| Acronym Institute Home Page | Calendar | UN/CD | NPT/IAEA | UK | US | Space/BMD |
| CTBT | BWC | CWC | WMD Possessors | About Acronym | Links | Glossary |
Back to the main page on Space without Weapons
By Rebecca Johnson, The Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy.
Notes for presentation at Joint Conference on "Future Security in Space: Commercial, Military and Arms Control Trade-Offs", the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Mountbatten Centre, May 28-29, 2002.
This paper was published in James Clay Moltz (ed), Future Security in Space: Commercial, Military, and Arms Control Trade-Offs, Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, Occasional Paper No. 10 (July 2002).
Although a small number of non-governmental organisations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space have been concerned about the military uses of space for some time, for most NGOs awareness of the risks of space weaponisation have grown out of their concerns about missile defence during the late 1990s. Though the issues of missile proliferation, missile defence and the weaponisation of space may be connected, they give rise to different kinds of political questions and responses. It is perhaps premature to speak of NGO initiatives on space weaponisation. There are, rather, a range of tasks that need to be undertaken, preferably through partnerships of NGO and government experts and practitioners, ideally together with constructive commercial and even military interests. Most importantly, there is the need to develop awareness, initiatives and approaches for addressing issues raised by current civilian and military activities in space and potential future developments that might jeopardise them or jeopardise the security and activities of life on Earth.
In determining an approach, designing a strategy or embarking on a campaign, some fundamental questions need to be asked.
1) What are the real, probable and potential threats and risks, both in relation to existing and future space assets, and from the potential weaponisation of space?
2) Who wants to attack or weaponise space assets and why? In other words, who is promoting, researching and developing capabilities to attack or weaponise in space? Not just the countries concerned, but agencies, personnel and financial and political backers. What kind of weapons are under consideration - space based or space capable?
3) Does this pose a real threat - i.e. why should we worry? I mean this in terms not only of military security, but in the wider security definitions and understandings, as mentioned by Mr Petrovsky just now.
4) What are the drivers and obstacles and, of particular importance, the likely time-frames?
5) What can we do about it? Should we take preventive and precautionary measures, and if so, what?
Much of this conference and many of the preceding papers have addressed the first four questions. My purpose here is to address the fifth, but it is important to hold in mind that any consideration of what to do must take into account the other four, and must also be prepared to respond to any changes in the information or conditions pertaining to the first four questions. It is immediately obvious - and this conference has confirmed it - that much more work needs to be done to research the nature of the threats posed to space assets, and the costs, risks and benefits of different security approaches. With this caveat, I will sketch out some of the considerations underlying various possible NGO-led approaches.
First, a note about language. Some diplomats and NGOs use the terms "militarisation of space" and "weaponisation of space" as if they were interchangeable. They are not. Others use the term "peaceful uses of space" in ways that ignore the national technical means (NTM), surveillance and pinpointing technology that allows conventional weaponry to be finely aimed, controlled and fired. Space is already considerably militarised with significant observation, intelligence and communications assets. While (as far as we know) there are no specifically designed and deployed weapons in space yet, there are satellites that could be manoeuvred to act as weapons and disable or destroy the space assets of others. The question of what makes a weapon is not so much one of specific technological function or capability but of intention, context and use. This recognition has profound implications for the kind(s) of arms control or disarmament approaches that could be considered feasible. Furthermore, while some of the military uses of space have already gone beyond what I consider desirable, and there are some very grey areas surrounding technology such as targeting components, it is important to acknowledge the positive use of space-based intelligence for verifying arms control treaties, early warning of environmental and military threats and so on. These distinctions and clarifications are important when considering ways to prevent the weaponisation of space and develop a code of conduct for the non-aggressive, non-offensive uses of space. Attempts to "demilitarise" space, as some NGOs demand, are non-starters. For the reasons given above, they are not feasible nor, I would contend, desirable.
NGOs, which can be local, national or transnational, formally constituted or grouped in informal networks with common purpose, can contribute in three main areas of operation:
i) raising wider public consciousness of the concerns, problems and options, mainly through public education, information exchange and engagement with the media and elected and governmental representatives, and with commercial and military communities with assets, investments, experience and expertise in space and space-related matters;
ii) providing technical, legal and political research, such as analysis of different approaches, definitions, parameters, strategies, and instruments, with a view to determining whether negotiations are necessary and, if so, preparing the ground for negotiations on the appropriate instrument or instruments;
iii) identifying and promoting measures to address the issue, including consultations, prenegotiations and negotiations, essentially: what, how, where, among whom and when.
At present, when, despite the excellent papers at this conference, it is clear that we need more information to determine the best ways forward, research, academic and policy-directed analysis will be a priority. There also has to be greater outreach towards the mainstream media as well as specialist journals, to get them interested in the issue. As the informational base begins to develop, grassroots and town hall meetings can widen interest, get the issue into local media, and begin to generate pressure on elected representatives. The point to emphasise is that raising public awareness requires both solid, technically competent arguments and simple, direct, emotionally appealing messages. To get the public interested and concerned, it is important to enable people to picture the dangers. In local meetings around the United States, for example, some NGO representatives have been making very effective use of images and slogans from the US SpaceCom's own promotional materials, such as 2020 Vision, which proclaimed (for example) "US Space Command - dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment" and "Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict" The fact that these points were made so forcefully by proponents of space weaponisation makes them a far better mobiliser than if the speakers were to allege these motivations and intentions!
To engage public attention, a range of arguments needs to be utilised, as different messages are likely to have different impact on different kinds of audiences. European and many developing countries are already sceptical about missile defence, and the evocation of missile defence plans extending into space-based weapons and wars is already perceived as plausible and worrisome, if not a major political priority. Because sections of the Bush administration and the Pentagon are most gung ho about the prospects for weaponisation space, the US homeland is perhaps the most important public constituency to reach. Religious people might be moved by calls to "Keep the Heavens for Peace", for example, while others might get more nervous by the idea of debris raining down on the earth - remember the spate of movies about asteroids colliding with the Earth, and how worried people became when the Mir space station's orbit decayed and it plunged to Earth? Still others might perceive it as a political or ethical choice for the United States, essentially Star Trek or Star Wars - space for exploration and communication or for dominance and warfighting.
Fear that communication or satellite intelligence will be jeopardised is likely also to be a powerful argument, though this message cuts both ways. Businesses will back the option that offers the best chance of minimising disruption. The military-vulnerability argument is dual use. Steven Lambakis evoked a trapped American soldier and argued: "It is also quite a different thing to ask a person whether he would support the development of a weapon, a tool, to physically knock out a satellite that had uncovered the positions of our sons in uniform, who happened to be cornered in some godforsaken valley in Afghanistan. Who would not favour removing the threat?" Posed in that way, Americans could not be expected to refuse to take the steps necessary to defend the military assets that protect "their sons". But the same image of the trapped soldier can be used to convey a diametrically opposed message about weapons in space - imagine him trapped and isolated without GPS and satellite communication as a result of blackouts resulting from detonations in space.
Different messages will work for different people. Although it is widely recognised that fear can be a very effective political motivator, it is important not to use false or exaggerated information and claims in order to whip up fear and anxiety. Similarly, it is well known that terrible accidents or, preferably, near-misses, can rouse a relatively quiescent public - the "Chernobyl effect" - but too much "Chicken Little and the falling sky", as appeared with the Cassini flyby, can leave NGOs looking foolish. Fear- and threat-based messages have to be based on realistic scenarios and handled without sensationalism. Misinformation might produce short-term effect, but it will come back to haunt you and undermine the credibility of your message. So I go back to the need for further research, and for consideration to be given for how to get the most important information across in a form and with language that makes sense and evokes an active response from the general public.
As a first step, it would be good to gather in one volume the most up to date research on existing and future activities, assets and interests in space, military as well as commercial. Additionally, we need a study looking at the number and type of objects that would have to be placed in space if missile defence were to extend to the weaponisation of space, and combine that with an analysis of the impact of increasing space debris. On the basis of forecasts, it would be helpful for NGOs to commission environmental impact assessments of weapons use or accidents involving the presence or use of weapons in space. Such information is intrinsically valuable, and can often also be used to raise public awareness through the media or meetings.
Conferences like this bring together a range of experts and practitioners, and can be very useful. As prospects and understanding of the issue become clearer, it will be necessary to involve national politicians and diplomats from a wider range of countries in further meetings. These could either be informal, or become constituted as a "Group of Space Experts". There is a precedent for this: for some two decades before the Conference on Disarmament actually managed to agree a CTBT negotiating mandate, a governmental Group of Seismic Experts was convened to work on the seismic aspects of verification of a nuclear test ban. I would not necessarily argue for the same model, as the GSE suffered from an overly limiting mandate, but it is worth considering how a group of governmental and nongovernmental experts might be convened to study the problem and options more formally, perhaps in the margins of the CD or a PAROS Committee - if one ever gets convened - in Geneva, or potentially through the United Nations and COPUOS (the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space). Such an initiative could yield useful information, prepare the ground for negotiations and also raise awareness of the issues.
In his opening presentation, Clay Moltz referred to the dichotomy of Grand Treaty versus step by step approach. I think it is a mistake to regard these as dichotomous or as mutually exclusive alternatives; it would be better to see these as on a spectrum of possible approaches. There is as yet no "grand treaty" in the pipeline: there are different kinds of treaties that could be considered, from the very radical demand made by some NGOs who want a comprehensive treaty banning weapons and nuclear power used in or passing through space, or the treaty elements sketched out by China, to a normative treaty prohibiting the use of weapons in space or against space objects. Similarly, a step by step approach could range from establishment of a voluntary, regulative regime, a sort of agreed code of conduct or rules of the road governing civilian and military space activities, to a partial treaty banning certain kinds of space-related weapons or activities, either along the lines Clay proposed in his Arms Control Today paper or something like an ASAT ban, as was regularly proposed by various governments during the 1980s. As a first step, states could hold talks to consider setting up arrangements for transparency, pre-launch notification, protection of space assets and joint approaches for dealing with the problems of space crowding and debris.
We often hear the pessimistic argument that the US government will never agree to prohibit space weaponisation and it is pointless to go ahead with negotiations without the United States. While agreeing that we should beware of creating a club of the virtuous, I want to argue that there is a wide operating space between excluding or bypassing the United States and giving Washington a carte blanche to do whatever it chooses to do in space combined with a veto to block international efforts to set up a 'space sanctuary' regime of collective security, restraint or prohibition with regard to space. Finding the best approach is a matter both of aims and objectives - the type of instrument or treaty, for example - and the forum, i.e. the structure, context and participation-base for consultations or negotiations.
For a particular multilateral disarmament measure, the "effective power" of the state proponents combined with the "effective engagement" of civil society must outweigh the "effective power" of state opponents. To create the conditions for successful multilateral arms control or disarmament, therefore, attention has to be paid to diminishing the effective power available to opponents, increasing the effective power of proponents, and increasing the effective engagement of civil society. Recognising that power is principally a product of domestic and international political factors and the state's military and economic force, the effective power of opponents and proponents will depend on the number of governments who oppose or support a particular measure and their national cohesion and available international power to push through their perceived interests on this issue. The drive towards space weapons comes almost exclusively from what is still a relatively small section, admittedly close to Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, in the Pentagon, on the premise that space war is inevitable and that pre-emptive US military dominance of space is the only way to defend against future threats to US military and commercial assets. It is not therefore surprising that the primary opponent of CD negotiations on preventing an arms race in space is the United States. Britain, Germany and Israel are prepared to give some low key support to the US position, although Britain and Germany traditionally join the majority in voting in favour of the PAROS resolutions year by year at the UN General Assembly.
The United States may be only one state, but it is the sole remaining superpower, with enormous financial, military and political power. It was also established as a pluralist society, with a constitutional separation between the legislative, executive and judicial powers, and press freedom, albeit circumscribed by advertising biases and who controls the purse. The effective power that the US government can deploy in opposing some form of space sanctuary agreement or treaty banning weapons in space can be diminished through mobilising commercial, public and, very importantly, congressional support for such a measure. To prepare the ground for multilateral negotiations on space, therefore, the strategy must be consciously aimed at fostering opposition to the US Space Command's concept that the weaponisation of space is inevitable and that the only real question is who gets there first. Similarly, the effective power of proponents for addressing this issue may be diminished through divisions, arising from disagreements about the objective or approach or from larger political considerations. Proponents may on paper include almost all the countries represented in the United Nations, but some have very little power, while others are caught between their perceived national security interests (to ban weapons in space) and strong ties of alliance with the United States (NATO etc).
In exploring the space between US exclusion and US veto, I now want briefly to consider the implications of some of the measures on that spectrum.
The most uncompromising of the NGOs working on space issues, the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, helped initiate and strongly supports a Space Preservation Bill tabled in the House of Representative by Dennis Kucinich (Democrat-Ohio) as HR 3616 (January 2002) In essence, the bill calls on the U.S. to ban all research, development, testing, and deployment of space-based weapons. If passed, it would also require the United States to enter negotiations toward an international treaty to ban weapons in space. The Global Network is now soliciting American groups and individuals and international groups to pledge their support to Kucinich's Bill. Such initiatives, although unlikely to be successful per se, can be very useful in raising the issue and focussing public and political attention. There is, however, one potential danger that has to be taken into account by proponents of national legislation and particularly by advocates of early international treaty negotiations: that premature legislative initiatives may also serve to focus and strengthen the opposition to such measures, thereby "inoculating" the issue against later, more pragmatically targeted initiatives to prevent the weaponisation of space. I am not making an argument against initiatives such as the Kucinich Bill, which can be a very helpful rallying point for activists, so much as sounding a note of caution about how it is used.
In my April 2001 presentation to the Moscow Space Conference, I concluded that programmes to weaponise space would destabilise strategic relations, harm international security and jeopardise civilian and existing military assets in space and so argued for early international action to prohibit the research and development of military programmes that would result in the deployment of weapons in space. Consequently, I proposed negotiations on a treaty to prohibit weapons and war in space, with the following three components:
i) a ban on the deployment and use of all kinds of weapons in space, thereby extending and strengthening the 1967 Outer Space Treaty's prohibitions on weapons of mass destruction in space so that laser and other directed energy weapons (DEW) and kinetic energy weapons (KEW) are also banned, as well as any other potential offensive innovations that military researchers or planners might dream up;
ii) banning the testing, deployment and use of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, whether earth-based or space-based; and
iii) establishing a code of conduct for the peace-supporting, non-offensive and non-aggressive uses of space.
A treaty such as this would probably need to be normative, rather than relying on technical definitions and elaborate verification, although there are measures relating to transparency, launch notification and even mutual observation agreements which could enhance confidence. Nevertheless, while some forms of weaponry could be defined technically, it would be more important to prohibit certain kinds of activities, pre-eminently the use of any space-based object to attack, disable or destroy others. The ASAT ban would also have to be viewed in the context of further initiatives to control missile development and proliferation.
In the context of the April 2001 paper, I noted that in view of the political realities, which meant that PAROS issues were unlikely to get properly addressed, never mind negotiated in the CD, a space-focussed Ottawa-type process should be considered. Among those who disagree with me about this, too many fail to acknowledge that I noted that the Ottawa process was not easily reproducible and that there were significant differences in conditions and circumstances between potential space weaponisation and the 1993-97 Ottawa process to ban landmines. In this regard, I want to make three important clarifications. The term "Ottawa process" is short-hand for denoting a negotiating process that has two salient features: an initiative led and characterised by partnership between governmental and non-governmental experts, practitioners and negotiators; and multilateral negotiations outside the established forum of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. No other similarities are implied. As my presentation today clearly shows, I recognise the pointlessness of negotiating space issues without the United States. My contention is that it may be worthwhile to bypass the veto-promoting consensus-based structure of the CD, when one or a small number of key governments block a negotiating mandate, providing that sufficient ground-work has been done to ensure that powerful constituencies within opposing states will support and participate in negotiations. Secondly, the decision to go outside the CD is not a decision to be taken early or lightly. But at the same time, we need to distinguish between the institution of multilateralism, which has an important role to play in norm-building and regime-creation, and particular multilateral institutions, such as the CD, with its genealogy straight from the Cold War.
Thirdly, it should be remembered that before the Landmines campaigners bypassed the CD with the Ottawa process, they had sought to have the issue addressed in Geneva through the Convention on Certain Weapons (CCW) and at the CD. As public and political momentum grew, and it became clear that the time was ripe for negotiations despite persistent obstacles in the CD, the Ottawa process emerged as the logical process to achieve a ban. It is true that many key countries stayed outside, although it can be argued that the normative attributes of the ban and continuing attention of international civil society will act as a weighty restraint on producers and users. However, it must also be acknowledged that though the CTBT was negotiated multilaterally in the CD, India tried to block its adoption, and several of the most active negotiators, including India, Pakistan, China and the United States, have nevertheless failed to support the completed treaty. So an all-inclusive multilateral process in the UN's established fora does not guarantee ownership and full participation in the final product either. By the time a negotiating mandate is decided, the battle is more than half won. Therefore the question of negotiating forum is one for the end-game, and acknowledging a possible future consideration of negotiations outside the CD should not be made into a strategic stumbling block at this early stage. I regard it as premature to push forward with drafting a model treaty along the lines I suggested - a great deal more work must be done to lay the groundwork and build the necessary partnership with a small cross-section of states willing to take the lead in pursuing negotiations to achieve a far-reaching and preventive space sanctuary agreement.
Some, including Russia, have proposed negotiating a protocol to strengthen the Outer Space Treaty. This would first require the convening of a meeting of States Parties under the Treaty. Since the United States is a party, the initiative would risk the Bush Administration signalling its displeasure at being summonsed to the negotiating table, not only by blocking adoption of any protocol (à la the 1991 Partial Test Ban Treaty Amendment Conference), but, more seriously, by declaring the Outer Space Treaty an outdated encumbrance (as it has with the ABM Treaty). Since the Outer Space Treaty remains useful in its prohibition of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, any initiative to amend or add to it should be very carefully thought through, in case (by the law of unintended consequences) it has the damaging effect of weakening US commitment to the existing treaty provisions.
Inevitably, when proponents and opponents seem to be so far apart, there will be attempts to find a middle ground that can address aspects of the problem in ways that are more acceptable to the other side. Attempting to find a compromise between the Bush Administration's commitment to missile defence and the "purist" position of opponents, Clay Moltz has proposed prohibiting the stationing of weapons of any kind in low-earth orbit (LEO, 60-500 miles above the earth), forbidding attacks on permanent objects in space and prohibiting shooting from space, but permitting attacks on missiles travelling through low earth orbit. In that way, much of the Administration's missile defence plans might be allowed, while clear barriers would prevent escalation to higher levels of space weaponisation. While this is an interesting initiative to gain attention from moderates in the Bush administration, it runs the risk of all partial measures - either buying off public concern, or failing to stimulate sufficient public support to ensure that negotiations actually go ahead. The 1963 PTBT, for example, put nuclear testing out of sight, underground, thereby defusing much of the public concern, although nuclear testing continued to fuel the nuclear arms race. As noted earlier, opposition to space weaponisation is linked internationally with opposition to missile defence. A "technical fix" or partial measure that permits testing and deployment of weapons and interceptors in low earth orbit might be welcomed by US military and political constituencies (because they do not have plans and intentions to go beyond that), but it would not address the basic concerns of most other space sanctuary advocates. It would be a pity to divert the growing interest in this arms control issue prematurely into a cul-de-sac equivalent to the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty of 1974 and 1976, widely regarded as window dressing (since both the USSR and USA had no further interest in test explosions above 150 kilotons) to buy off the CTBT lobby (which they failed to do, as President Carter did not even pursue their ratification).
The step by step approach is not meant to be a substitute for addressing a problem fully, but rather a strategy for identifying and undertaking partial but systematic and progressive measures. If the objective is only the first step, as often meant in such approaches, then this is not part of a step by step approach, but rather a partial measure designed to deal only with an immediate manifestation of the problem. Despite my doubts about an approach that leaves the United States free to do most of the destabilising space developments currently planned or forecasted, I very much welcome the thinking that Clay has put into this proposal. It is perhaps important at this stage not to rule anything out, but to try to engage those on all sides of the argument in a conversation about the best ways to address space security.
The Outer Space Treaty refers to the importance of international cooperation and use of outer space and makes a suggestion for states parties to observe the flight of space objects launched by other states. Restraint regimes are generally more successful when they have both incentives, (shared technology or participation rights, for example) for those who renounce their own programmes, and transparency and confidence-building measures. 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 profitably discussed in the run-up to negotiations. Agreed measures could be established voluntarily to begin with, and then incorporated into a negotiated instrument when the time came.
Having explained earlier why I think that we should be prepared to go outside the CD when and if it becomes necessary (and only if the three basic requirements of groundwork, mobilisation and leadership are properly in place), I want to argue against the current Chinese (and, to a lesser extent, Russian) position of insisting on a negotiating mandate for the PAROS committee equivalent to the Fissban negotiating mandate as a condition of agreeing the CD's programme of work. Unless the United States is now going to step back from its earlier agreement to an ad hoc PAROS Committee without a negotiating mandate, CD members should embrace the chance to get started on PAROS discussions, inviting NGO experts and so on. They could start with an analysis of threats and risks, and go on to consider confidence-building measures and so on, all of which needs to be discussed before anyone sits down to negotiate an actual treaty. There is also COPUOS, but that by agreement does not address military-related questions; the UN First Committee - where debate would certainly proceed in the margins, focussed around the text of the annual resolution, but is limited by the pressure of considering some 40-50 resolutions; or even the UN Security Council, if members which to raise space security as a priority issue. Of all these, however, the CD would be the most appropriate forum for getting to grips with the complex legal, technical and political issues… if only the Fissban/PAROS linkage were not hindering agreement on a programme of work.
At this stage, when the prime task is to raise consciousness, a scattershot approach can sow lots of fertile seeds, so although some of the proposals being put forward are barely formed, and others might have serious weaknesses, all approaches can (and should) be explored and critically examined. It may be possible to move forward relatively quickly on some transparency or regulatory measures, and build a wider NGO-government-commercial constituency in the United States, and also in the other three major regions of space-interests, the European Union, India and Japan, to take more far-reaching legal and institutional measures. Personally, I think it will be necessary at some point to negotiate a new and preventive space sanctuary instrument - either a single treaty that incorporates all three dimensions I proposed in the Moscow paper (space weapons ban, ASAT ban and code of conduct for non-aggressive uses of space), or a series of interlinked agreements and instruments, some of which would be essentially norm-building expressions of expectation and prohibition, while others may be subject to internationally agreed verification measures. Insisting at this stage on one true approach would be likely to divide proponents and therefore diminish their effective power early on. It is more important to get generalised agreement to begin the process of discussion and exploration of the threats and options.
Although Rumsfeld moved rather swiftly to consolidate US SpaceCom personnel and structures more centrally in the Pentagon, space weaponisation is still likely to be some years off. The Bush Administration has a long way to go to prove the technology for the terrestrial-based elements of its vague and "multi-layered" missile defence schemes, and some programmes are now overshadowed by the budgetary black hole of the post-September 11 "war against terrorism"; so it is unlikely that Congress will vote further large sums for R&D on space weapons in the near future. We therefore have a special opportunity to take time, conduct good research and consider the options before we nail our colours to a particular masthead. We have time to build effective constituencies, but we do not have unlimited time. It would be stupid to wait until the first weapons were deployed (or the first accident occurred) and then try to establish a retrospective non-proliferation or disarmament regime in space. Much better to seize the early initiative to take preventive and precautionary measures before too much serious investment of money and prestige goes into convincing public and politicians that weapons in space will keep them safe.
1 United States Space Command, Vision for 2020, February 1997. Published as a visual presentation of images and slogans rather than in report form.
2 James Clay Moltz, "Breaking the Deadlock on Space Arms Control", Arms Control Today, April 2002.
3 Rebecca Johnson, Multilateral Approaches to Preventing the Weaponisation of Space, Disarmament Diplomacy 56, April 2001. The article was based on the presentation to the International Space Conference on "Space Without Weapons - Arena of Peaceful Cooperation in the 21st Century", in Moscow, April 11-14, 2001.
4 Moltz, op. cit.
Back to the Top of the Page
© 2004 The Acronym Institute.