Opposing Weapons in Space

Tasneem Jamal

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2002 Volume 23 Issue 3

Throughout the winter of 1958, American President Dwight Eisenhower engaged in an exchange with Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin, debating the future of outer space. Their discussion followed the October 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik and the ensuing public uproar over outer space. Both the US and USSR had nuclear weapons and were developing ballistic missiles which would carry weapons through space.

At this critical juncture, the beginning of the space race, President Eisenhower argued:

I propose that we agree that outer space should be used only for peaceful purposes. We face a decisive moment in history in relation to this matter.… Should not outer space be dedicated to the peaceful uses of mankind and denied to the purposes of war? (1958)

Once again we are at a crossroads in the development of outer space. For 50 years it has been widely accepted that space is a global commons to be used solely for peaceful purposes. There is a broad international consensus opposing the weaponization of space and supporting the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to negotiate a legal instrument banning all weapons in space. Still, little progress has been made towards achieving this ban, while space has become increasingly militarized and the US is taking steps to make space weapons a reality. Coordinating the various voices of opposition will be the only way to block US plans to weaponize space.

Defining the issue

Since the early days of the space race the international community has referred to the use of ‘space for peaceful purposes’, and to the need to maintain a ‘space sanctuary’. But a distinction must be made between ‘militarization’ and ‘weaponization’ of space. Space has been ‘militarized’ since the earliest communications satellites were launched into orbit. Today, militaries worldwide rely heavily on satellites for command and control, communications, reconnaissance and monitoring, early warning, treaty verification, and navigation with the Global Positioning System (GPS). Therefore, states accept that ‘peaceful purposes’ include military use, even that which is not particularly peaceful, and space is considered a sanctuary only in that no weapons are deployed there.

Although space is heavily militarized, it is not yet weaponized. Space ‘weaponization’ is generally understood to refer to the placement in orbit of space-based devices that have a destructive capacity. Therefore, while satellites may be used for aggressive measures, such as GPS navigation of fighter jets or precision guided missile delivery, satellites themselves have no destructive capacity and their support of military operations would not be considered weaponization.

The Canadian government describes three categories of potential space weapons: space strike or orbital bombardment weapons that would operate in space but against land, sea, or air targets; anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons that would be used against enemy satellites; and finally, space-based variants of ballistic missile defence that would destroy ballistic missiles in the boost or mid-course phase. They would use directed energy, such as lasers or radio frequency, or direct impact with kinetic energy weapons, or conventional explosives in orbit to destroy the target. Defining ‘space’ is also an essential factor in this debate. Again, Canada assumes a simple definition: “a weapon is space-based if it orbits the earth at least once, or has or will acquire a stable station at some point beyond earth orbit” (Westdal 2001). Any legal mechanism to prohibit weapons in space must take into account the full potential for the development of space weapons, the scope of use, and their placement.

The regulation of space

The threat from uncontrolled military expansion into space was recognized very early in the space race and the international community responded with efforts to regulate this activity. Just months after President Eisenhower approached Bulganin to establish a bilateral mechanism, the UN General Assembly created the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. In 1962 the General Assembly adopted the “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space.” This resolution became the basis of negotiations in the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space of a multilateral mechanism regulating the use of space. The Outer Space Treaty entered into force in October 1967, becoming the first treaty governing access to space. It established the principle that outer space is not open to national appropriation but is a global commons free for the use of all states, and it codified the ‘peaceful use of outer space’, banning the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit and the establishment of military bases in space.

Nuclear weapons testing in outer space was banned by the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, in response to two series of space-based tests undertaken by the US and the Soviet Union in the early sixties. Several additional treaties and declarations were adopted in the 1970s, regulating space exploration and military activity in space. But none specifically addressed the deployment or use of weapons or added to the Outer Space Treaty. Unfortunately, technological developments since 1967 have left vast gaps in the Outer Space Treaty, opening the way for new space-based weapons unless the international community acts to prevent this.

The political context

The weaponization of space first appeared on the UN agenda in 1981 when the Conference on Disarmament was given the task of negotiating a treaty to regulate the military use of space in the resolution, Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). Although it was always a contentious subject, the CD made some progress in drafting a treaty until disagreement between China and the US in 1995 prevented consensus on the creation of the Ad Hoc committee which negotiated PAROS. Progress had been made on a Fissile Material Control Treaty, when China insisted that it would only negotiate that item if PAROS was completed in tandem. US opposition to PAROS blocked action on both items and the CD has remained effectively paralyzed since 1995. Despite the stalemate in the CD, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly continues to support the mandate; at the 2002 session the vote was 156 in favour of PAROS, zero against, with Israel and the US abstaining (UN General Assembly 2002).

The US maintains that it is “committed … to ensuring that exploration and use of outer space remain open to all nations for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of all humanity”(Javits 2002, p. 52). However, the US definition of ‘peaceful purposes’ includes national security. In CD debates the US argues that the current treaty regime is sufficient and there is no need to negotiate a PAROS treaty, since there is no threat of a space race.

Since coming into office, the Bush Administration has further hindered progress toward a space weapons ban. It has pursued a robust program of research and development for an integrated ballistic missile defence system which would provide ‘layered’ defences. Although plans are not yet finalized, ongoing research on the space-based laser and space-based kinetic kill vehicle suggest that this version of missile defence may include space-based components (Grahame 2002). In June 2002, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was dissolved by the US, who argued the treaty would restrict testing for the proposed missile defence system. For thirty years the ABM treaty had prohibited the USSR and US from developing space-based ballistic missile defences. Also in June, the Department of Defense announced plans to merge US Space Command (SPACECOM) with US Strategic Command, the command and control centre for US nuclear forces. This merger links early warning and space-based defence with the offensive capacity of strategic nuclear weapons, hinting at the role space may play in the future (US Dept. of Defense 2002).

The 1997 US SPACECOM document Vision for 2020 outlined a new military vision to dominate the space dimension and integrate space forces, in order to acquire “full spectrum dominance.” The position of SPACECOM has an influential supporter in the current Secretary of Defense. Donald Rumsfeld has strongly advocated national missile defence and has called for new measures to protect and promote US interests in space. Until he became Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld chaired The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization which, in its January 2001 report, warned: “If the US is to avoid a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on US space systems.” This perspective appears to be shaping Bush space policy.

The debate

The space weapons debate is generally perceived to be a face-off between idealists who seek a space sanctuary and American warmongers who see space as the ultimate high ground. Although it ultimately comes down to ‘for’ and ‘against’, in actuality there are multiple players in the space debate, each having a political, economic, or moral stake in the future of outer space. The scientific and commercial space sectors, the general public, nations with and without major interests in space, and various parties within the US itself have an interest in this debate.

National perspectives

State opposition to American intentions to weaponize space is led by China and Russia. Both states feel threatened by US military dominance and even more so by threats that the US will increase this strength with expansion into space. The antagonism between these three countries is most apparent in the stalled CD negotiations. On June 27 China and Russia presented a joint working paper to the CD, proposing a Treaty on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects. Should the US proceed with space weaponization, China has threatened to respond in kind, and Theresa Hitchens has argued: “It is almost inconceivable that either Russia or China would allow the United States to become the sole nation with space-based weapons” (2002, p. 29). The anticipated response of Russia and China, should the US take the provocative step of developing space weapons, is the basis for general belief that an arms race in space is a very real possibility.

Canada has a long established position in favour of a complete ban on space weapons, first expressed by Prime Minister Trudeau at the Second UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1982. Working through the CD, Canada continues to advocate a space weapons ban and supports resolution of the PAROS issue. Canada promotes an extension of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to include all space weapons, in order to prevent an arms race that could jeopardize civilian interests and peaceful military use of space (DFAIT).

The EU is also a strong advocate for a space weapons ban, and supported Canada’s position in a June 2001 Canada-EU Joint Statement on Non-Proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament. After the US, Europe has the greatest commercial and scientific interest in space. Historically, Sri Lanka and Egypt also have been outspoken on this issue, advocating the maintenance of space for peaceful purposes. Both nations benefit from peaceful space technologies for development projects and arms control.

American military perspectives

Although there is growing support for space weaponization amongst American military leaders and policy makers, this stance is not universally accepted in the US Department of Defense. Karl Mueller of RAND has described six perspectives found in American discourse – three in favour and three opposed to weaponization. Sanctuary idealists oppose the spread of weapons into any realm; internationalists believe space weapons might negatively effect international stability; and nationalists argue that space weaponization might enhance American military capabilities in the short term, but by provoking enemies and breaking technological barriers, it would make it easier for other nations to acquire the space weapons advantage. Nationalists ascertain that space weaponization would weaken American strength relative to the rest of the world, and that the US has the most to lose from a space race. On the other side, space racers accept that sanctuary is desirable, but argue that weaponization is inevitable and so the US should lead the way; space controllers believe there will be great military benefits from space weaponization and support US advancements in this area when feasible; and space hegemonists argue that space is the ‘ultimate high ground’ that should be controlled by the US with access denied to enemies (Mueller 2002).

Ongoing dialogue in the US Air Force, which overseas military space programs, has demonstrated this variety of perspectives. Lt. Col. Bruce DeBlois (1998) has determined that weaponizing space would be militarily and politically self-defeating, costly, and provocative to allies and enemies alike. Maj. William L. Spacey II (1999), USAF has examined the issue and argues that because the US has made such advancement in weapons development it need not feel threatened if other nations weaponize space first. He argues that space weapons would be costly, and there are ground-based options that might be just as effective, so pursuing space weapons programs makes little strategic sense.

The extremist position of the space hegemonists is seen in the literature of SPACECOM, but the prevalent view held by the military establishment appears to be the space race view. These people may or may not want the US to deploy space weapons, but are convinced others eventually will, so the US should lead the way to ensure the protection of its space interests and prevent a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’. Commenting on the likelihood that the US would one day require both space offenses and defenses, Gen Michael Ryan of the Air Force stated, “I think that eventually we are going to have to have capabilities to take things out in orbit.… And we had better not be second” (Aldinger 2001).

Commercial space

Commercial expansion into space is a rapidly growing area of development and financial investment. In 2001 the global satellite industry generated revenues of US$85.1 billion. Satellite usage for communications, remote sensing, navigation, and direct-to-consumer television generated $46.4 billion of that total. The commercial satellite industry is growing faster than any other space sector and this growth is forecasted to continue as demand increases for faster internet access, direct television, and wireless services (Futron Corp.).

Geo-stationary orbit is already crowded and space weapons which, if used, would spread fragments of debris widely, threaten the security of satellites. The mere testing of anti-satellite weapons could create large debris fields that could cause extensive damage. US Space Command’s Space Catalogue currently tracks some 8,700 man-made objects in orbit, ranging in size from 10-30 cm in lower earth orbit to over one metre in geo-stationary orbit. Approximately 94 per cent of this material is considered space debris and a hazard to space shuttles and satellites. With this material traveling at speeds upwards of 8 km/s, a collision would cause serious damage or even destruction (Merholz et al. 2002).

Deploying space weapons threatens the security of satellites and of access to outer space for commercial and civilian use. But the commercial satellite sector has remained remarkably quiet in the debate about the weaponization of space. Clay Moltz (2002) has argued that this silence is the result of conflicts of interest between corporations with both military and commercial investment in space, and a general disbelief that the US will seriously pursue the development and deployment of space weapons.

Scientific sector

The world has benefitted greatly from exploration and research in space; and at the core of all commercial and military space development is a legacy of scientific experimentation. Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada have strong space programs, all emphasizing scientific discovery, and there is increased international cooperation in this area. The great benefits nations derive from space science and an improved understanding of the earth and the universe lend weight to the need to prevent space weaponization.

Committed to separating the military and civilian space programs, the Eisenhower government in 1958 passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). Despite this technical separation, there is close cooperation between NASA and the Department of Defense, so consequently NASA has not protested space weaponization openly. But as space weapons research and development becomes a budget priority, and should NASA programs suffer as a result, opposition might be more evident. However, many individual American scientists and astronauts publically support the maintenance of a global commons free of weapons. Notably, Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female in space and current director of the University of California’s Space Institute, has stated that the testing and use of anti-satellite weapons would be “disastrous” (Levy 2002).

The public debate

As technology assumes an increasingly important role in our society, so does outer space. Satellites are essential for modern communication – wireless services, the internet, and satellite television. Remote sensing provides input for development and agricultural projects, to monitor weather and climate change, and to map natural and man-made disasters like forest fires, oil spills, and floods. And there is untold potential for further development of space technologies for peaceful purposes. A space weapons ban would preserve space for uses that benefit society.

The general public is not yet actively participating in the weaponization of space debate, despite its obvious interest in the outcome. Reagan’s “Star Wars” program and ballistic missile defence have reached the popular media, but the broader issue has not been given much attention. Non-governmental organizations have become engaged in the issue and are working to raise awareness about ongoing developments in the American space program and the political debate over space. Because of the benefits the public gains from space development, and the potential losses if this environment were weaponized, it is essential that the public join the call for a space weapons ban.

Space is the only realm in our universe where weapons have not yet been deployed. Unlike any arms control effort in history, a ban on space weapons would not be a disarmament treaty, but a preventative measure. It would stop the spread of weapons into the sanctuary of space, prevent an arms race, and prevent one state’s domination of the global commons.



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Eisenhower, Dwight 1958, January 13, letter to Nikolai Bulganin, Chairman, Council of Ministers, USSR.

Futron Corp., 2001-2002 Satellite Industry Indicators Survey, prepared for the Satellite Industry Association.

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