US National Space Policy: Weaponizing Space?

Tasneem Jamal

Jessica West

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2006 Volume 27 Issue 4

October 4-10 marked World Space Week, designated by the United Nations General Assembly “for the yearly celebration at the international level of the contribution that space science and technology can make to the betterment of the human condition,” with the objective of “increasing awareness among decision makers and civil society of the benefits of the peaceful uses of space science and technology for sustainable development” (UNISPACE III 1999, Section II). During this year’s celebrations, the United States quietly released the unclassified version of the revised US National Space Policy. Although the launch of this new policy initially went unnoticed by mainstream media and the public, international attention is quickly growing with the realization that it may call into question the future use of space for peaceful purposes.

US National Space Policy: 1996 and 2006

The revised National Space Policy is being touted by the White House as a continuation of the principles and priorities established in the 1996 Policy of the Clinton Administration. A close examination, however, reveals important changes in language and emphasis, which reflect the Bush Administration’s shift towards a unilateralist approach to space, with greater emphasis on national security, further opening the possibility that space will be weaponized.1

The policy opens with the declaration that “those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not” (Government of the United States 2006, Section 1). It links national security to a greater array of goals in space, including strengthening space leadership, developing a globally competitive commercial space sector, science and technology development, and international cooperation (Section 3). There is also consistent emphasis on the need for US “freedom of action” in space, and a clear rejection of “any limitations on the fundamental right of the United States to operate in and acquire data from space” (Section 2). Further, the revised policy now declares that “the United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space” (Section 2).

The prominence given to national security, US unilateral action, and free operations in and through space creates a perspective on space as “a game of ‘every man for himself’” that largely denies the rights of other states (Hitchens 2006). With the assertion that the US will “take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests” (Section 2), the revised policy suggests that the current Administration is serious about deploying weapons to defend its space assets.

Space weapons technology development

While the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which has been ratified by the United States, bans weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear weapons, in space, many other types of space weapon are not regulated by international arms control treaties. Space-based weapons are able to attack targets either in space or on Earth. Weapons designed to specifically target satellites are commonly referred to as anti-satellite weapons (ASATs). The US leads in the rapid development of precursor technologies for space weapons, but Russia and, to a lesser extent, China are also pursuing space weapons capabilities.

One focus of US weapons technology research is space-based interceptors (SBIs) for ballistic missile defence (BMD) ( 2006, Chapter 8). Mass-to-target interceptors use objects to directly hit targets. Energy-to-target interceptors use energy such as lasers, microwaves, or particle beams to disable a target.

Other technologies for potential space weapons involve ASATs. Although the most common types of ASAT are Earth-based, precursor technology for space-based ASATs is developing rapidly. Notable are microsatellites, which are difficult to detect and can be maneuvered close to a target satellite ( 2006, Chapter 7). Thus far no space-based weapons have been deployed, but the possibility of launching them was opened under the 1996 National Space Policy. This option has been further widened in the revised language of the current US Administration.

A policy divide: weapons versus cooperation

From the perspective of those who have struggled for decades to prevent the weaponization of space, the new policy is disheartening. But even though the language of cooperation is significantly toned down, the 2006 policy (Section 5) does identify new areas for military cooperation with foreign entities, in particular the sharing of intelligence and capacity for space situational awareness. Moreover, the US will continue to cooperate internationally on space exploration, space surveillance, and Earth observation systems (Section 6).

The National Space Policy may take an aggressive stance on military uses of space, but overall it reflects a Government that is divided over the best means to secure itself in space, whether through confrontation or cooperation. This divide has produced caution in lawmakers when considering space weapons. For example, in May 2006 the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces banned the Pentagon from using certain funds for the development of anti-satellite capabilities and space-based interceptors out of a concern that enemy assets could be targeted and that such targeting would arouse international response (Harrington 2006, p. 6). In practice this divide can be further discerned in the dual tendencies of the United States to hinder some aspects of international cooperation and to pursue others.

Unwilling to engage international cooperation to prevent the weaponization of space, the United States voted against a resolution in the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) (A/RES/60/54) for the first time in 2005. In the 2006 sessions of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the First Committee, it continued to prevent the negotiation of a PAROS treaty and insisted that it will continue to consider the role of space weapons in protecting space assets (Delegation of the US 2006; US Mission to the UN 2006).

Other actions indicate an approach to space security that is more inclined towards cooperation and confidence building. In September 2006 the Chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made a historic visit to China, and there have been subsequent indications that the US and China will continue discussions on civil space cooperation (Space Daily 2006). The head of US Strategic Command, General Cartwright, has called for cooperation with Russia and China on military space, with the express purpose of pursuing transparency and preventing misunderstanding (Singer 2006). These are encouraging signs.

The move towards space weapons is a response not only to a desire for space domination, but also to perceived threats and fear of attack. Whether or not weapons are ever deployed will depend in some part upon the actions and signals of other states to accelerate or allay this fear. Transparency and confidence-building measures can secure for all parties a greater sense that their space assets are safe without resorting to space weapons.

The way forward

While the new policy closes the door on an international treaty to ban space weapons, the international community should pursue avenues for cooperation to build collective security in space through relationships that emphasize trust and transparency, and exploit the divide in US opinion on space weapons. In the 2006 session of the UN First Committee, Russia sponsored a draft resolution on the development of confidence-building measures in space, which has been signed by, among others, six member states of NATO (UNGA 2006).2 Although the US voted against a similar initiative last year, this resolution, which has strong support from other states, provides an opportunity to pursue non-weaponization while avoiding the need for a treaty.

Civil society is also leading the effort to develop alternative ways to maintain a weapons-free, secure space. The Henry L. Stimson Center (2005) has developed a Code of Conduct for Responsible Space Faring Nations that would establish an agreement on ‘rules of the road,’ for peaceful operations in space. Moreover,, to which Project Ploughshares belongs, produces the Space Security Index, which aims to bring clarity to policy discussions on space weapons by providing facts and objective analysis, and by linking the issue to wider concerns of secure and peaceful access to space, including commercial use, global utilities, and civil exploration. These efforts must continue, and they must be supported.

“Inevitability” is misguided

At present there are no weapons in space, and despite legitimate fears stemming from the revised language of the US National Space Policy, much can be done to maintain the status quo.

Recently the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence (2006, p. 81) declared that “weapons in space are inevitable.” This conclusion is misguided and unconstructive. Through increased cooperation on both civil and military space issues, and efforts by both governments and civil society to build trust and confidence, World Space Week can continue to celebrate the peaceful uses of outer space, and the National Security Policy can revert to being a blip on space radar.



  1. For a detailed comparison of the two policies, see Katz-Hyman 2006.
  2. The NATO states are Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands.


Delegation of the United States of America to the Conference on Disarmament 2006. June 13.

Government of the United States. 2006. U.S. National Space Policy.

Harrington, Caitlin. 2006. US stays firm on right to defend space assets. Jane’s Defence Weekly. 23:28, July 12.

Hitchens, Theresa. 2006. The Bush National Space Policy: Contrasts and contradictions. Center for Defense Information. October 13.

Katz-Hyman, Michael. 2006. The Bush National Space Policy: Freedom of Action, Not Diplomacy. October 10. The Henry L. Stimson Center.

Henry L. Stimson Center. 2005.Model Code of Conduct for the Prevention of Incidents and Dangerous Military Practices in Outer Space.

Singer, Jeremy. 2006. Cartwright seeks closer ties to China, Russia. Space News. October 16.

Space Daily. 2006. China, U.S. to meet every year for space cooperation. October 12. 2006. Space Security 2006. Waterloo: Project Ploughshares.

Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. 2006. Managing Turmoil: The Need to Upgrade Canadian Foreign Aid and Military Strength to Deal with Massive Change. October 2006.

Third United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE III). 1999. The Space Millennium: Vienna Declaration on Space and Human Development. July.

United Nations General Assembly. 2005. Prevention of an arms race in outer space. A/RES/60/54, December 8.

United Nations General Assembly. 2006. Transparency and confidence building measures in outer space activities. A/C.1/61/L.36, October 11. Available at Reaching Critical Will.

United States Mission to the United Nations. 2006. Statement by Robert L. Luaces, Alternate Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations. October 11.

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