More than 5,000 satellites have been launched into orbit since the space age began[ii]. Today, eleven countries have space launch capability, with over sixty countries operating about 1,100 active satellites orbiting the earth providing a constant stream of data and information relied upon for critical civilian communications as well as for military operations by some.[iii] As we grow ever more dependent on the ability of these satellites to perform their essential functions without interruption, there are growing concerns that this useful technology is giving rise to a new battleground in space for the purpose of sabotaging or destroying the vital services our space-based communications now provide.
The US and Russia have been testing anti-satellite technology (ASAT) since the space age began, and have even contemplated using nuclear tipped ballistic missiles to destroy space assets. In 1967, the US and Russia realized it would be in their interest to support the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which banned the placement of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in space, although they failed to ban the use of conventional weapons in space. And in 1972 they agreed to sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) to slow down the space race and the ability to harm each other’s assets in space. Unfortunately, George Bush walked out of the ABM treaty in 2002, and the race to weaponize space was on once again in full force. China is getting into the act too, having launched, in 2007, a device which destroyed one of its aging weather satellites orbiting in space. The US followed suit in 2008, destroying a non-functioning satellite, while both nations denied any military mission for their acts, claiming they were merely trying to destroy outdated satellites that no longer functioned.
With the proliferation of military spacecraft such as imaging and communications satellites and ballistic missile and anti- missiles systems which often pass through outer space, there have been numerous efforts in the UN Committee on Disarmament (CD) to outlaw the weaponization of space through a legally binding treaty. But the United States is having none of it. In the CD, which requires consensus to take action, the US has been the only nation to block every vote to begin negotiations on such a treaty, with Israel generally abstaining in support. Russia and China actually prepared a draft treaty to ban weapons in space in 2008, but the US blocked the proposal, voting against it each year thereafter when it was reintroduced for consideration, saying the proposal was “a diplomatic ploy by the two nations to gain a military advantage”.[iv]
While continuing to block a legally binding treaty to ban weapons in space, the US has recently begun to work with a group of nations in a new initiative that began in the European Union in 2008, proposing a “Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities“ which would lay out a non-binding set of rules of the road for a safer and more responsible environment in space. Some of its key objectives are to mitigate damage to satellites that could be caused by space debris orbiting the earth, to avoid the potential of destructive collisions, and to manage the crowding of satellites and the saturation of the radio-frequency spectrum, as well as to address direct threats of hostility to assets in space. [v] At first, the US rejected any support for the Code, but has now agreed to participate in drafting a new version based on the third iteration from the European Union. Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller, acknowledged in 2012 the necessity for a Code to deal with orbital debris and “other irresponsible actions in space”, while at the same time, noting that,
It is important to clarify several points with respect to the code. It is still under development, we would not subscribe to any code unless it protects and enhances our national security, and the code would not be legally binding. [vi]
In addition, the US is insisting on a provision in this third version of the Code of Conduct that, while making a voluntary promise to “refrain from any action which brings about, directly or indirectly, damage, or destruction, of space objects”, qualifies that directive with the language “unless such action is justified”. One justification given for destructive action is “the Charter of the United Nations including the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense”, thus lending legitimacy and codifying the possibility for warfare in space as part of the Code’s established norm. And while the Charter of the United Nations prohibits aggressive action by any nation without Security Council approval unless a nation acts in self-defense, we know there have been numerous occasions where nations have by-passed the Security Council to take aggressive action, often protesting they were acting in self-defense. Instead of banning ASAT development and warfare, this Code justifies such warfare as long as it’s done, individually and collectively, under the guise of “self-defense”. Thus despite lacking the force of law that would be established with a legally binding treaty, this new US version of the Code creates, as the norm it is proposing, a possibility for space warfare. Our world deserves better!
[i] William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (2003) (Common Courage Press) http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/20869-our-leaders-do-not-mean-well