#05 Securing Peace
Jerry Sommer

The Militarization of Space

X-37B was the name of a small unmanned US spaceship that returned to earth at the end of last year after 220 days in space. It was not sent up by NASA, the US civil space agency - it was on a test flight for the US Air Force.

There are contradictory accounts of the orbital test vehicle's mission: The US government claims that it is designed to very rapidly deliver a payload. Conflict researcher Götz Neuneck from the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg, however, agrees with other experts that it could also fulfil a military function: "It could be equipped with satellites that could then independently destroy, manipulate or jam other satellites. That means it has the potential to be used as a space weapon."

US space expert Jeff Manber is critical in particular of the US government's lack of openness: "Why is the Air Force keeping mum on the abilities and objectives of the orbital test vehicle? We are trying to encourage other countries to be more transparent. It is simply wrong to be so secretive."

In 1957 there was only one satellite in space. Today there are over 1,100 active systems. Added to this are the 19,000 satellites no longer in operation but which continue to orbit the earth. Space plays an increasingly important role in the daily lives of human beings - mobile phones, internet, GPS, climate observations and weather forecasts are just a few examples.

Satellites are also growing in importance for the military. They are able to locate enemy positions and movement in the Afghanistan war, for example. Images are transferred to military commando posts or sent directly to soldiers on location in real time. Today almost all communication with troops is via satellite. They also help guide precision weapons to their targets. Monitoring space, to detect any enemy missiles launched, for example, would also be unthinkable without satellites.

Eleven countries have satellite launch sites. Satellites from sixty countries constantly orbit the earth today. The USA is by far the dominant civil and military space power. Because the superpower wants to be militarily active on a global scale, it depends to a great extent on its systems in space. Half of the around 170 purely military satellites that ceaselessly circle the earth belong to the USA. But Russia, China, Germany, France and other countries also use satellites for military purposes.

Under international law, the military use of space is only regulated by one provision in the Outer Space Treaty from 1967. Expert for international law Hans-Joachim Heintze from Bochum University notes: "This treaty forbids the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space. As such the military use of outer space is limited to some extent."

The Outer Space Treaty does state that space is to remain accessable to all countries for peaceful use, though exactly what this use entails is not more clearly defined. And there are no restrictions on conventional weapons. According to the common understanding of the space nations then, measures for military "self-defence" - a very flexible term - are also allowed in space.

To date only "passive" military systems have been stationed in outer space. These serve the military for reconnaissance purposes and transmit communications, but cannot be used as weapons themselves against objects in space or on earth. But these "passive" satellites are also vulnerable: They can be destroyed from earth. In 2007, for example, China shot down one of its own satellites with a missile. One year later, the USA used an AEGIS missile developed as part of the missile defence system to destroy one of their own military satellites that was out of control and falling. Russia too has the capability to deploy missiles from earth as anti-satellite weapons. In principle all 11 countries currently capable of sending carrier rockets into space can already or will be able to do the same in the near future. Along with the five nuclear Great Powers, this includes countries like Israel, Japan, Germany, Iran and North Korea.

In view of technological development, there is concern that active weapons systems could be stationed in space - whether to threaten other satellites and missiles or even objects here on earth. The placement of weapons in outer space would represent a new level of militarization of that sphere. The danger that conflicts might be carried out in outer space could no longer be ruled out then.

Even if some weapons systems are still only dreams of the future at the present time, the development of space weapons is moving forward. Götz Neuneck from Hamburg's Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy: "There is a whole range of possible active satellites, starting with mini-satellites that could manipulate other satellites all the way up to mines, that is an explosive payload on board a satellite that could be steered towards another satellite to destroy it."

Russian military experts like Alexej Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin warn: "In view of its increasing importance for the civil and military fields, space could be the stage for a new global arms race in future, possible acts of violence and even terrorist attacks."

The USA, for example, is researching high energy lasers that could be stationed on planes as part of the missile defence system. Experts believe that the small X37-B orbital test vehicle could also be used as an active space weapon.

For years now, the UN plenary has called for agreement on a treaty forbidding the positioning of any type of active weapons systems in space. This would move far beyond the existing Outer Space Treaty that only forbids the placement of atomic, chemical and biological weapons in outer space.

In 2008, Russia and China presented a draft of such a treaty at the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, in which participating countries would pledge not to station any weapon-bearing objects in space or on other planets and comprehensively renounce the use of force towards objects in outer space. To date there have been no serious negations on this Russian-Chinese treaty draft, for George W. Bush opposed arms control and in particular new regulations for outer space during his time in office. The US's freedom of action in space was not to be limited.

In July 2010, President Barrack Obama presented his space strategy. It differs from that of his predecessor, according to Hans-Joachim Heintze, an expert on international law at Bochum University: "The new space strategy tries to increase security through cooperation. The US government has recognised that the new challenges for the USA are neither the Chinese nor the Russians, but rather the so-called rogue nations, and that these can only be combated collectively." The Obama administration, however, also opposes a comprehensive and binding arms control treaty, and not just because it is very difficult to even clearly define what qualifies as a space weapon. It is also almost impossible to prohibit anti-satellite weapons stationed here on earth, for any ballistic missile can be used to destroy a satellite.

There is another complication that keeps space initiatives from moving forward: The Obama administration, like its predecessor, does not wish to see the USA's freedom to act in and dominance of outer space limited in any way. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Space Policy Gregory L. Schulte clearly stated the US's objective: "We're acting to maintain our strategic advantage in space." The National Space Policy passed by Obama declares the security of its space satellites to be of national interest and wants to deter attacks against them "and if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them."

The European Union does not support an outer space weapons prohibition treaty either, probably in part because it feels the proposal cannot be realised in light of the USA's continuing opposition. Instead the governments of the countries in the EU have agreed to support an international "Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities". This is designed to strengthen the protection of activities in outer space. This includes the dangers presented by increasing space rubbish, but also the dangers of military use. It does not, however, contain any prohibitions on weapons in outer space.

The EU initiative, strongly supported by the German government, is based primarily on a voluntary commitment to provide information and measures to increase transparency and build trust. The EU Council ratified a re-worked draft of this Code of Conduct in September, 2010. The goal is to use the draft as a basis for consultations with other countries that would ultimately result in a code of conduct document that would be ratified at an international conference.

The Obama administration did not agree to the EU draft, but is in conversation with the EU to develop some "rules of the road" for conduct in outer space. These talks have not yet yielded results. Yet though such a "code of conduct" would not include prohibitions on stationing weapons in outer space, conservative Republicans have expressed "strong reservations" against it. A group of senators around influential Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) publicly and loudly expressed their fear that the Obama administration was aiming at "a multilateral commitment with a multitude of potential highly damaging implications for sensitive military and intelligence programs (current, planned or otherwise)".

This Republican intervention may well be based on the fact that an important percentage of Republicans view the placement of weapons in space, within the context of the missile defence system for example, as a useful option. In view of the internal balance of power in the USA, even an international "Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities" might prove politically impossible, let alone a treaty that actually prohibits outer space weapons.

Nonetheless measures that cooperatively counteract an arms build-up in outer space are both possible and a good idea. Peace researcher Götz Neuneck suggests a common declaration from all space countries as one option: "If these countries would come together and issue a clear statement that they will not place weapons in space and will not destroy any satellites in outer space, that would be a great step forward." This would not require the approval of the US Senate. But it seems the time is not yet ripe for even a declaration of this kind.

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