Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
back to the acronym home page
WMD Possessors
About Acronym

Space without Weapons

Ballistic Missile Defence and the Weaponisation of Space

Back to the main page on Space without Weapons


After withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in June 2002, the United States is pushing ahead to develop and deploy ballistic missile defences (BMD). Moreover, having jettisoned the limited 'national missile defence' (NMD) concept fostered by the Clinton administration, President George W. Bush on May 1, 2001, outlined his vision of a multi-tiered and layered missile defence "system of systems", to utilise "all available technologies and basing modes for effective missile defenses that could protect the United States, our deployed forces, our friends and allies". Bush now wants support and participation from US allies and friends, starting with NATO and Japan, but what are the implications for international arms control and security, especially with regard to outer space, on which a growing number of countries are dependent for communications, banking, navigation and entertainment?

There are important members of the Bush administration who are ideologically committed to deploying missile defences, but for many in the US Congress, President Clinton's four criteria are still relevant: there must be a significant threat; the technology must be appropriate to the threat and work effectively; the chosen architecture must be affordable; and missile defence development and deployment must not decrease or destabilise international security. Though September 11th seemed to dispose of the opposition to missile defence, there are many ways in which the US's friends and allies can promote greater debate on these issues internationally, and thereby foster a healthier, less ideological debate within the United States.

Restating the four criteria, the central issues are:

1) Assessment of the Threats

Is there a serious missile threat, and if so, what is its nature?

Can it be effectively addressed with BMD?

Can it be effectively addressed without BMD?

Comparing missile threats with other security threats, is BMD a sensible, security-effective use of financial, military and technical resources?

Could BMD create new, worse threats?

2) Technology/Cost

Can BMD technology be made to work: affordably? reliably?

If affordable and feasible for the US, what would be the costs and benefits for others?

3) Countermeasures and Military Consequences

What kind of countermeasures might be expected, and how easily would they be deployed?

What are the foreseeable asymmetric responses?

What are the risks of provoking a destabilising asymmetric offence-defence spiral?

4) Security and Political/International Consequences

Can missile defences be deployed without leading to the weaponisation of space?

What is the likely impact of BMD on security arrangements and arms control?

The initial stage of Bush's BMD architecture, already underway, requires the deployment of ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Airforce Base in California, which will try to hit and 'kill' ballistic missiles during their midcourse phase in space, after booster burnout and before the warhead re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. In parallel with this ground-based system, however, the US is pushing for a space-based intercept capability which would require weapons to be placed in outer space for the first time in history. Many of the countries whose support the US wants are already committed to preventing an arms race in outer space and have voted for numerous United Nations resolutions calling for space to be used only for peaceful purposes. Though the space-weapons thrust of BMD is frequently played down by these governments, the Bush administration has been clear about its intentions. Supporting Pentagon budget requests for space-related missile defence research in FY 2004, Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, Director of the Missile Defence Agency told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he envisaged some 300 or more space-based interceptors, with a time-line of 2008-2012. Questioned about why the Pentagon wanted to put weapons in space when they were also considering airborne lasers, Kadish argued that "space solves your geography problem... because you can use those weapons more effectively from the high ground of space."

In the wake of the war on Iraq, President Bush has been losing public and political support in the United States, and his re-election bid for November 2004 is beginning to look vulnerable. Although there is considerable support in Congress for some form of missile defences, the costs, especially for space-based components, are being scrutinised more closely. With this proviso, this briefing considers the wider implications of the Bush administration's ambitions.


As the United States and Soviet Union raced each other in developing nuclear weapons and long range intercontinental missiles (ICBM), they also began to research anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences. The US experimented, with little success, on systems such as Nike-Zeus, Nike-X and Sentinel (1958-68). Then came Safeguard, operational for a day in 1975, ostensibly to protect US nuclear silos in North Dakota, while the USSR deployed the nuclear-armed Galosh ABM system to protect Moscow, as agreed under the ABM Treaty. The ABM Treaty was itself an attempt to cap the offensive-defensive spiral at more manageable levels of mutual vulnerability or 'mutual assured destruction' (MAD). In 1983, Ronald Reagan put forward his presidential vision of a protective astrodome, inaugurating the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was soon dubbed 'Star Wars'. Like its predecessors, Reagan's attempt to find a missile defence solution collapsed under the weight of its own technological and economic problems. Though this latest defeat vindicated the predictions of its many sceptics, it did not demolish the hopes of a coterie of die-hard neoconservative opponents of arms control, including Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and a relatively marginalised group of military officials, who continued to pursue their twin ambitions of making the United States invulnerable to threat or attack from outside and controlling space in the interests of exponentially growing US commercial and, most importantly, military interests, which underpinned the so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA).

To summarise the lessons from this forty-year history: regardless of the failures and setbacks, US proponents of missile defence have refused to give up; expenditure of over $100 billion has not solved the technological problems, which remain many and complex, but some systems have been improved, allowing the Bush administration to focus on the most promising, though this offers no guarantees of eventual success. Thérèse Delpech, Director for Strategic Affairs at France's Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique, also reminds us that by selling ballistic missiles and related technology to various countries during the Cold War, "Russians did much to create the situation which they now deplore and to make ballistic [missile] proliferation one of the major strategic factors of instability, including for Russia itself." That is undoubtedly true, but the point now is to consider what range of measures and approaches offers the best chance of wedging the barn doors as nearly shut as possible.

Although the Clinton administration was generally sceptical of missile defence, Republicans in Congress continued to push on this issue. In August 1998, courtesy of the provocative launch of a North Korean Taepo-Dong three-stage ballistic missile over Japan, missile defence proponents received a major boost. Six weeks earlier, a Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, had warned that the ballistic missile threat to the United States was likely to appear sooner than US intelligence agencies had estimated. The Taepo-Dong launch, portrayed by the North Korean government as a failed attempt to put a satellite into orbit, appeared to bear this out, while at the same time shocking a sceptical Japanese public into endorsing US-Japanese cooperation on missile defence. The Taepo-Dong launch also contributed in no small measure to the US Senate's adoption of the "National Missile Defence Act" in March 1999, which made it US policy to "deploy as soon as technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system". Bowing to this pressure, President Clinton agreed to preliminary research and development of a stage-1, ground-based missile defence system in Alaska, though he stopped short of giving permission for construction work to be undertaken that would have violated the ABM Treaty, leaving that decision to a future president.

Missile Threats: Fears, Capabilities, Intentions and Infrastructure

Missile threat, in its contemporary meaning, principally refers to the deadly combination of nuclear, chemical or biological warheads, so-called "weapons of mass destruction", with ballistic missiles of ever-increasing accuracy and range.

With their trajectory and truncated flight time, ballistic missiles have instilled fear, dating back to Germany's V2 rockets, because they can bypass conventional defences with relative ease, and so carry the potential to wreak havoc on military installations and annihilate civilian populations. During the Cold War, ballistic missiles were developed as the most efficient way to deliver a nuclear payload. Since the end of the Cold War, the US focus has turned to "rogue" states or regimes or, since the attacks of September 11, non-state terrorists. In fact, very few states and no terrorist organisations actually have the requisite missile or nuclear capabilities, let alone the intention to utilise technological capability in this way. A missile's point of origin can be quickly identified and would invite overwhelming retaliation.

Consequently, as recognised by the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in 2002, any state or terrorist organisation wanting to attack American targets with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, would be far more likely to organise secret delivery by ship, truck or aeroplane. Security attention needs to be addressed to more realistic possibilities, such as a fuel-filled plane aimed at high speed into an operating nuclear power plant; the high-explosive detonation and wide dispersal of a "dirty bomb" radioactive source, such as spent fuel rods; biohazardous, toxin, infective or chemical agents dispersed by relatively domestic and low-tech means into water or mass transit systems; and so on. Such capabilities would present their own technical and practical challenges, but would still be more accessible to the terrorism-minded than stealing or developing and deploying missiles with deliverable nuclear, chemical or biological warheads.

Some 38 to 40 states are known to have acquired or developed ballistic missiles, but the majority have at present only short range capabilities, such as the FROG, SCUD, and Al Hussein. Up to 11 possess medium (1000 - 1300 km) range capabilities: in addition to the five declared nuclear weapon states (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States), these include the programmes of India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea, such as the Shahab, Ghauri and No-dong missiles. Only the five NPT nuclear powers have ICBM capabilities. In 1999, the CIA projected that by 2015, the United States might be likely to face ballistic missile threats from "Russia, China, and North Korea, probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq." While Moscow undoubtedly retains a substantial nuclear arsenal capable of reaching the United States, the geostrategic threat from Russia has greatly diminished as post Cold War leaders, most notably President Vladimir Putin, are anxious to benefit from the development of stronger economic and strategic partnerships with the United States. Despite a determined modernisation programme, China's ICBM fleet remains below two dozen.

In assessing threats, a state's current missile capabilities are key, but also relevant are its missile infrastructure, including programmes, resource investment, military and operational factors, as well as warhead capabilities and design and, indeed, export potential. Putting a different perspective on the problem, recognising in part that some regimes may be developing certain kinds of capabilities as part of a defensive strategy in relation to perceived regional threats or, indeed, concerns about US political and military intentions, the CIA National Intelligence Officer for Strategic and Nuclear Programs noted, in May 2000, that Iran, Iraq and North Korea "view these weapons more as strategic tools of deterrence [and] coercive diplomacy, not as operational weapons of war".

Contrary to the belief of many Americans, hardly anyone in the world has the capability combined with intention to pose a missile threat to their homeland. Testifying before a special meeting of the Danish Parliament on April 23, 2003, Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, concluded "the ballistic missile threat today is confined, limited and changing relatively slowly. There is every reason to believe that it can be addressed through diplomacy and measured military preparedness." Those facts, do not, however, seem to lessen the potency of the imagery and fear for Americans. Though the "low-tech" nature of the devastating attacks of September 11 was seized on by missile defence opponents as vindication of their argument that missiles were not the priority threat that needed to be addressed, missile defence proponents were more successful at using 9/11 to win support for leaving no stone unturned. Missiles might not be a likely threat, but for most Americans, the fact that a missile attack is possible justifies the immense expense and architecture of a missile defence shield.

Ballistic Missile Defence: Mission and Architecture

To be reliable, BMD has to accomplish four distinct missions:

i) to detect attacking missiles

ii) to track missiles and, where relevant, re-entry vehicles/warheads

iii) to discriminate between warheads and decoys

iv) to destroy attacking missiles and/or warheads.

Each of these mission requirements presents particular technological and military challenges.

Multi-tiered: land-based, sea-based and air-launched

In May 2001, President Bush outlined the neoconservative vision of a multi-tiered and layered missile defence scheme. Others filled in some of the gaps. Lt. General Ronald Kadish, Director of the US Missile Defense Agency, explained the "evolutionary approach to missile defense", in which the BMD system "involves many sensors and interceptors that are integrated and layered to enable engagements against hostile missiles in the boost, midcourse, and terminal phases of flight. ... so that the system's capability can be enhanced over time." The first of these layers is to be the "midcourse" phase, in which ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Airforce Base in California try to "kill" ballistic missiles in space after booster burnout and before the warhead re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. As will be discussed later, in parallel with this ground-based phase, the Pentagon has requested funding to pursue space-based intercept options.

The broad, fuzzy Republican approach to missile defence has several important political, technological and military implications. Militarily, the concept of a multi-tiered or layered defence appears desirable, designed to attack the missile threat at all phases of its flight - boost and ascent, mid-course and terminal - with the intention that "each tier of interceptors [could] focus on leakers from the preceding one". In addition to offering a way of mitigating the limitations of the individual systems, the multi-tiered, layered concept also blurs the distinction between what were previously known as "theatre missile defence" and "national missile defence". It therefore holds out the prospect of a "seamless" coverage from lower tier threats from cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and even bombers, as well as ballistic missiles from the shortest range (60 km) right up to long range ICBM. Such an approach may shorten the odds of actually hitting an incoming missile, but at a potentially huge financial and environmental cost. Nevertheless, whether technologically feasible or affordable, the concept theoretically holds out the attractive and powerful promise of providing total protection, at least for the intended targets.

Such systems also have the potential to cause warheads on intercepted missiles to fall short of their targets. Depending on the trajectory and intercept phase, the promise of protection for some turns into a deadly rain of, potentially, nuclear, chemical or biological agents on untargeted populations en route. For Europe, this danger may be very much more real and devastating than the original threat that missile defence is supposed to protect against. What, then, of NATO's commitment to the indivisibility of alliance defences and the promise to defend allies as well as the US homeland?

Two types of boost-phase missile defence are under consideration: sea-based, most likely on Aegis cruisers, and airborne lasers. The attraction of boost-phase interception is the clear signature of hot gases and the avoidance of counter-measures. Disadvantages are many, however, including the speed (seconds) in which a decision to launch would have to be made for there to be any chance of an intercept in the five or so minutes of ascent. Though some argue that this means decision-making would be devolved to field commanders, the launch decision would have to rely on computer assessment and may be too quick for human intervention at all. Such a "hair-trigger" requirement would have serious implications, as there would be no time for the involvement of political authorities in the decision to engage. There would be no time for reassessment or diplomatic contact in the event of a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of a perceived threat. Additionally, the systems would have defence range of only around 1000 km and so require threat-specific deployment of the launch platforms, which would themselves be vulnerable to pre-emptive attack.

Any system relying on ground-based midcourse or terminal interception would have to deal with counter-measures, such as decoys mimicking the warhead; saturation, through multiple independently-targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs) or biological bomblet warheads; or "simple and cheap" chaff released to confuse the interceptor. A fixed, ground-based system would leave key detection and tracking components, such as the X-band radars, vulnerable to pre-emptive or asymmetric attack. At a conference in early 2001, an American discussant quipped that the US's real early warning system would be when its stations at Thule and Fylingdales were attacked and destroyed. There is the danger, therefore, that the process of developing missile defences will increase the vulnerability of various components of missile defence to preemptive attack (which may be electronic rather than physical) and lead all the way up to adversaries preemptively blacking out satellites in lower earth orbit (LEO) that provide support systems for missile defences and targeting. While it is extremely unlikely that China or any other potential US adversary would seek to emulate the Soviet Union's cold war mistakes and try to run an arms race with Washington, the spectre of a destabilising asymmetric offense-defense spiral cannot be discounted. To protect against asymmetric threats, the US may insist on further military secrecy and draconian policing near facilities that support missile defences, including Fylingdales and Thule, and, potentially further sites in Canada, Japan or Europe. It would be a fatal irony if the pursuit of missile defences were to provoke the very "Space Pearl Harbour" that the Rumsfeld Commission feared so greatly.

Choosing a vague, multi-layered concept may be costly, but it is convenient for the Republicans politically because it removes the necessity for an early decision on command and control jurisdiction and is geared towards neutralising Allies' concerns regarding the increased vulnerability that could potentially follow from their participation or hosting of missile-defence-related facilities. Its very vagueness renders it less susceptible to detailed, rational analysis and makes it easier for the administration to avoid discussing the countermeasures dilemma or other well-aimed criticisms of the technology, testing, military appropriateness, feasibility and cost that bedevilled the much narrower and more specific NMD concept. It therefore serves to depoliticise what is, and should be, a political debate about the merits and demerits of missile defence in the United States and in other countries whose support Washington is seeking.

The Fourth Tier and Objective: Weaponisation of Outer Space

It would be a disaster for us to put weapons in space of any kind under any circumstances. It only invites other countries to do the same thing."

A growing number of missile defence advocates in the Pentagon are pushing for the testing and deployment of weapons in and from, as well as into outer space, as the fourth tier in this open-ended, multi-tiered approach. This is not just a form of mission creep, but the declared intention of many at the centre of missile defence decision-making, though as Bush's popularity wanes, the space-related weapons programmes have become more vulnerable to having their funding cut by Congressional opponents.

As already noted, in March 2003, General Kadish confirmed that budget requests for FY 2004 envisaged parallel paths to acquire both a ground-based and a space-based intercept capability. He told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the "given the constraints of geography surrounding the boost phase... we intend to pursue a space interceptor test bed..." The purpose would be twofold: "to demonstrate intercepts from interceptors that would be in orbit" and "to work out all the difficulties involved with having a constellation of that size potentially in orbit... but only in a test mode." While agreeing that the technological challenges would be considerable, Kadish suggested that the timeline for the space-based phase would be 2008-2012 and that depending on the chosen architecture, space-based missile defence could require from 60 to "300 or more" interceptors. Questioned about the space component in relation to airborne lasers, Kadish argued that "space solves your geography problem... because you can use those weapons more effectively from the high ground of space."

This latest version of Star Wars can be traced back to the unquenched aspirations of the earlier advocates, notably Donald Rumsfeld. Shortly after President Bush's speech inaugurating his vision of missile defence, Rumsfeld, Bush's Secretary of Defense, declared: "There is no question but that the use of land and sea and air and space are all things that need to be considered if one is looking at the best way to provide the kind of security from ballistic missiles that is desirable for the United States and for our friends and allies." For some in the US military, it is clear that the weaponisation of space is not only a possible basing mode for missile interceptors, but a primary future military objective. In 1996, the Commander-in-Chief of US Space Command (CINCSPACE) and of NORAD declared "We're going to fight a war in space. We're going to fight from space and we're going to fight into space..."

Space Weaponisation: Full Spectrum Dominance

"Space offers attractive options not only for missile defense but for a broad range of interrelated civil and military missions. It truly is the ultimate high ground. We are exploring concepts and technologies for space-based intercepts."

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union placed intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and location/navigational assets in space to enhance their conventional forces. Although they pursued sophisticated research programmes, they decided against deploying space-based weapons or "orbital bombardment systems" capable of attacking terrestrial targets. Instead, they promoted the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 ABM Treaty. Among other things, these treaties prohibited the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space, along with the development, testing and deployment of space-based ABM systems and components.

In the mid-1980s, the US Congress opposed further development on anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) and pushed for outer space to be treated as a sanctuary, permitting commercial and military activities that stopped short of the deployment of weapons in and from space.

During the 1990s, US Space Command renewed its challenge to the Cold War consensus on not deploying weapons in space, declaring that "the medium of space is the fourth medium of warfare - along with land, sea and air." In January 2001, the Commission to Assess US National Security Space Management and Organisation, chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, published a report that powerfully evoked the image of a potential 'Space Pearl Harbour', and made the case that weapons in space would be needed to counter perceived US vulnerabilities. It argued in particular that the US government should pursue the relevant capabilities "to ensure that the President will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to and, if necessary, defend against attacks on US interests".

In October 2002, Rumsfeld's Deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, confirmed the Bush administration's ambition to see weapons in space become part of its multitiered concept of missile defence: "while we have demonstrated that hit-to-kill works, as we look ahead we need to think about areas that would provide higher leverage. Nowhere is that more true than in space. Space offers attractive options not only for missile defense but for a broad range of interrelated civil and military missions. It truly is the ultimate high ground. We are exploring concepts and technologies for space-based intercepts."

Responsible for around 64% of world expenditure on the commercial uses of space and 95% of military space assets, US proponents of space weaponisation rely on three assumptions: 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, and that it would be to the US' advantage to be first.

Those who argue that weaponising space is inevitable tend to evoke the "flag follows trade" analogy of sea and air power, relating military development to the safeguarding of commercial expansion. They also argue that whoever weaponises first will enjoy an advantage. These analogies are seductive, but flawed. Indeed, some analysts have come to the conclusion that the weaponisation of space is only inevitable if the US itself drives a race to do so.

Moreover, history abounds with examples showing that the security advantage enjoyed by the leader in innovative military technology is soon narrowed. 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. 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.

US advocates of putting weapons into space also cite the objectives of power projection and military control, noting the increased US dependence on space assets. The 1997 "Vision for 2020" brochure issued by US Space Command noted that: "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." It went on to push 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."

To accomplish these objectives, four operational concepts were envisaged:

  • control of space - the ability to assure or deny access to and freedom of operations within space;
  • global engagement - combining integrated, focussed surveillance and missile defences with a potential ability to apply force from space;
  • full force integration - the integration of space forces and space-derived information with air, land and sea forces and information; and
  • global partnerships - augmenting military space capabilities through exploitation of civil, commercial and international space systems, including bilateral partnerships with US allies in Europe and Asia.

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". 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.

The Commission therefore pressed for strengthened intelligence capabilities, investment to advance US technological leadership, the creation of a cadre of space professionals, and a restructuring of the decision-making process to bring national security space policy into the mainstream and under the "deliberate leadership" of the US President. It also stressed that weapons or military systems in space would need to be tested before being deployed, like any other military innovation.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has moved swiftly to implement many of his Commission's recommendations. He has streamlined and merged the disparate space activities under a centralised Strategic Command (StratCom), and is doing his utmost to ensure that it receives adequate funding and technological support. However, though the Bush administration's FY 2004 Budget envisages programmes to develop space-based interceptors, and General Kadish, Director of the Pentagon's Missile Defence Agency, has projected a time-line for the space-based missile defence phase from 2008-2012, there is scepticism and opposition in the US Congress, which is subjecting the space-related programmes to detailed scrutiny.

Types of Potential Space Weapons

Space systems are essential and integral elements of national security, and a critical aspect of military operations... military operations must fully exploit the strategic and tactical advantages offered by space while ensuring that space-based systems and their terrestrial components are protected from any potential vulnerability or adversary.

There are two broad categories of military assets: force-support (communications, command and control, sensor, target location and surveillance) and force-application, i.e. strike weapons. There are three main types of space-related force application assets: space-strike weapons (SSW), anti-satellite weapons (ASAT), and ballistic missile defence (BMD) weapons.

Space-Strike Weapons (SSW)

Space-strike weapons may use directed energy, such as lasers, or harness kinetic energy, in which the destructive force is supplied by the mass and velocity of one or many projectiles. So-called kinetic kill weapons (KKW) or interceptors may also be armed with conventional explosives to increase their destructive power. Nuclear-armed weapons have been prohibited under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Space strike weapons could potentially utilise the 'high ground' of space to destroy targets anywhere on or above the Earth's surface.

Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASATs)

ASATs are intended to damage, disable or destroy satellites. They can be based on the ground or in orbit around the earth, and recently, the US has been developing capabilities to put small payloads into space on short notice using aeroplanes. This plan for 'operationally responsive spacelift' envisages using F-15s to launch microsatellites into orbit. Such microsatellites could be manoeuvred to fulfil ASAT operations, provide a speedy replacement of damaged assets, or be equipped with weapons with which to attack other nations' satellites or ground targets.

Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Weapons

Space-based BMD weapons - such as lasers, kinetic kill weapons or armed interceptors - would be intended to destroy ballistic missiles, either during their boost-phase or mid-course flight trajectory.

A further complication when considering threats to space assets and options for arms control is that any country with a ballistic missile capability essentially has both a space-launch and an ASAT capability as well. The technology is basically the same. As the Bush administration has also expressed its determination to share BMD technology with other countries, it faces a similar, potentially dangerous contradiction: whether intended for defence or attack, the missile technology is essentially the same, and proliferating one undermines international attempts to restrict the proliferation of the other.

Increasing Space Insecurity: Arguments Against Space Weaponisation

"The immediate military advantages of being the first nation to weaponize space are undeniable but must be weighed against long-term military costs, as well as against broader social, political, and economic costs."

As noted above, US advocates of space weaponisation rest their case on three assumptions: inevitability, vulnerability and control. The higher the level of reliance on space assets for military purposes, the greater the vulnerabilities. As first demonstrated in the strikes on Former Yugoslavia over Kosovo and then in Afghanistan, the US now depends on an array of 'smart' weaponry that needs very sophisticated data and guidance systems, telemetry, and electronic communications.

This 'revolution in military affairs', in turn, depends on satellites. But military and commercial systems in space are not just vulnerable to space-targeted attacks, since they depend on ground facilities (telemetry, tracking and control, communications, data reception etc.) and radio links (carrying commands, communications, telemetry and data), which provide much more accessible opportunities for interference, disablement or destruction. The Rumsfeld Commission focussed on risks from ASATs and the growing vulnerability of space assets to a pre-emptive attack. Undoubtedly, just one nuclear detonation at very high altitude would disable all satellites in low earth orbit that had not been previously hardened against the effect of a nuclear weapon's electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). Having set the pace in the militarisation of space as a means to support its ever more sophisticated smart conventional weapons and forces, the US naturally wants to prevent anyone from disabling or destroying the space-based 'force-support' assets that enable such weapons to work effectively.

Any actor with the capabilities to launch ICBMs, put satellites in space, or deploy ballistic missile defences would also be capable of launching an ASAT attack. The investment and infrastructure required mean that these actors would almost certainly be states with their own space assets in orbit. The destruction or fragmentation of satellites would then prove counter-productive, given the problem of space debris that such attacks would exacerbate. Moreover, the US has hardened most of its key military satellites, so it would be the civil and commercial assets, and particularly the satellites of other countries that such an attack would jeopardise most severely. Realistically, therefore, it is extremely unlikely that adversaries would risk a pre-emptive direct attack on the space-based assets themselves, when electronic hacking, jamming or "spoofing" provide a more specific, low tech, low cost means of disrupting targeted space resources at their weakest points.

No states with the technological potential to pose a serious threat to US (or other) space assets (for example Russia, China, India) are prioritising financial or technical resources to developing weapons capable of threatening space assets. This, however, could change. If US military developments in space continue their drive towards weaponisation, it is likely that others will decide that they need to devote political, financial and technological resources to counter or off-set US space-based superiority.

A much more immediate danger to commercial and military assets in space, already arising from careless human practices in the first 45 years of space activities, comes from space-crowding and orbital debris. Space in low earth orbit is teeming with human generated debris, defined by NASA as "any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves a useful purpose". There are some 9,000 objects larger than 10 cm and over 100,000 smaller objects. As orbiting debris may be travelling at very high velocities, even tiny fragments can pose a significant risk to satellites or spacecraft. As noted by Joel Primack, a University of California physics professor, and one of the US' foremost experts on space debris: "The weaponisation of space would make the debris problem much worse, and even one war in space could encase the entire planet in a shell of whizzing debris that would thereafter make space near the Earth highly hazardous for peaceful as well as military purposes".

Attitudes in the US towards Space Weaponisation

If asked, most Americans would support keeping space for peaceful uses. Support for the weaponisation of space is by no means universal even among Republicans or the US military. When considering questions of space security, it needs to be recognised that although weapons have not yet been deployed in outer space, space is already heavily militarised, with a range of force-supporting technologies. The issue is further complicated because commercial systems may also have strategic, safety or arms control (monitoring, confidence-building and verification) value, and military uses are often combined with or utilise commercial space systems.

Colonel Peter Hays of the USAF identified four types of attitude:

Space Hawks: Donald Rumsfeld is the quintessential example of those who believe the US should weaponise space at all costs, to control and dominate, achieve 'full spectrum dominance' and enable unfettered development of US commercial, political and military interests. Space Hawks are the driving force behind space weaponisation. Though wrapped in defence terms, their motivation is ideological: like missile defence, space control is viewed as an essential component of neo-conservative objectives of US power projection.

Inevitable Weaponisers believe that it is only a matter of time before someone deploys weapons in space, and therefore the US must get there first. They tend to evoke the 'flag follows trade' analogy and assume that whoever weaponises first will enjoy great advantage. This group is less ideological than the space hawks. They are most concerned about the vulnerability of US military and commercial interests in space, and may be open to reasoned arguments showing that its assets could be equally or better protected by other means.

Militarisation Realists argue that the weaponisation of space would be detrimental to US interests and the security of its military and commercial satellites and would be likely to erode the US' conventional superiority. Contending that the US would have most to lose from weaponising space, militarisation realists - which include senior military officials and analysts - use alternative analogies to 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. While largely sharing the inevitable weaponisers' desire to safeguard US military and commercial dominance, they argue that 'space sanctuary' policies, allowing for non-weaponised military uses, would be safer and more effective in the long term. Some may advocate a broader 'space security' approach, limiting the military uses of space to surveillance, location and verification.

Space Doves advocate that space should be used solely for peaceful purposes. In addition to opposing the weaponisation of space, some would like to see a roll-back of at least some of the current military uses of space, while others take a more fundamentalist, environmental position, seeking to ban the use of nuclear-fuelled rockets and to drastically limit, if not close down, satellite traffic. Many space doves, however, would support some military uses of space for surveillance, verification, confidence-building and arms control.

Clearly, the weaponisation of space as a proposed response to potential vulnerabilities needs to be placed in a much wider context than the space hawks' literature suggests. Rumsfeld's Commission tended to equate vulnerability with threat, arguing from that for the aggressive development of military space capabilities. By contrast, focussing on military reasons for not weaponising space, Lt. Col Bruce Deblois, formerly of the US Airforce, and now with the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that space weaponisation would be financially draining and escalatory, lack the element of survivability and be militarily and politically self-defeating.

Deblois describes three possible approaches for defending space assets:

i) diplomatic/political defences (agreements aimed at building collective security);

ii) passive defences (hide and seek), and

iii) active defences (essentially Rumsfeld's option of deploying ground ASAT and space-based weapons).

He recommends combining options i) and ii) and the "active, aggressive avoidance of the third".

There are several different technical approaches that could reduce the vulnerability of space-based assets without resorting to the deployment of weapons. These include:

  • hardening and shielding power sources and vulnerable equipment to protect against EMP and certain levels of kinetic impact;
  • building in redundancy, ensuring that there are back-up facilities and replacements to avoid a whole system being crippled if one or a few parts of it are disabled;
  • increasing situational awareness, manoeuvrability, and stealth/concealment capabilities.

Placing weapons in space is not the inevitable outcome of the use of space for commercial purposes. Many of the perceived vulnerabilities of space assets can be addressed in other ways. At present, nobody except the US has the capability, intention and resources to threaten space assets. Furthermore, many would prefer to see more resources and political weight given to multilateral approaches to control missile proliferation and ensure the non-weaponisation of space.

Treaties and International Diplomacy

"Only a treaty-based prohibition of the deployment of weapons in outer space and the prevention of the threat or use of force against outer space objects can eliminate the emerging threat of an arms race in outer space and ensure the security for outer space assets of all countries, which is an essential condition for the maintenance of world peace."

Despite heightened concerns raised since then about the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, the Bush administration's BMD plans are not the most practical or logical response for addressing missile acquisition or nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programmes that are, however mistakenly, pursued as part of deterrence strategies in relation to perceived regional threats (or, indeed, concerns about US political and military intentions), as suggested by the NIE assessment. The fact that assets may be vulnerable does not mean they are actually threatened. Working with the UN and other countries to apply a range of political and diplomatic means (technology controls or denial, alternative security incentives and assurances, and so on) would provide a more timely and effective approach, but requires that missile threats be perceived in context, which BMD advocates are reluctant to do.

Efforts to restrict missile proliferation need to go beyond strengthening the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), though efforts such as the recently concluded Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCoC) are to be welcomed. Ultimately, however, a more comprehensive approach, such as that put forward in the Russian-inspired Global Control System (GCS), will need to be developed, to enable legitimate technological developments, such as space launches, to be shared, while restricting destabilising proliferation in offensive missile capabilities.

At present, any high altitude nuclear detonation would violate the provisions of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Pending this treaty's entry into force, the ban on nuclear explosions is bolstered by moratoria undertaken by all the nuclear weapon states and by India and Pakistan. Few would have the technological capacity to undertake such an explosion and it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a perpetrator to evade detection. As with a hostile missile launch, the origin of a nuclear detonation can be quickly identified and would invite unified international diplomatic action or, failing that, overwhelming retaliation. Though the technology to prevent a high altitude nuclear explosion is not available, the perpetrator would incur high political costs for crossing the nuclear threshold and damaging space assets beneficial to millions around the world. For a number of technological and political reasons, therefore, a high altitude nuclear detonation is unlikely, although it cannot be ruled out altogether.

Far from preventing or mitigating the threats, weaponising space would likely worsen the situation. A more sensible approach would be to combine the technical hardening of as many satellites as possible - thereby helping to deter attacks - with more comprehensive arms control initiatives. In particular, there needs to be renewed emphasis on preventing nuclear explosions and on nuclear disarmament, including a strengthening of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While cooperation in limited theatre-level defences may be compatible with the international legal commitments undertaken by the US and its allies, extending weaponisation into space would risk violating a number of further laws and treaties.

International treaties and instruments with jurisdiction over space activities date back to the 1932 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Convention. As amended in 1992 and 1994, this requires that civilian satellites be protected from interference. The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) banned nuclear testing in outer space, but a basic framework for space activities was not realised until 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST).

Enshrining the principles of peaceful use and exploration, and that outer space should be available for the benefit of all (not subject to national appropriation or sovereignty claims), the OST has 102 parties, including the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Israel and Pakistan. It prohibits the stationing of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, in space orbit or on celestial bodies. It does not cover the transit of nuclear weapons (on ICBM, for example) through space or prohibit nuclear weapons launched from Earth into space for the purposes of destroying space based targets or incoming missiles. It says nothing about ASATs or the placement of conventionally armed weapons in space.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the US and Soviet Union negotiated further agreements, including the Astronauts Rescue Agreement (1968). Important prohibitions on interfering with national technical means operated for verification purposes were enshrined in the 1972 ABM Treaty - now deemed void following US withdrawal in June 2002. The principle of non-interference with national technical means and verification satellites was also enshrined in the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, and the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the Registration Convention), which entered into force in 1976 were also worthy confidence-building measures, though neither agreement has received much attention.

The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Moon Agreement) was signed in December 1979 and entered into force in 1984. It confirms many of the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, with specific reference to the Moon. It also prohibits the threat or use of force on the Moon or the use of the Moon to commit hostile acts in relation to the Earth or space assets, although the placing of conventional weapons in orbit around the Moon is not prohibited.

START I prohibits the production, testing and deployment of "systems, including missiles, for placing nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction into Earth orbit or a fraction of an Earth orbit". It also contains transparency and confidence-building provisions, and reinforced the provisions of the 1988 Ballistic Missile Launch Notification Agreement, providing for advance launch notification of ballistic missiles used as boosters to put objects into the upper atmosphere or space.

International bodies dealing with space issues include the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD), which has long had an agenda item called "prevention of an arms race in outer space" (abbreviated to PAROS); the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) attached to the General Assembly's Fourth Committee; the UN Office for Outer Space Activities (OOSA, based in Vienna), which monitors and provides information for UN members on civilian activities in space; and the UN Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE), which meets only periodically. Although some countries have tried to bring the subject of space weaponisation into the work of COPUOS, the US has been particularly adamant that COPUOS should be restricted to discussing civilian uses of space without any consideration of potential threats to civilian uses posed by military programmes or activities. The European Union and European Space Agency also seek to coordinate peaceful cooperation and space policy among EU and associated states.

With the advent of the US's most recent push to develop missile defences, there has been renewed pressure from many states for the CD to address issues relating to the potential weaponisation of space under its PAROS agenda item. Some states, notably China and Russia, have intensified their demands for the CD to undertake negotiations to prevent the weaponisation of space

In June 2002, Russia and China, together with five other CD members, co-sponsored a working paper on "Possible Elements for a Future International Legal Agreement on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects". Consisting of 13 articles, the working paper was laid out as a draft treaty.

Deliberately avoiding complex definitional and verification questions that would need to be addressed in real negotiations, the draft was intended to provoke wider discussion of the issues at stake. The draft's scope comprises three elements:

"Not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons, not to install such weapons on celestial bodies, or not to station such weapons in outer space in any other manner;

Not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects;

Not to assist or encourage other States, groups of States, international organisations to participate in activities prohibited by this Treaty."

The US, for its part, adamantly maintains that there is "no need for new outer space arms control agreements and opposes the idea of negotiating a new outer space treaty", though it might be willing to discuss confidence-building measures. This flies in the face of international opinion. In 2002, repeating the trend of recent years, the UN General Assembly resolution on preventing an arms race in outer space (UNGA 57/57) received 159 votes in favour, none against and 3 abstentions (US, Israel and a satellite of the United States, either the Marshall Islands or Micronesia).

At present, neither outer space issues nor anything else can be discussed or negotiated in the CD, which has been unable to adopt a work programme for several years due to political differences between a handful of key states. The deadlock has been exacerbated by Chinese concerns about US plans for missile defences, which have led to linkages being asserted between PAROS and the CD's unfulfilled agreement to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons (fissban), and, more recently, by the Bush administration's scepticism about multilateralism and arms control in general.

In August 2003, however, China, which had offered compromises before, surprised many dropping its insistence that negotiations on PAROS must be specified. Instead, China accepted the draft work programme proposed by a group of five senior CD ambassadors. The ball is now in Washington's court to accept the compromise work programme on this basis and enable the CD to start work in 2004, or to hold out and be further isolated as the principal obstacle. The priority issue would be to negotiate a fissban, which the US continues to say it wants, while outer space issues would be on the agenda for serious discussions.

BMD: Debates, Deals and Dilemmas for US Allies

"once a nation embarks down the road to gain a huge asymmetric advantage, the natural tendency of others is to close that gap..."

It is clear from the US budget for 2004 that the Bush administration intends to accelerate the programmes for BMD, with space control and weaponisation viewed as a fundamental objective. Arguing that military strategy must be scrutinised in light of worst case scenarios and threats to US national security Deblois sounded a warning the US and its allies would do well to heed: "once a nation embarks down the road to gain a huge asymmetric advantage, the natural tendency of others is to close that gap..." leading to an arms race that would be "difficult to turn off".

NATO's Prague Summit declaration (Nov 21, 2002) committed member states to a NATO Missile Defence Feasibility Study to examine "options for addressing the increasing missile threat to Alliance territory, forces and population centres in an effective and efficient way through an appropriate mix of political and defence efforts, along with deterrence." John Bolton, US Assistant Secretary of State, noted also that a working group on missile defence was being established under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Council, which will "focus initially on missile defence terminology, concepts, and system capabilities in order to develop procedures that could facilitate protection of forces in a joint, non-Article V crisis response operation. This is a positive and practical first step in developing a future joint NATO-Russia missile defense capability to protect deployed forces and critical assets." He emphasised: "We have a proposed framework for participation in the US missile defense program. This framework would allow individual nations and their industries to participate at various levels depending on their interest, resources and overall contributions." After initially broad consultations, the next phase of research has now been contracted to the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), of McLean, Virginia, which will look at the technical feasibility, costs and timescales of a Missile Defence System based on NATO requirements.

In December 2002, shortly after the Prague Summit, the US formally requested permission of Britain and Denmark to upgrade ground-based facilities at Fylingdales in Yorkshire and Thule in Greenland respectively. Tony Blair's agreement was buried in pre-Christmas news, thereby effectively bypassing the opposition of many Labour MPs. The upgrades are generally presented as a technical updating of the current detection and tracking (early warning) roles. In fact, the enhancements constitute a significant change of function, contributing to guidance and targeting capabilities for America's intercepting warheads. Denmark is reported to be close to a decision on permitting the US to upgrade the Thule facility.

The first phase of ground-based missile defence is expected to rely on 100 interceptors (based at Fort Greely, Alaska) and a detection and tracking system involving the upgrading of a constellation of five ground-based early warning radars (including Fylingdales and Thule) with Space-Based Infra-Red System High (SBIRS-High) and 1 (building up to 4) X-band radar facilities [US, UK (potentially also involving Menwith Hill, with other bases in supporting roles), Greenland and South Korea].

The US and UK signed a Memorandum of Understanding on missile defence on 12 June 2003, but our MPs are not permitted to know what it entails. Questioned about it in the House of Commons, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said: "The details of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) remain confidential between the respective Governments and I am therefore withholding the information in accordance with Exemption 1 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information."

Such secrecy suggests there is something to hide. Secrecy for the sake of security is understandable, but far too often it is used to camouflage inadequacy or incompetence, as with the cooked justifications for bypassing the UN and bombing Iraq.

Missile defence is an important component of the neoconservative project associated with hardline Republicans close to George W. Bush, together with the doctrines of preemption and preventive war, as put forward in the US Nuclear Posture Review (January 2002) and National Security Strategy (September 2002). These have been represented as a "paradigm shift in how we think about nuclear deterrence, arms control and disarmament". Proponents in Britain tend to treat US commitment to missile defences as a done deal since the advent of the Bush administration and, more particularly, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but they are wrong.

It is important to engage constructively in the debates on BMD and space, and not to be afraid to discuss the 'redlines' or conditions essential for our own national security and international policies and objectives. In this way, US allies can foster more debate within the United States and forge alliances to foster a more sensible approach on missile controls and defence, and explore ways to enhance international and space security.

Not only is the pursuit of missile defences likely to be detrimental to international peace and security, but the diversion of resources and attention from the present and more serious future security threats may prove to be one of the most insidious consequences of current US military priorities and policies. Perhaps the most fundamental issue that questions about BMD need to be related to is the widespread recognition that 21st century security threats are likely to be more diverse than traditional military defence is constructed to address. Such complex and transboundary security challenges include pandemics (natural or biological-weapons-related health scares and epidemics, such as already seen with AIDs and, potentially SARS), terrorism; failed or fracturing states; transnational trafficking in arms, drugs, people and the related domestic consequences, including increased crime, racial or ethnic conflict and prostitution; environmental degradation and climate change. International terrorism arguably stems more from failed states and civil conflict than the clash of civilizations or a generic reaction to modernization or globalization, and developing Fortress America or Fortress Rich Allies through hi tech, military deployments will do nothing to help us deal with these deep-seated problems.

Missile defence deployment, especially coupled with doctrines of preemption and preventive war, may provoke asymmetric and anti-satellite attacks, leading to an offence-defence spiral, as other countries are put under pressure to develop technologies that are not currently being pursued. While the consequences would be unlikely to include the kind of arms race that characterised the Cold War, Russia and China would likely retain sizeable nuclear arsenals and other countries hedge their bets or develop "deterrence" capabilities (with particularly destabilising consequences for regional security in some parts of the world). Our security could be further compromised rather than enhanced by the deployment of missile defences, if this next generation of technology pushes other international actors to respond.

When all that was on offer was NMD, based initially on Phase 1 land-based system described above, there was considerable concern that in order to protect the US with a missile shield, the facilities in Britain, Denmark and South Korea would make those countries more vulnerable to a preemptive attack or retaliation. Since the Bush administration is now emphasising that missile defences will cover allies as well, this argument has been weakened. Other concerns, however, have increased, including worries about fallout over populated areas, if there is a self-fulfilling prophecy about incoming missiles equipped with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads, and the defending missiles actually succeed in hitting those targets.

The multi-tiered, multi-layered architecture plans intercepts at the boost/ascent, mid-course, and terminal phases, using kinetic kill, laser or - in the minds of some proponents, nuclear-tipped interceptors. Depending on a missile's launch point and trajectory and the intercept phase and mode, any warhead that was not completely destroyed and incinerated might rain devastating contaminants onto populations which "happened to live along the flight path of the incoming missile", creating a deadly radioactive or pathogenic debris field. For missiles projected as coming from Russia, China or North Korea, Canada might well be under the flight path. Much of Europe would likewise be at risk from the interception of missiles launched at the United States from the Middle East. Such a scenario, though it may be far-fetched, resting as it does on the dubious premises of neoconservatives regarding the threats, is a logical consequence of BMD advocates' premises, and makes a mockery of NATO's Prague Summit declarations about the indivisibility of the defence of alliance members.

Internationally, various initiatives and approaches are already being discussed, and its allies need to encourage the United States to participate fully. These include confidence-building/co-operative measures, perhaps starting with joint actions to track, mitigate and reduce space debris, and establishing a code of conduct for space users, including pre- and post-launch notification. Existing space law could be applied more determinedly to prevent destabilising weapons deployments or testing in space. In the US, the Congressional Representative for Ohio, Denis Kucinich, is trying to gain support for national legislation to outlaw certain weapons-related and destabilising activities in space. Or, taking a leaf out of the nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) book, other nations - and even city or district councils - could be encouraged to declare that they will not participate in the weaponisation of space in any way (through bases, space-weapons-related production, and so on).

The Outer Space Treaty refers to the importance of international co-operation regarding the use of outer space and endorses confidence-building measures for launches and space flights. More could be done to enhance the benefits that increasing numbers of countries and people receive from the peaceful and arms control/verification uses of space. In this regard, there are a range of measures, relating not only to space-vehicle/missile launches, but also to shared concerns about space collisions and debris, that could be discussed profitably in the run-up to comprehensive negotiations. Agreed measures or a preliminary code of conduct could be established - voluntarily to begin with, and then incorporated into a negotiated instrument.

In view of the seriousness of the problems likely to accrue from space weaponisation, a comprehensive approach is necessary, preferably through the building of international support for a legally binding space security treaty. This does not rule out initial international agreements to deal with launches, 'space traffic control' or space debris, for example, or partial restrictions prohibiting certain weapons or testing in space, as long as such measures are recognised as addressing only part of the problem, and not treated as if they were sufficient ends in themselves.

Arms control and restraint regimes are generally more successful when they have both incentives (shared technology or participation rights, for example) for those who renounce or constrain their military programmes, and transparency and confidence-building measures. As was the case with Antarctica, a space security regime would need to rest on common sense and political and technical synergies. If the treaty banned the production, testing, deployment and use of weapons in space and ASATs, a code of conduct would need to outlaw the manipulation of space objects for weapons or ASAT purposes. A comprehensive space security regime would therefore require a treaty with the following three components:

I. A ban on the testing, deployment and use of all kinds of weapons in space

II. A ban on the testing, deployment and use of terrestrially-based ASAT weapons

III. A code of conduct for peace-supporting, non-aggressive uses of space

Without underestimating the difficulties of setting international limits or negotiating arms control in an area fraught with disagreements over definitions, demarcation and the role and feasibility of verification, it is important to recognise that though the ideal of missile defence is seductive and has widespread support since September 11th, the US is deeply divided about the risks and benefits of further militarising or weaponising space.

Finally, I have not addressed questions of technical feasibility or economic affordability. Though clearly important, such questions are more directly within the purview of US political and military decisionmakers and taxpayers, as it is for them to do a financial cost benefit analysis (even many missile defence sceptics believe that if enough money is thrown at the problems over a long enough period of time, they will eventually be resolved). But should this money be put into missile defences? Since budget allocation involves political choices, what potentially more important security initiatives and approaches are being ignored or underfunded as a consequence of the intensive resource allocation and attention being given to missile defence? By insisting on an open, transparent, and rational analysis of the actual threats, and the prospects of and alternatives to missile defences, Britain and NATO need to help the US to target its considerable resources more effectively towards dealing with more real and likely security threats, rather than to pursue what a former US Navy Rear Admiral characterised as "illusory defences against non-existent threats".

Back to the Top of the Page

© 2004 The Acronym Institute.