Is Weaponization of Space a Reality? Taking Stock of the Outer Space Treaty

Is Weaponization of Space a Reality? Taking Stock of the Outer Space Treaty

As we celebrate another anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) signed amongst member states of the United Nations in 1967, it is rather important to remember that the OST bans the placement of nuclear and/or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space. That has not, however, stopped states from utilizing low Earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous orbit (GEO) for military communications, including nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3), in aiding missile tracking, and for supporting autonomous predator drone systems. Consequently, space is playing a critical role in augmenting joint warfare and has made it into the military space doctrines of major space-faring nations such as the US, China, and Russia.

The US, China, Russia, and India have all tested Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASAT) designed to destroy satellites, so much so that testing an ASAT system has become a norm for receiving recognition as a major space power as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi indicated in a tweet celebrating India’s achieving this status when the country demonstrated its ASAT capability on March 27, 2019. While the US has declared a unilateral moratorium on ASAT testing, other countries have not followed suit. Moreover, getting consensus at the United Nations on issues such as an ASAT test ban, tighter control of the national security uses of space, and limiting or ensuring against the weaponization of space has proven difficult. Countries are increasingly wary of signing onto legally binding treaties that could limit their right to self defense under Article 51 of the United Nations charter. A country like Russia with revisionist territorial goals, or like the United States which wants to ensure its space forces have adequate support to secure space assets, or like China with its Taiwan scenario whereby its space assets play a critical role in case there is an escalation of that conflict will hesitate to tie themselves onto binding UN-originated regulations in this regard.

What this implies is that, in case of conflict on Earth, a country’s space assets are legitimate targets during the course of a war. Moreover, countries are viewing the commercial space assets of other countries as legitimate targets given their supporting roles in governments’ national security efforts. Chinese military writings have identified SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation as a legitimate military target given its support to US efforts in Ukraine as China envisions a similar future joint effort in space between the US military and Starlink in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.

Critically, the OST’s anniversary should make us realize that the increasing focus on strategic points in space like the Earth-Moon Lagrange points and developing access to cislunar space (space between the Earth and the Moon) are resulting in the development of military doctrines that aim to develop space into overall grand strategic postures and comprehensive national power. The move towards permanent settlements on the Moon, lunar and asteroid mining, etc. are space developments that the OST did not anticipate at the time of its drafting and therefore is perhaps not equipped to handle given its core focus on a general ban on WMDs and national appropriation of territory, the later aspect of appropriation developed by the US and the erstwhile USSR (Soviet Union) to ensure that neither of them could lay claim to the Moon in case one reached it before the other. Such narrow ideological self-interests that informed the OST drafting and ratification will now have to adapt to the changing reality of space, moving merely from geopolitical imaginations and demonstrations of ideological power to becoming more about the economic development of space based on the utilization of space resources.

China has one such ambitious space program focused on space resource utilization and development. These ambitions have been supported by the development of Chinese military space capacities to include ASATs, rendezvous and proximity operations, robotic arms that can grab an adversary’s satellite both in LEO and GEO, and laser weapons. China has about 350 nuclear warheads of which 75 are hypersonic. In July 2021, China tested a nuclear-capable fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBs) that traversed LEO. That could imply an escalation in space-capable weaponization specifically to demonstrate China’s growing space capacity.

All these developments imply that major powers can showcase space-based capacities that might go against OST principles but are explained away as national security requirements in line with Article 51 of the UN charter which reads, “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security…”

Given these developments, certain steps should be adopted to ensure that countries’ uses of space—while remaining supportive of military space operations—do not result in a drive for space weaponization which could have unintended consequences.

First, bilateral agreements should be signed between states to agree not to target space assets, which results in space debris.

Second, unilateral moratoriums on ASAT weapons should be applauded and viewed as a norm that should cascade amongst major space powers.

Third, access to space should remain free and equitable for all. However, an insistence on complete benefit sharing from space resource utilization could result in nations refusing to bind themselves onto agreements that could become costly in the long run. Instead, binding states to responsible behavior in space without insistence on benefit sharing is one way forward. Otherwise, states will insist on viewing space as part of their national security interests and view benefit-sharing arrangements as a threat to their ability to individually maneuver.

Fourth, a clear map on what weapons constitute space weapons and why they could prove costly needs to be objectively developed. This would require a third-party independent institution to do such data collection and verification, ensuring objective assessment.

Fifth, while the OST is a great relic of Cold War times, it’s important to have an international agreement more in tune with contemporary times that accounts for the growth of independent private actors in space, to move from an arms control ethos to a space development and utilization discourse, and to develop economic-based regulations that ensure responsibility. That is perhaps the only way forward.


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Image: The U.S. military’s Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite is launched on a Minotaur IV rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, USA on September 25, 2010. Senior Airman Andrew Lee.