The potential militarization or weaponization of space could become the biggest threat to its peaceful use and to the development of international cooperation. Over the recent 50 years, great progress has been achieved in the military, commercial, and scientific development of outer space, but it has not been transformed into a new field for potential armed conflict, largely due to an international agreement in place to prevent the worst.
The Outer Space Treaty (OST), formally the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, was opened for signature by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union – the three depository governments – on 27 January 1967, and entered into force on 10 October 1967. As of January 2017, 105 countries are parties to the Treaty, while another 24 have signed the treaty but have not completed ratification.
Hailed as the Space Magna Carta, the document forms the basis of international space law. The OST states that the exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit all countries and that space shall be free for exploration and use by all the States. It bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, including in orbit of the Earth, the Moon or any other celestial bodies, prohibits military activities on them, and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space. The Treaty states that the establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden (Article IV).
However, the OST does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit. It also does not prohibit the launching of ballistic missiles, which could be armed with WMD warheads, through space.
Today, the Treaty remains in force, but looks increasingly vulnerable as a protection against the militarization of Space. It’s an open secret there are apparent deficiencies in the existing outer space legal instruments in terms of preventing outer space weaponization and arms race and a lot is missing in regulating the commercialization and privatization of space activities.
An arms race in space looms large and the threat is real. A growing number of space objects lurk in space and there is ground to surmise that they are possibly waiting for commands to disable other satellites and start a star war.
The US National Space Policy states: «The United States remains committed to the use of space systems in support of its national and homeland security. The United States will invest in space situational awareness capabilities and launch vehicle technologies; develop the means to assure mission essential functions enabled by space; enhance our ability to identify and characterize threats; and deter, defend, and if necessary, defeat efforts to interfere with or attack US or allied space systems».
The US aims to combine the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) with its space and anti-missile technologies to form an integrated defense system, which could render other countries’ strategic weapons, including nuclear arms, almost useless.
The US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has been reported to reboot the concept of Airborne Laser by building a laser-armed aircraft that can shoot down ballistic missiles at the time they are the most vulnerable – just after launch – without having to come close and risk being shot down. The new idea is a high-altitude, long-endurance drone armed with a more compact electrically powered laser to be operational somewhere in the early 2020s.
The US Air Force's unmanned X-37B space plane has flown several secret missions to Earth orbit to date since 2010 each time carrying a mystery payload. Some experts believe it is «part of the Pentagon's effort to develop the capability to strike anywhere in the world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour», known as Prompt Global Strike».
The US is funding the development of the Spaceborne Payload Assist Rocket-Kauai (SPARK) launch system, designed to send miniaturized satellites into low-Earth and sun-synchronous orbits. Speedy replacement of disabled satellites in the event of attack is to secure the US military’s use of space constellations in support of operations during a conflict. In its efforts to rapidly launch swarms of miniaturized satellites on the cheap, the US military is also looking to leverage the private sector.
The reusable recovery of a SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has fundamentally changed the military balance of power and, perhaps inadvertently, launched the era of space militarization. According to Stratfor Global Intelligence (SGI), «the battle to militarize space has begun».
In December 2015, the US voted to abstain from a Russian proposal (the No First Placement of Arms in Outer Space) to ban weapons in space at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. Washington joined only Israel and Palau in opposing the ban. Finally, the resolution was adopted by the UN General Assembly. 129 nations, including China voted to adopt the measure.
US officials and outside experts have repeatedly rejected all initiatives to make progress on the way of preventing a potential arms race in space as disingenuous nonstarters. The United States asserts that such an agreement would be too difficult to verify and that no additional treaties on prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space are needed because there is currently no arms race in this domain.
The new US administration is prone to give a substantial boost to missile defense and military space programs. One of the significant changes that the incoming Trump administration is contemplating in defense is the development of space-based weapons. The voices calling for revival of the 1980s space militarization plans are getting louder. Defense Secretary James Mattis bigger investments into space exploration for defense purposes. According to Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, «While the specifics are yet to be fully known about Trump and Republican Congress plans for space weapons, there are some very disturbing initial recommendations that have been surfacing».
Deployed in space, weapons will destabilize global stability because they are global in scope and capable of covert and surprise attacks on any point on the planet at any point in time. All told, one willy-nilly comes to the conclusion that the United States is ready to pull the trigger at the time arms control regime is unraveling.
The military space programs of Russia and China space could be an incentive to make Washington agree to launch serious discussion on the issue before the process goes too far to make the space arms race impossible to stop. Washington should realize that if the worst happens, India, Brazil, Japan, Pakistan, and some other countries will join the race. With all the programs and plans underway to gain superiority, the US military greatly depends on the security of America satellites. Washington has the most to lose.
Only a new international agreement or introduction of amendments to the OST can prevent an arms space in the new domain. It could be on an international code of conduct (CoC) for outer space – informal means of preventing the militarization of space – not through full-fledged agreements, but through politically binding voluntary CoCs. It’s much better than nothing. The outer space militarization is too important to be sidelined. It would be right if the US, Russia and China put their differences aside and launched discussions on the issue.