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Space without Weapons

Notes of presentation at UNIDIR Seminar, 31.3.2006

Rebecca Johnson, The Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy

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It is interesting to reflect on how much has changed since the first Geneva seminar on space security was held in November 2002. Then, we needed to introduce and explain the issue and its technical, legal and political complexities; we needed to convince many governments, diplomats and nongovernmental organisations that issues relating to space weapons and space security were important, interesting and worth engaging with - more than that, these issues are urgent, and engagement by the scientific, political and diplomatic communities is essential. We had to make the case that the weaponisation of space was not a done deal or lost cause; nor was our interest a hysterical over-reaction to the ideological fantasies of a few weird neocons that would never threaten us because, like Reagan's star wars hopes of the 1980s, these visions would collapse under the weight of their own financial and technical contradictions. Back in 2002, we had to educate, inform and raise awareness.

Over the years we have brought more space stakeholders into our discussions, and a range of solution-oriented proposals have been put forward. So here we are today, and though the task of educating and informing is never over, we have seen some real developments and progress towards some of the ideas that participants in the first few seminars had been putting on the table. For example, there is growing interest in the pragmatic possibilities of working out a basic code of conduct, such as the Stimson Center proposed to cover issues like space traffic management, debris, confidence building measures, rescue, and pre and post launch notification. The space security index that four years ago was just a twinkle in a few eyes is now established and in its second full year of tracking and evaluating trends in the eight key areas relating to civilian and military space security. We've heard from the incoming chair of COPUOS, M. Gerard Brachet, about the draft guidelines on space debris being developed under COPUOS auspices and likely to be adopted in 2007.

At this meeting we have senior representatives of ESA and COPUOS, and from ISRO and other national space agencies and programmes, as well as from various governments that may be interested in negotiations to prevent the deployment of weapons in and from space. And from all sides there is growing recognition of the need for greater cooperation, and even joint work, involving key institutions, fora and agencies dealing with space. There is wide agreement on the role of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty in providing a bedrock of legal and political norms, controls and institutions. While there is interest in expanding the remit and roles of the OST, and its enforcement and implementing powers, there appears to be considerable agreement that these should be done by means of sidebar negotiations and agreements. While consideration might be given to negotiating protocols that could be separately adopted and ratified; there is a general understanding that it would be unwise to try to amend the Treaty. The OST should not be formally opened up, as in the current political climate even the present limited prohibition on deploying weapons of mass destruction in space might be overturned.

However, two possible initiatives to support and enhance the OST should be considered:

i) Since 2007 will be the 40th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, its states parties could consider holding a review conference of between 3 and 5 days to review how the Treaty has operated these forty years and perhaps consider ways to strengthen implementation and progress towards universality. Such a conference could consider the challenges to space security and, without going down the path of formal amendments, could discuss the current and future space security environment. The term 'weapons of mass destruction' has never been defined, although it is taken to encompass nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Perhaps a broader, more space-relevant interpretation could be considered: that in view of the particular circumstances of outer space, any weapon used in or from outer space would result in unpredictable and potentially mass destructive effects. This might be one approach to bringing the OST up to date without opening it for amendment.

October 4, 2007 is also the 50th anniversary of the first Sputnik. It might be possible to coincide the timing for a review conference of the Outer Space Treaty with this important milestone, by holding it at the United Nations in October.[1] In any case, it will be important to build various events around the Sputnik and OST anniversaries to make the link between space exploration and use and sensible regulation to promote security of access and operation.

ii) Another interesting idea worth considering, to bridge the gap between the outer space issues addressed in the UN Fourth and First Committees, would be for a group of countries to put identical texts into both committees this year, calling for support for and universal adherence to the OST, and for a review conference to be held to commemorate and review its forty years of operations. Already in the First Committee there are two resolutions in the PAROS cluster: the traditional resolution sponsored by Egypt and Sri Lanka, and a new resolution from Russia on transparency and confidence-building measures, so it would indicate the growing importance of this issue for a cross-regional group of space-faring or space-using states parties to the OST to initiate a third resolution supporting the Treaty. Identical resolutions in the First and Fourth Committees could be done as a one-off initiative because of the 40th anniversary, though perhaps states would not want to close off the option of further joint resolutions to emphasise the importance of the Treaty and the dual-use characteristics of space applications, that can be both for peaceful uses and for security-enhancing purposes, without extending to aggressive military uses.

Compared with four years ago, there is more recognition that the separation between civil and military assets and uses in space is a fiction maintained for narrow political reasons, not borne out by either the technology or commercial practices and developments. By now there is wide recognition that the civil-military divide in relation to space assets does not reflect reality and impedes coherent approaches to promote space security. But there are differences of view about where the line should be drawn that would allow peace-supporting military or dual-use technologies and activities - for example, surveillance and monitoring, tracking, communication and positioning and navigation - and not permit offensive, aggressive uses of space. The same software and satellites may support military applications such as location, tracking and weapons targeting, and also security-enhancing applications such as disaster management, research into climate change, agricultural planning, rescue, arms control, verification, conflict prevention and CBMs.

We've not heard as much about treaties at this meeting as in previous seminars, but that may be because the Chinese-Russian initiative is now established and being worked on, even if it is not the subject of multilateral negotiations per se. As we heard from Anton Vassiliev and Pan Jusheng, the draft treaty and elements in CD documents such as 1679 and 1769 are addressing the tough questions, circulating ideas, questions and suggestions from other states on such difficult issues as definitions and the nexus of obligations between peaceful, military and dual-use technologies and activities, transparency and verification, and confidence-building measures, among others. Some arguments are largely accepted, while others have still to be made - or made more convincingly!

Public Awareness-raising and Advocacy

Good ideas are important, but without public awareness and effective strategies they remain in the realm of thought, not action. What are the drivers for interesting the public in what many would consider an esoteric issue?

* fear is a potent driver, whether founded in fact or probability:

fear of 'star wars' or war in space; fear that weapons in space could exacerbate wars on Earth, and even cause nuclear war, as Pentagon wargames kept concluding.

* self interest:

we depend on space for entertainment, banking, communication, navigation and a host of other tools and activities, and we would hate to see these modern conveniences taken from us by ill-conceived military policies or actions in space.

* commercial investments and interest:

related to the point above on self-interest, much of big business is now reliant on space assets. Considerable money and skills have been investments, and very few would wish to see these threatened, either by aggressors, space pollution/debris or stupid, short-sighted political decisions or apathy.

* opposition to ballistic missile defence (BMD):

NGOs and sectors of civil society working on peace and justice issues may be most motivated by the fear that US military policy and missile defence plans could lead to the further militarisation of space, including the deployment of weapons in and from space, which worries a lot of people.

* and finally, there is a romantic or moral appeal:

this may include the romantic appeal of space exploration, particularly for the science fiction generation, raised on Star Trek and Solaris; or it may be religious, as in the sense that the heavens should be kept safe and peaceful.

In raising awareness, we also need to clarify and prioritise objectives for space security. To catch public attention, the simpler the demand the more effective. Hence calls for a ban on space weapons or 'keep space for peace'. However, such demands may fudge the complexities and not be immediately practical or achievable. We need to balance clear and positive objectives with pragmatic strategies. It is desirable to clarify and prioritise, while recognising that it may be synergistic to work on more than one objective, especially with regard to approaches that engage different constituencies and policymakers.

These issues may not be as fear-inducing an issue as nuclear weapons or climate change, so I would argue that priority should be given to educating elected and political officials, the owners, workers, investors, main commercial users and other stakeholders in space-related industries. We need to get more into the mainstream media. We need to get questions asked and get parliaments or their equivalents to hold inquiries about the future of space use and space security, commission independent expert reports, and invite representatives of national or regional space agencies to speak to informal or formal meetings of relevant committees or groups of legislators.

Time is not on our side! While in the world of diplomacy governments are messing around with the impasse in the Conference on Disarmament, two kinds of political developments are accelerating that could close off our options to influence space security more quickly than we may realise.

I recently attended a seminar for the major industrial space actors and users in Brussels. Probably due to the overlap with aerospace industries and military contracts, space-related industries are already adopting US military assumptions and precepts that blur the distinction between the military uses of space and weaponisation and that they argue from this either that the weaponisation of space has already occurred or that it is inevitable. Secondly, attention must be accorded to the privatised defence of commercially-owned assets, which may already be adopting unregulated technologies that go well beyond passive defence.


I will conclude with four brief points.

i) There is still a need to forge alliances and communicate better with commercial and military players, including in the United States, who are rationally capable of recognising the weaponisation of space as a threat to their interests and activities.

ii) We need to engage parliamentarians now much more effectively, to raise the level of debate in different countries and regional institutions such as the European Union, and to provide them with the information and questions to ask governments, defence ministries and regional alliances such as NATO.

iii) We need to do more to break down the institutional and political barriers so as to address both the civilian and military aspects of space security more coherently.

iv) To adapt a principle of political strategy (think globally but act locally), we need to think comprehensively, but build the space security architecture incrementally!

Thank you.

[1] The connection between Sputnik's 50th anniversary and the OST's 40th anniversary was made by Will Marshall during the question and discussion session after my presentation, and I am glad to incorporate his suggestion for timing the OST review conference to coincide with this.

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© 2006 The Acronym Institute.