for a sphere in which many users and uses co-exist. But more is needed to control the use of weapons in and against space.

A single tool or treaty will not likely be capable of preventing space weapons. Several distinct steps may be necessary. For example, there is interest in banning both the intentional destruction of objects on orbit and the use of anti-satellite weapons that create space debris. Such bans would address grave and present dangers.

Other positive actions:

  • define rules on close approaches to foreign satellites;
  • reinforce protections for critical systems, including those linked to GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) capabilities such as GPS, and nuclear command and control systems;
  • leverage capabilities for space situational awareness to provide international transparency and verification of objects and activities on orbit.

While the spirit of PAROS still has value and the principle of peaceful uses remains essential, we can no longer hope for one tool or method to resolve all the complex concerns in an outer-space domain that is used by some for warfare.

We still need arms control in space. But the way to achieve this is not necessarily by taking the path used in the past.

Photo: Some positive actions include protecting a Global Navigation Satellite System such as Galileo, which is a civilian system. GSA

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