Armin Rosen has a very interesting discussion of the history of the military use of space–and the prospect of international agreements that would place limits on the use of weapons in space. Rosen begins by noting that for very practical reasons, there is little military need (or interest) in putting weapons aimed at the earth in space:
But what about war from space? For powerful space-faring countries, space-to-earth or earth-to-space combat is about as practical as it is desirable — which is to say, not very. “Space is incredibly useful for the military for a lot of things,” McDowell explains. “It’s great for intelligence, communication and navigation. The natural thing is to ask, ‘where are my X-Wing fighters?’ The fact is that it’s hard to find a rationale for them.”
Laura Grego, a senior scientist in the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained why an orbital weapons platform — the kind of big-ticket military asset that you might want a fleet of X-Wing-type vehicles to protect — is impractical for attacking targets on earth. “Everything in space is moving at rapid speeds. At the same time, the earth is rotating underneath it….as it’s going around, you can’t hold [the weapon] above your target. You might be over one country for 15 minutes and then you’re gone.” This tiny orbital window is called the absentee ratio, and an ICBM, which can hit any target on earth within minutes, isn’t constrained by one. McDowell added that in order to reach atmospheric velocity, a rocket needs to reach a breakneck seven kilometers-per-second, far faster than the four to five kilometers-per-second an ICBM must travel. From a purely strategic standpoint, orbiting a weapon for space-to-ground use is more expensive and far less useful than existing, more earth-bound capabilities.
Second, he notes that the use of weapons of mass destruction has been incorporated in international law, but there are limits on these international norms:
The ban on Death Star-like orbital weaponry is one of the more robust norms in international law. A prohibition on stationing weapons of mass destruction in space, as well as the total demilitarization of the Moon, is enshrined in article 4 of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which 126 countries have signed. As University of Nebraska law professor and space law expert Frans von der Dunk notes, the treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space without banning their actual use in space. The stationing and use of kinetic or conventional weaponry is also allowed. Yet the most worrying aspect of the current legal regime is that the laws of war extend to the heavens as well. “The general international law on the law of force and the prohibition on the use of military force also applies in outer space,” says von der Dunk. “If, as part of your self-defense you need your satellite to shoot down the satellite of your aggressor…that is perfectly allowed.”
Finally, Rosen notes that because of the very real possibility of the use of military force against satellites in space (which, after all, have become essential in modern warfare), there is now a renewed debate about whether we need new arms control agrement in space. Of most immediate concerm is that the use of force in the geostationary orbit could eliminate the useful use of this critical orbit forever:
The destruction of geostationary orbit would have worrying consequences for humankind. “Geostationary orbit is vulnerable because it’s a very precise orbit and it’s relatively crowded,” McDowell says. There’s always the possibility that a satellite’s fuel ignites, or that there’s some other mishap in space. “If you add to that the danger of deliberate action then [geostationary orbit] is a resource that we could easily lose if a large explosion were to occur.” And once it’s gone, it’s gone until humankind can invent some kind of orbital garbage-truck.
The surest way of foreclosing on the possibility of this all-too-plausible doomsday in space is through the same kind of multilateral efforts that have stanched the spread of nuclear arms, stigmatized the use of chemical weapons, and all but stricken catastrophic inter-state warfare from the face of the earth. The world needs a system of multilateral checks and balances that relegates war against space assets to the same political and psychic space as World War III: something that humanity, by dint of mutual self-interest and robust international institutions, has successfully turned into a geopolitical boogeyman, a bandied-about but nevertheless distant worst-case scenario.
That work has already begun. There is an international effort underway to create a “rules of the road for space” — an update to the Outer Space Treaty that would establish guidelines for conduct in space. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed the process, if not every aspect of the still-to-be determined treaty, in a January, 2012 press release. The new treaty would be what international legal experts refer to as a “soft law:” a measure that would enshrine a set of shared principles and that might eventually gain the status of “hard” customary law, given enough time and enough precedent within the international system. For instance, the U.N. Security Council could sanction a country that violates the “rules of the road.” But until such sanctions are passed, the treaty would exist without any solid coercive force — it would be a declaration, rather than a piece of law; unspecific, and largely toothless.
Luckily, the rules of the road aren’t the only space war treaty under discussion. Both China and Russia have expressed their support for a proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space treaty, a multilateral agreement that would be more like the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty — a document that places very specific restrictions on the actions of its signatories. Right now, the biggest obstacle to the treaty’s passage is the United States.
The U.S., which has obstructed or simply ignored the PAROS process, is concerned that the treaty could work against its interests. Russia and China might view the accord as a means of reigning in the U.S.’s future capabilities; the U.S., meanwhile, doesn’t want to give its potential rivals a veto over the development of those capabilities. As von der Dunk puts it, the U.S. doesn’t want to enter into “a treaty which would hurt the most powerful nation the most.”
This is a legitimate concern, especially if the U.S. observes the PAROS treaty while other, less scrupulous actors attempt to undermine it. By preventing the U.S. from developing space weaponry, PAROS could theoretically shield future actors that are actually the most dead-set on weaponizing space. Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College, who is broadly supportive of a PAROS-like treaty, says that arms control issues in space are a “series of Catch-22s. It becomes difficult if not impossible to get over definitional hurdles and verification hurdles, or it can be made to seem that way by people who don’t want to get things done.”
Read it all here. What do you think? there are very real issues of verification. We may not be able to determine whether a nation has the capacity to take action against a satellite. Should we entertain an arms control regime that we cannot necessarily verify? Even apart from verification, is it in the United States’ interest to have limits on its space activities (and on the activities of its leading space peers)?
Charles A. Blanchard
United States Air Force