Disarmament and International Security

The Question of the Militarisation of Space – Briefing Paper


Militarisation of space is the movement to develop weaponry and military technology specifically for use in space.

The issue of the militarisation of space is a multifaceted problem covering issues such as whether one can truly own space, space weapons and the threat of military space superiority. The threat of warfare spilling from Earth’s surface into the skies is a very likely one, considering the progression of technology since the birth of the concept during the cold war. From the launching of the first Satellite, Sputnik 1, by the Soviets in 1957 to today, huge leaps have been made. The idea of space warfare developed due to the Space Race. By the 1960s, both the USA and the USSR had in orbit reconnaissance satellites and had tested Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). These were launched into sub-orbital spaceflight, and as they could hit a target in minutes rather than hours or days, were the precursor to many designs for space weapons. As a result, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) took place between the two superpowers. However, it was at a second set of talks, SALT II 1972 – 79, where new missile programmes were banned. SALT II dictated that:

“Each party undertakes not to develop… systems for placing into Earth orbit nuclear weapons of mass destruction, including fractional orbital missiles.”

This was never ratified by the US, however the terms were observed. The USSR, however, ignored the terms. In 1983, under President Ronald Reagan, the Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as Star Wars) was developed. This was a plan to create a sophisticated anti – ballistic missile system to prevent attacks from other countries. The proposed weapons on the system included space and ground – based nuclear X-Ray lasers (yes, to quote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child “my geekness is a-quivering”), subatomic particle beams and computer – guided projectiles fired by electromagnetic rail guns. Furthermore, in 1985, the US Air Force used an F-15 fighter jet to launch a missile, which took out a US satellite in low-Earth orbit.

With the end of the Cold War came the end of the Space Race. Currently there are four main types of militerisation that should be considered:

  1. Spy / Reconnaissance Satellites – these are capable of high-resolution photography and can act as early warning nuclear systems.
  2. Global Positioning System Satellites (GPS) – GPS enables countries to have an improved command and control over forces on the ground and in the air through improved location awareness. This also facilitates the targeting of bombs, drones and cruise missiles. The EU uses the “Galileo” Positioning System, the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is used by Russia, the Chinese use a regional satellite system called “Beidou” and India uses the Indian Navigational Satellite System.
  3. Military Communications Systems aided by Satellites. These encourage a network-centric style of warfare.
  4. Military Spaceplanes – These are aircrafts designed to take off and land conventionally but are also able to enter into orbit and travel in space. In 2004, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) transferred an unscrewed spaceplane project X – 37b to the US Department of Defence, proving that spaceplanes can and are being repurposed for military purposes.

It is important to remember that orbital weapons of mass destruction are banned in the United Nations Outer Space Treaty 1967. This is explained fully in the ‘Key Terminology’ section.

New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), is a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the US and Russia was signed on 8th April 2010 and after ratification came into action on 5th February 2011. The treaty, which expires in 2010, dictates that the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers should be reduced by 50%. It is a follow on from the SALT I and SALT II talks and START discussion from the 1970-80s.

In late July 2015 the UN attempted a discussion on a European Union – drafted code of conduct for spacefaring nations. Unfortunately, due to opposition from Russia, China, Brazil, India, South Africa and Iran (amongst other countries), the talks failed and no final outcome was reached.

This is an excellent article summarizing the current issues and history of space warfare. If you only read one thing, it should be this – https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/war-in-space-may-be-closer-than-ever/


Key Terminology and Treaties

There are five key treaties on outer space. These all set out in one-way or another the fundamental principles that guide the conduct of space activities. For example, the notion that space is “a province for all humankind”, that every nation is free to explore and use outer space and the principle of non – appropriation (i.e., a country cannot claim a celestial body or object for themselves). The five space treaties are:

  1. The “Outer Space Treaty” 1967
  2. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies – this bans orbital weapons of mass destruction.
  3. The “Rescue Agreement” 1968
  4. Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space
  5. The “Liability Convention” 1972
  6. Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects
  7. The “Registration Convention” 1976
  8. Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space
  9. The “Moon Agreement” 1984
  10. Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies – this has only been ratified by 16 countries, which do not include America, China or Russia.

This topic, like most when it comes to MUN, has a few terms and ideas that need defining:

  • Space warfare – combat which takes place in outerspace. It includes ground – to – space warfare and space – to – space warfare, however it doesn’t include using satellites for espionage, surveillance or military communications
  • Space mining and asteroid mining – the exploitation of raw materials from asteroids, moons and other minor planets
  • Capabilities of reconnaissance satellites

o   IMINT – Imagery Intelligence, involves the capture of data from aerial photography

o   SIGNIT – Signals Intelligence, gathering intelligence by intercepting signals from satellites

o   MASINT – Measurement and Scientific intelligence, scientific and technical information obtained by the analysis of data gathered through reconnaissance satellites. This is particularly for detecting nuclear activity.

Offensive Space Weapons

  • Space – to – Space Weapons – space planes with offensive abilities capable of using them in outer space. For example, The Soviet Almaz military space station programme was equipped with a 23mm auto canon
  • Earth – to – Space Weapons – anti-satellite weapons, explosives and projectiles
  • Space – to – Earth Weaponry

o   Orbital Weaponry – any weapon in orbit around the Earth. These are banned by the Outer Space Treaty and the SALT II Treaty

o   Orbital and Kinetic Bombardment – attacking the Earth from orbit. The Outer Space treaty (1967) bans live warheads from being carried into space, however kinetic bombardment is not outlawed. This involves dropping rods from orbit rather than explosives, which cause debris

Major Countries Involved

The three countries with the greatest edge by far with space technology are America, China and Russia. However, Japan and India and the European Space Agency (ESA) are also making considerable headway in the field. The Russian Space Force was reintroduced as an independent part of the Russian military on June 1st 2001. However, in the past, the USSR planned for a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System and put into orbit many reconnaissance satellites under the Almaz and Polyus projects.

The US has had many military space programmes, including the Strategic Defense System, Nike / Zeus Project, Project Defender and the Safeguard Programme. Fundamentally, the US, China and Russia believe in the freedom of action in space. In 2007, China launched a missile, which destroyed its own weather satellite, creating large amounts of debris. Moreover, in May 2013, the Chinese sent a missile 30,000 kilometers above Earth, approaching the safe haven of strategic geosynchronous[1] satellites. In response, the US declassified details of its secret Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Programme (GSSAP) to prove that they are aware of what is happening in the GSO. Also in 2015, the Obama administration budgeted $5 billion to be spent over 5 years on defensive and offensive capabilities of the US military space programme.

The Chinese Space Programme launched its first manned mission into space in 2003, with taikonaut Yang Liwei on board the Shenzhou 5. There are plans for a permanent Chinese space station to be launched in 2020. China wishes to use space for scientific exploration, for example, reaching Mars and further deep space exploration. China is also testing space weapons, including earth – to – space systems and the limits of reconnaissance satellites. It is important to note that the Chinese exclusion policy of NASA. In April 2011, the US Congress passed an Act banning co-operative work between China and NASA. It stated:

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China”[2]

Main Issues

This topic is highly contentious as no one is completely sure how legislation to do with space works in communication with other countries. There are very few space laws, and they all originate from treaties. However most of these treaties were written at the birth of space travel during the 1960’s and 70’s. It is important to take into consideration the idea that no one can “own” space. By placing weapons in space, a country is effectively claiming to protect their own territory. However, in the future we will surely need to exploit the resources of space by performing activities such as space mining. This could potentially cause a conflict of interest, increasing the need for space weapons.

Furthermore, space is only meant to be used for peaceful purposes, but space weapons could enable and promote nuclear warfare, as this is the most common type of space weapon. There is also an advantage to countries with space superiority, perhaps putting pressure on countries with less ability to fight back. As the Cold War shows, there could be conflict in gaining superiority. Furthermore, it is very easy for anti – satellite weapons to be put to use, without them being a live warhead. A spacecraft could manually disable a satellite by spraying paint over its optics or cutting off its communications antennae, or by destabilizing its orbit. As another point of consideration, though not completely connected to weapons, delegates should take into account the Kessler Reaction or Syndrome. This is when objects in Earths orbit collide creating more space debris that could create more collisions to the point that space activities may not be viable for future generations. Debris could be the cause of possible conflict, so keeping it to a minimum it very important.

Lastly, many current systems and crafts, such as the US Ballistic Missile System, the X – 37B space craft and GSSAP satellites could all be repurposed for offensive methods with relative ease.

Possible Solutions

Deciding where your country stands on the freedom of activity in space is important. If your country accepts the use of weapons outside earths atmosphere then setting the parameters of what sort of weapons can be used and what action cannot it important. You must take into account that large nuclear warheads are not the only form of weapon but that there are other methods that must be covered, such as kinetic bombardment. Furthermore, considering the effects of war in space on Earth below is paramount. Depending on which way you look at it, it could cause a large amount of lives to be lost or be an effective way to win.

If your country disagrees with the militerisation of space, then working to ban space weapons entirely in a treaty is going to achieve this. However, you must remember that current spacecrafts can be modified and thus would not count directly as a space weapon. Furthermore, the education and promotion of peaceful exploration, thus creating a stigmatism against placing weapons in space could also help.

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[1] A geosynchronous orbit (sometimes abbreviated GSO) is an orbit around the Earth with an orbital period of one sidereal day, intentionally matching the Earth’s sidereal rotation period (approximately 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds).

[2] Public Law 112-55, SEC. 539