Militarization and Weaponization of Outer Space

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  • by Anup Shah
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The exploration and use of outer space … shall be for peaceful purposes and shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development. … [The] prevention of an arms race in outer space would avert a grave danger for international peace and security

Prevention of an arms race in outer space, United Nations General Assembly Resolution, A/RES/55/32, January 2001. (PDF Document)

It’s politically sensitive, but it’s going to happen. Some people don’t want to hear this, and it sure isn’t in vogue, but—absolutely—we’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space. That’s why the US has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms. We will engage terrestrial targets someday—ships, airplanes, land targets—from space.

Commander-in-Chief of US Space Command, Joseph W. Ashy, Aviation Week and Space Technology, August 9, 1996, quoted from Master of Space by Karl Grossman, Progressive Magazine, January 2000

On this page:

  1. World Agrees: Space for peaceful purposes
  2. US Seeks Militarization of Space
  3. China and Space
  4. Militarization of Space for Economic Superiority
  5. An Arms Race?
  6. More Information

World Agrees: Space for peaceful purposes

Interntionally, for many years, it has been agreed that space should be used for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humankind. Examples of uses and benefits include weather monitoring, help in search and rescue, help in potential natural disaster detection, coordinating efforts on detecting and dealing with issues of space debris and minimizing harmful impacts on Earth, research in sciences, health, etc.

The United Nations (U.N.) Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework on international space law, saying that space should be reserved for peaceful uses. It came into effect in October 1967. As summarized by the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs web site, the treaty includes the following principles:

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
  • the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental activities;
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

Towards the end of 2000, the United Nations General Assembly had a vote on a resolution called the Prevention of Outer Space Arms Race. It was adopted by a recorded vote of 163 in favor to none against, with 3 abstentions. The three that abstained were the Federated States of Micronesia, Israel and the United States of America. (You can see the details from a U.N. press release, together with a list of countries that voted, were absent and so on.)

In June 2004, The United Nations reiterated concerns about the militarization of space and not being used for peaceful purposes in a U.N. General Assembly session:

The view was expressed that the [U.N.] Committee [on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space] had not been fulfilling the mandate given to it by the General Assembly in recommending ways and means of maintaining outer space for peaceful purposes. That delegation expressed the view that the Committee should address itself to that issue, since military activities in outer space were seriously affecting international cooperation in the exploration and peaceful uses of outer space.

Some delegations expressed the view that a greater risk of the introduction of weapons into outer space and the adoption of a concept of a use of force in outer space would undermine the basis for and the very logic of developing nonproliferation mechanisms and of the whole system of international security.

… The view was expressed that an international agreement should be concluded to prohibit the deployment of weapons in outer space.

Report of the Committee of the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, United Nations General Assembly, Fifty-eighth Session, Supplement No. 20 (A/58/20), 11 to 20 June 2003, pp. 7—8

Similar positions have been reiterated since, too. For example, October 2006 saw a near-unanimous vote at the General Assembly when 166 nations voted for a resolution to prevent an arms race in outer space. Only one country abstrained, Israel, while only one voted against such a resolution, the United States of America.

Whether the Committee can be effective, as the General Assembly desire, depends largely some some of the most powerful nations in the world.

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US Seeks Militarization of Space

While various militaries around the world have used Space for years, it has largely been for surveillance satellites etc.

However, the Bush Administration in the United States has long made it clear that the US wishes to expand its military capabilities and have weapons in space and therfore also be dominant in this fourth military arena (the other three being sea, land and air). This new ultimate high ground would provide further superior military capabilities.

While it would provide additional important defense mechanisms, many worry about the other benefit it would bring—capabilities for offensive purposes to push America’s national interests even if they are not in the interests of the international community.

Furthermore, together with its pursuit of missile defense, (which goes against the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, an important part of global arms control mechanisms), the USA risks starting a wasteful expenditure of an arms race in space.

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and the resulting War on Terror military-based policies and spending has increased. So too have the policies looking into space-based weapons. The Washington D.C.-based Center for Defence Information (CDI) provides a detailed report suggesting that this should not be a rushed decision:

Unlike in Star Trek, the final frontier has yet to become a battlefield. But if the current trends continue, that will change—not in the distance future of science fiction, but within the next several decades. Emerging Bush administration plans and policies are clearly aimed at making the United States the first nation to deploy space-based weapons. There are several drivers behind this goal, including the very real concern about the vulnerability of space assets that are increasingly important to how the US military operates, and the administration’s decision to pursue missile defense.

Unfortunately, the administration has done little thinking—at least publicly—about the potential for far-reaching military, political and economic ramifications of a US move to break the taboo against weaponizing space. There is reason for concern that doing so could actually undermine, rather than enhance, the national security of the United States, as well as global stability. Thus it behooves the administration, as well as Congress, to undertake an in-depth and public policy review of the pros and cons of weaponizing space. Such a review would look seriously at the threat, both short-term and long-term, as well as measures to prevent, deter or counter any future threat using all the tools in the US policy toolbox: diplomatic, including arms control treaties; economic; and military, including defensive measures short of offensive weapons. There is nothing to be gained, and potentially much to be lost, by rushing such a momentous change in US space policy.

Theresa Hitchens, Weapons in Space: Silver Bullet or Russian Roulette?, The Policy Implications of US Pursuit of Space-Based Weapons, Center for Defence Information, April 18, 2002

But because space-based weapons have been on the agenda long before September 11, and the War on Terror, the fight against terrorism is not the sole justification, though it may now add to the reasons. However, long before September 11, the concerns of the US’ motives for pursuing such policies have been questioned. The fear is that by seeking to create a dominant position in space, the US will become more powerful and others may be compelled to join an arms race in space.

The above-mentioned CDI report also points out that The Bush administration’s views were directly reflected in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released Oct. 1, 2001. A key objective … is not only to ensure US ability to exploit space for military purposes, but also as required to deny an adversary’s ability to do so, states the QDR. In this context then, space is no longer seen as the resource available for all of humanity, but another ground from which to fight geopolitical and economic battles.

The New York Times reported (May 18, 2005) that there is a further push by the US Air Force for weapons in space. Any deployment of space weapons would face financial, technological, political and diplomatic hurdles, although no treaty or law bans Washington from putting weapons in space, barring weapons of mass destruction, claims the Times. Yet, this news article appears to ignore the Outer Space Treaty mentioned above, or the Prevention of Outer Space Arms Race resolution, adopted by a recorded vote of 163 in favor to none against, with 3 abstentions (the US being one of those three). If technically there are no bans on weapons, then certainly such weaponization would go against the spirit of those treaties.

What the Times does mention, though, is that

  • There has been little public debate while the Pentagon has already spent billions of dollars developing space weapons … preparing plans to deploy them;
  • Air Force doctrine defines space superiority as freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack in space;
  • In April 2005, Gen. James E. Cartwright, who leads the United States Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services nuclear forces subcommittee that the goal of developing space weaponry was to allow the nation to deliver an attack very quickly, with very short time lines on the planning and delivery, any place on the face of the earth.

Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny…. Space superiority is our day-to-day mission. Space supremacy is our vision for the future.

General Lance Lord, head of US Air Force Space Command, quoted from Air Force Seeks Bush’s Approval for Space Weapons Programs, New York Times, May 18, 2005

On August 31, 2006, President Bush authorized a new national space policy, supersedeing the National Space Policy of September 14, 1996.

The policy was based on 8 principles. One was about supporting the peaceful use of space by all nations. However, Consistent with this principle, claimed the policy, peaceful purposes would allow U.S. defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests. Two other key principles noted the use of force, if needed to defend US interests:

The United States considers space capabilities—including the ground and space segments and supporting links—vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; 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;

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. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests;

Unclassified National Space Policy , Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the US President, October 6, 2006

Despite its commitment to peaceful use of space as stated in its policy, just a few weeks later, the US was the lone vote against such a resolution at the UN General Assembly (and has voted against such a measure in the past), as mentioned futher above. The policy therefore appears to meet the US Air Force’s desire for weapons in space. The fear is that others will take a similar view (using the rhetoric of protecting its own interest in space) and encourage an arms race.

For many, it may be shocking or disappointing that this might happen, but human history is littered with examples of poweful nations looking to consolidate their position to maintain their dominance which is a major reason for their wealth and success.

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China and Space

As noted further below, China is likely to be considered a possible adversary of the US in the future, and may be one of the countries that could threaten US dominance in space, even though for now it has constantly opposed the use of space for military purposes.

Countries that may either have their own power ambitions, feel threatened by the US, and/or are genuinely for peace, may all therefore have different reasons to want space used for peaceful purposes.

When China recently blew up one of its aging satellites with a medium-range ballistic missile, it caused mild panic and concern amongst US, UK and other circles. The immediate fear was that China was slowly flexing its muscles and that an arms race was now underway.

It was one of the first such acts since the 1980s when the Soviet Union and the US did such things. China is feared to be developing better weapons to do such things, and there was also concern that China didn’t inform anyone that it was doing this. This lack of openness is certainly a worry and smacks of hypocrisy for wanting a global treaty to ban weapons in space on the one hand and then using a weapon to blow up a satellite in space later. It may indeed be that China is sincere in pursuing a global ban, but its lack of transparency has certainly diminished confidence in that idea.

However, as the BBC noted, China’s actions may have been in response to Bush’s earlier declaration that they will seek to dominate space militarily and prevent a global treaty to ban weapons in space.

On the issue of space weapons, the US certainly risks the charge of hypocrisy, the BBC noted. From the US perspective, the announcement of [US policy against a global treaty banning weapons in space] was clearly a response to a perceived threat from China as well as an attempt to preserve the current US advantage in space. Yet, It may be that last week’s test is an attempt by China to push back at the US and put pressure on Washington to consider negotiating a treaty to ban weapons in space.

In addition, despite much of the mainstream media implying China had started an arms race, it could be thought that the US had already started it, and that unfortunately China decide to join in.

Furthermore, any talk of an immediate threat from China, or one that is not too far off, would seem irrational, as clearly the US arsenal far outweighs any Chinese capability for the short-term future. Thus, any intention China has would result in self-annihilation. The concern the US has then is the longer term. US build-up in the region, fermenting alliances (e.g. India), purportedly due to the War on Terror also serves to check China in a new Cold War as Maryann Keady notes.

As China and others increase in economic strength, investment in military and other such areas is going to increase. It is already recognized that China will be spending a lot more on military in coming years, but more to modernize rather than build up. However, in that process, it will likely gain a lot more capability, so people are watching with caution. India too has been investing in more space-based technologies and nuclear programs, which the US has been keen to get involved in. India, for its part has been only too happy for such assistance, even at the risk of neighboring tensions.

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Militarization of Space for Economic Superiority

With regard to space dominance, we have it, we like it, and we’re going to keep it. Space is in the nation’s economic interest.

Keith Hall, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space, Speech to the National Space Club in 1997. (Emphasis Added)

Most wars (hot wars, trade wars, cold wars etc) throughout history have had trade and resources at their core. (See the Military Expansion part of this web site for more on that perspective.) The military superiority of past and present nations has been to defend or expand such national interests. The militarization of space by the USA, even when there has been an international agreement to use space for peaceful purposes, as mentioned above, begs the question why?

On 16 January 1984, Reagan announced that Nineteen eighty-four is the year of opportunities for peace. War is Peace, as Orwell wrote in his satirical book [called 1984]. Peace through strength, peace through domination. It is clear to most of the world that the Son of Star Wars, the Nuclear Missile Defense option, is also not about defense, but it is another way for the US to exert its global hegemony. The NMD, as this history of the SDI shows us, is a political weapon to further US ends rather than enhance global security.

Vijay Prashad, Shooting Stars, June 15, 2001

While the answer from US authorities is usually along the lines of defensive purposes (as with the related issues of missile defense and star wars, as also discussed on this web site, in this section), many see the domination of space as the ability to maintain, expand and enforce those policies that will serve that national interest.

The US military explicitly says it wants to control space to protect its economic interests and establish superiority over the world.

Several documents reveal the plans. Take Vision for 2020, a 1996 report of the US Space Command, which coordinates the use of Army, Navy, and Air Force space forces and was set up in 1985 to help institutionalize the use of space.

The multicolored cover of Vision for 2020 shows a weapon shooting a laser beam from space and zapping a target below. The report opens with the following: US Space Command—dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict. A century ago, Nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests by ruling the seas, the report notes. Now it is time to rule space.

Karl Grossman, Master of Space, Progressive Magazine, January 2000

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An Arms Race?

How will the rest of the world take to being dominated from above? One doesn’t have to be particularly unfriendly to the US to feel uncomfortable. More naturally hostile or suspicious countries could well feel they have been given no choice but to develop their own antisatellite weapons in an attempt to blind US satellites, even though, since the US will far outspend them, the effort would become an ever receding goal. … It will not only make enemies where none exist, it will drive its Nato allies, already nervous and alarmed about the consequences of the ballistic missile shield plan, into a state of antipathy towards America.

Jonathan Power, Space—After Tito’s fun it might be Rumsfeld’s nightmare, Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, May 9, 2001

Additionally, the development of weapons in space risks leading to an arms race, as mentioned in the Star Wars section on this site, in discussing the development of missile defenses.

Currently, as CDI points out, the threat to US space-based interests is not as much as it is made out to be:

Vulnerabilities do not necessarily result in threats. In order to threaten US space assets, military or commercial, a potential adversary must have both technological capabilities and intent to use them in a hostile manner. There is little hard evidence that any other country or hostile non-state actor possesses either the technology or the intention to seriously threaten US military or commercial operations in space—nor is there much evidence of serious pursuit of space-based weapons by potentially hostile actors.

Currently, the simplest ways to attack satellites and satellite-based systems involve ground-based operations against ground facilities, and disruption of computerized downlinks. … It is obvious that the United States must ensure the integrity of its increasingly important space networks, and find ways to defense against threats to space assets. Still, there is little reason to believe that it is necessary for the US to put weapons in space to do so. Space warfare proponents are making a suspect leap in logic in arguing that space-based weapons are, or will soon be, required to protect the ability of the United States to operate freely in space. One could argue much more rationally that what is needed most urgently is to find ways to prevent computer network intrusion; to ensure redundant capabilities both at the system and subsystem level, including the ability to rapidly replace satellites on orbit; to improve security of ground facilities (perhaps moving to underground facilities); and to harden electronic components on particularly important satellites.

Furthermore, the evidence of actual space weapons programs by potential adversaries is thin.

Theresa Hitchens, Weapons in Space: Silver Bullet or Russian Roulette? The Policy Implications of US Pursuit of Space-Based Weapons, Center for Defence Information, April 18, 2002

However, fearful of the additional advantage, dominance and power the US will have, it is possible other nations may choose to develop their own systems to try and keep up or minimize the perceived threat. This will in turn make the US want to increase its expenditure even more, and so on, leading to an arms race, which risks leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy to justify continued expenditures.

Once testing [of space weapons] begins, the need for destructive capabilities in orbit induces a mindset opposed to rational restraint. The mindset becomes unassailable if testing is completed, for then the system must be deployed since, if we have developed the capability, others will want to follow suit and rapidly will do so.

Chief of Research, Colonel Daniel Smith, USA (Ret.), Space Wars, Center for Defense Information, February 2001.

While the US may possibly be able to afford this, for other nations to get involved into such expenditures will be costly indeed, especially most have other pressing priorities. (It is also somewhat questionable that even the US can afford this in the long term, but the influential US military industrial complex supports this and so tax payers money will help large military contractors, as also discussed in more detail on the Star Wars page on this site.)

(The star wars part of this section on this web site, also linked to from above, discusses more about the possibilities of an arms race and an impact on international relations.)

China and Russia would seem two of the most likely adversaries that might engage in such a space-based arms race. However, as the Monterey Institute for Internaional Studies in California notes, China has consistently opposed the weaponization of outer space in its official statements, and, along with Russia, has led the initiative to create an international treaty banning all weapons in space through negotiations within an ad hoc committee of the Conference on Disarmament.

It could be argued that these nations are only pursuing such a course because they fear the more powerful United States getting even more powerful. This view may take hold in nations such as the US that do not look at the Chinese regime favourably (though much criticism is definitely warranted.) On the other hand, if China is going down this path for self-interest or self-preservation concerns, then by pressing for a treaty to ban weapons in space, they are doing it in a way that will prevent them from using space for their own military advantage. With backing from the United States the desires of the world community to keep space for peaceful purposes could be realized. The various technical monitoring facilities that would need to be in place to ensure compliance would likely mean any nation with desires to deceptively pursure a space militarization program could be thwarted.

The US labels other nations that do not want to be part of the international system as rogue, yet one can’t help wonder how the US should be labeled on this issue, then.

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More Information

For more information, as well as the links above, you could start at the following:

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

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Document revision history

Note about China blowing up a satelite in space using a ballistic missile and the fear this could trigger an arms race
Note about new US National Space Policy
US Air Force seeks for weapons in space
Update United Nations raising concern about the militarization of space and on China consistently opposing weaponization space. In addition, a link for more information was added. Rest of page is still largley unchanged since the last update of April 20, 2002

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.