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Space without Weapons

CONGO Forum on Civil Society and Outer Space: "Where do we stand on using outer space for peaceful purposes?" Vienna, October 8-9, 2007

Threat of Weaponisation

Rebecca Johnson PhD, The Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy

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Thanks and tribute to CONGO for your initiative in convening this excellent conference to mark the important 40th anniversary of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

I have been asked to address the 'Threat of Weaponisation', so the first question to ask is whether there is a threat of weaponisation of space and if so, from where it arises and how seriously it should be taken.

In August 1996, General Joseph W. Ashy, Commander-in-Chief of US Space Command (CINCSPACE), said, "We're going to fight a war in space. We're going to fight from space and we're going to fight into space..."[1]

The weaponisation of space would require both intention and a sophisticated level of technological capabilities and infrastructure. At present, the 2007 Space Security Index indicates that the United States dominates in terms of technology, pushing at the boundaries of several types of weapons developments. Of increasing concern, the United States also appears to have the intention of weaponising space, although there is by no means consensus either politically or militarily that this would be a good thing.

Combined with the drive towards ballistic missile defences, the threat of space weaponisation comes primarily from the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party, elements within the Pentagon's Strategic Command and sections of the US armaments and aerospace industries. Since then, a variety of different technologies and missions have been canvassed in a range of SpaceCom and StratCom documents. One of the most influential, the Rumsfeld Space Commission, concluded that space interests were a top national security priority and that the US must ensure continuing superiority in space capabilities in order "both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space", including "uses of space hostile to US interests".[2] The Commission argued that US military capabilities would need to be "transformed" and upgraded to provide modernised, efficient and cost-effective ways to maximise US space control capabilities and to deny such capabilities to potential adversaries. Seven missions were specifically identified: assured access to space and on-orbit operations; space situational awareness; earth surveillance from space; global command, control and communications in space; defence in space; homeland defence; power projection in, from and through space.[3]

The weaponisation of space was, for some, both a natural progression from the aim of providing multi-tiered ballistic missile defences (land, sea, air, with space as the fourth tier, also described as the 'fourth medium of warfare') and an objective in its own right. Responsible in 1996 for around 64% of world expenditure on the commercial uses of space and over 90% of world expenditure on military space assets, the US proponents of space weaponisation advanced three motivations: control - that controlling space offers unrivalled military and commercial advantage on Earth; vulnerability - that reliance on space assets presents particular vulnerabilities; and inevitability - that weapons in space follow from land, sea and air developments (the historical "flag follows trade" analogy of sea and air power, relating military development to the safeguarding of commercial expansion), and that it would be to the US' advantage to be first.[4] The main driver is US dependence on its military space assets for fighting conventional wars on Earth, which carries the fear and vulnerability that an adversary may use anti-satellite (ASAT) warfare to neutralise US military dominance or even defeat US forces.[5] This, in essence, is the "Space Pearl Harbor" scenario that the Rumsfeld Commission used to send shivers up the spines of US leaders and politicians.[6]

To answer my first question: It appears quite clear from the documents and statements put out by the Bush administration during its first six years that an influential cadre has been pushing for the United States to design and deploy weapons for use in and from space. But despite the desire, the weaponisation of space is far from being a fait accompli. First, Congress has proved less than persuaded of the need, particularly in view of high costs and technological hurdles. (Add to this, their concerns about the overstretch of the US budget with the war on Iraq, and in that context weaponising space is not a priority.) Moreover, some sceptics have voiced the conclusion that the weaponisation of space is only inevitable if the US itself drives a race to do so.

History abounds with examples showing that the security advantage enjoyed by the leader in innovative military technology is soon narrowed.[7] Alternative analogies, based on a military interpretation of the concept of sanctuary, show how co-operative international action can be successful in preventing military competition and deployments from threatening a potentially strategic area of international and scientific importance, as in the case of Antarctica.

The pace and drive towards weaponisation by the United States is less than it appeared 5 years ago, but the predicted 'hedging of bets' by others in reaction to the Bush administration's push has begun. Therefore, though there may be more time to find diplomatic solutions to prevent weaponisation, a growing number of players may be investing in space weapons technologies and options.These developments may provide incentives and disincentives - they may facilitate and also complicate negotiations.

Only a handful of countries has launch capabilities and therefore the technical infrastructure to put weapons in space. These are: the United States, Russia, Ukraine, China, India, Israel, and France/ESA (European Space Agency members, who use the launch site in French Guyana). Others have ballistic missile capabilities and a growing number are developing significant military assets in space to support their military forces.

Since 1999, China and Russia have pursued a diplomatic track, trying to get the Conference on Disarmament to convene negotiations on a new treaty to ban all weapons in space. In view of persistent dismissals by the United States, however, both appear to also be pursuing technologies to counter, disable, evade or attack any potential US threat in or from space.

China's ground-to-space destruction of its own satellite on January 11, 2007, widely regarded as an ASAT test, gave indication of its capability to conduct ASAT missions. As noted by the Space Security Index 2007, China's test "demonstrates the country's advanced tracking, targeting and precision guidance capabilities in space, as well as its ability to use those technologies for space negation purposes". But this must also not be exaggerated: what China accomplished was on the level of US and Russian ASAT testing in the 1980s. The cold war powers discontinued such tests because hits on satellites created an uncontrollable debris problem. China's strike likewise proved to be a two-edged sword: while it may have fed into the SpaceCom agenda of frightening Americans into the weaponisation lobby, it also reminded the world of the dangerous, indiscriminate consequences and folly of physical ASAT attacks. If neutralising or negating military space power is the aim, it would be far cleverer and more accessible to jam or disable the telemetry, communication links and ground stations. Some Americans already refer to such threats as 'weaponisation of space', but though they target the operations of space-based military assets, such threats do not involve weapons in or from space, which is what I shall focus on in the next section.[8]

Types of weapons

Space weapons may be grouped as 'space systems negation' - essentially ASAT - or 'space based strike systems' (SBSS), defined as operating "from Earth orbit with the capability to damage or destroy either terrestrial targets (land, sea or air) or terrestrially launched objects passing through space (e.g. ballistic missiles) via the projection of mass or energy".[9] In addition to a range of electronic technologies that could disable or negate satellite based information, physical ASAT could be either space based or ground based. SBSS encompass space strike weapons from space-based platforms (SSW) or weapons in orbit trained on targets anywhere on earth, known as 'orbital bombardment systems' (OBS). Space weapons, including ASAT and space-based ballistic missile defence (BMD) weapons are envisaged in the form of directed energy weapons (DEW), such as laser, or kinetic energy weapons (KEW) that use the speed of collision to destroy or disable. Conventionally-armed interceptors that could explode on impact add to the kinetic kill (KKW) capabilities. Micro-satellites are receiving increasing attention both as a potential protector of high value space assets (through a 'swarm' providing space situational awareness and potential defence) and also as a potential ASAT threat, capable of interfering with, disabling or even destroying an adversary's satellites.

Nuclear explosions in space would also serve as a potent weapon to knock out an adversary's targeting or communications satellites - with the inconvenient drawback that any high altitude nuclear detonation (HAND) would create an indiscriminate electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) likely to damage or disable all assets within range, including the perpetrator's, unless expensively shielded in advance. Though states are prohibited from deploying or using nuclear weapons in space by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and banned from conducting nuclear explosions in space by the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which has not yet entered into force), the threat of HAND needs to be factored in, pending greater universality and strengthening of these treaty regimes.

As noted by the Space Security Index for 2007, the United States has undertaken some research (with varying degrees of success) in many different aspects of space negation and space strike weapons. Russia has explored these technologies in the past and is thought to be reviving its capabilities as its economic fortunes improve. China appears to be pouring resources into both civilian and military space projects. Though few have ASAT, HAND or space weapons capabilities, "a growing number of countries are developing an increasing number of advanced space-based strike enabling technologies through other civil, commercial and military programmes". [10] These enabling technologies are dual use - none is dedicated solely to SBSS, but they "bring actors technologically closer to such a strike capability".[11] They include: precision position manoeuvrability; High-G and large delta-V thrusters; global positioning; missile warning, tracking and homing; launch on demand; micro satellites design, construction and launch; high-power laser; high-power generation; large-aperture deployable optics and precision attitude control; and precision guidance, including re-entry technologies.[12]

Weaponisation of Space: Creating new threats through bad policy

The pursuit of missile defences could increase nuclear threats by creating an escalating offence-defence spiral, not only in production of weaponry, but also in operational situations, which could be particularly destabilising and dangerous in times of crisis. The use of space for targeting conventional forces may already provoke asymmetric threats, particularly through hacking, jamming or attacks to disable ground stations.

A number of adverse security consequences are foreseeable if space were to be weaponised. It could exacerbate the threats from space debris and EMP and provoke other space-faring nations to deploy weapons for use in, to or from space.

In computer wargame trials conducted by the Pentagon a few years ago, the use of weapons in space (including anti-satellite weapons) led inexorably to the use of nuclear weapons and therefore to nuclear war on the ground. Losing one's space-based 'eyes and ears' appeared to cause miscalculations that led to rushed, panicky 'use them or lose them' decisions being made, with devastating consequences.

Even if weaponising space did not lead directly to nuclear war - with the inevitable catastrophic consequences for humankind - it would create a situation of widespread distrust. It could also impede international cooperation in areas related to space technology and developments, including commercial enterprises and space exploration.

In addition, to protect against asymmetric threats, there is the likelihood of the imposition of further military secrecy and draconian policing near facilities that support the US missile defence programme, including Fylingdales and Menwith Hill in England and Thule in Greenland, and, potentially at sites in Poland or the Czech Republic that might be developed for US bases with missile interceptors and sophisticated tracking and targeting radar. In addition, the possibility of US missiles based on former Warsaw Pact territory has now provoked Moscow to warn that if US plans for bases in Eastern European countries go ahead, Russia may withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty of 1990 and from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. A recent Russian threat to redeploy medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe is being taken seriously.

Our development of and access to the benefits from space-based capabilities risk being seriously, perhaps irrevocably disrupted if space is turned into a potential or actual battleground. The Chinese ASAT test and Russia's responses to the threatened siting of missile interceptors and missile defence tracking and targeting facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic provide tremors of the adverse consequences of the very idea of space weaponisation, even if due to its cost, technological challenges or political opposition it ends up not being actualised.


Space can provide unparalleled resources for supporting our security in relation to humanitarian and environmental crises and diverse natural, criminal and military threats. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that potential misuses of space assets could turn outer space into a battlefield: such abuses would threaten global security as well as compromising a range of civilian and security applications on which our daily lives now rely.

1. We need to prioritise the collective, cooperative prevention of the weaponisation of space, with timely development of international legal instruments and agreements to ensure that no weapons are tested or deployed for use in, to or from space. Prevention and prohibition of weapons in and from space is cleaner, clearer and safer than belated attempts at disarmament or non-proliferation would be in left for the future to deal with. Operating within the multilateral framework, it is now urgent that we develop a strategy to reinforce the outer space security regime and prohibit the weaponisation of space.[13]

2. Countries with space assets and dependencies need to take seriously their active protection, through both technological and political initiatives. Useful approaches would include

a. passive defences such as hardening and shielding, and enhancing space situation awareness capabilities; and

b. the development and coordination of policies and strategies to play a more significant and effective role in strengthening the international legal regime and promulgating 'rules of the road' for space activities and uses.

3. More open, transparent, and rational analysis of the actual threats, prospects of, and alternatives to, missile defences and the weaponisation of space, including analysis - whether in the CD or some other forum - of the implications of certain policy routes for human, international and space security.


Instead of turning to the sledgehammer of space weaponisation to deal with the potential vulnerabilities of space assets, a more sensible approach (and one consistent with the United Nations Charter) would combine arms control efforts with the technical hardening and shielding of as many satellites as possible, plus space situation awareness, redundancy and other 'passive' defence means. Progress in nuclear disarmament, strengthening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), negotiating a nuclear weapons convention, further efforts to restrict missile proliferation, building on the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCoC) would also contribute to security and reduce the chances of space becoming a battleground - which would be in nobody's interests.

[1] Former commander-in-chief of SPACECOM, General Joseph W. Ashy (CINCSPACE), quoted in 'USSC Prepares for Future Combat Missions in Space', William B. Scott, Aviation Week & Space Technology, August 5, 1996.

[2] Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organisation, Washington D.C. (Public Law 106-65), January 11, 2001, pp 7-10. This Commission is usually referred to as the Rumsfeld Commission on Space, after its Chair Donald Rumsfeld became the Bush administration's first Defense Secretary.

[3] Ibid. p 16.

[4] Lt. Col. Peter L. Hays, United States Military Space: Into the Twenty-First Century, INSS Occasional Paper 42, (Colorado, Institute for National Security Studies, September 2002).

[5] To this must be added the objectives of power projection and military control: "As space systems become lucrative military targets, there will be a critical need to control the space medium to ensure US dominance on future battlefields... to ensure space superiority." In 1997 and 1998, US SpaceCom raised the stakes with two publications that pushed for US forces to be configured to provide "full spectrum dominance". US Space Command foresaw a role for itself in "dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US national interests and investment...[and] integrating space forces into war-fighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict." United States Space Command, Vision for 2020 (1997); and Long Range Plan, Executive Summary, (March 1998). See also the 1996 National Space Policy; the 1999 Department of Defense Space Policy; The US Air Force Strategic Master Plan for FY02 and Beyond; the Defense Department's 2001 Transformation Study Report; and the 2001 and 2006 Quadrennial Defense Reviews and the October 2006 National Space Policy.

[6] The Rumsfeld Space Commission concluded that space interests were a top national security priority and that the US must ensure continuing superiority in space capabilities in order "both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space", including "uses of space hostile to US interests".

[7] The history of nuclear weapons, for example, demonstrates how any benefit from being the first to deploy a new type of weapon is quickly eroded, leading to greater national and international insecurity in the longer run.

[8] Note re dual use character of most space technologies and assets and distinctions between militarisation of space - already significant - and weaponisation, which most think has not yet occurred.

[9] Space Security 2007, p 138.

[10] Ibid. p 141.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. pp 141-144.

[13] The annual UN Resolution entitled Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), which traditionally used to receive consensus, still receives overwhelming support, though changes in US policy destroyed the consensus. In December 2006, for example, the PAROS resolution (UNGA 61/58) received 178 votes in favour. Only the United States voted against, and Israel abstained. The exact same voting tally was received by a second space-security resolution calling for 'Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space' (UNGA 61/75).

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