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Space Weapons Overview

This article was originally published on Ucsusa.org

For half a century, the use of space has yielded immense benefits to humans worldwide. Satellites transmit global communications and television broadcasts, support international commerce, monitor Earth's weather and environment, broadcast global navigation signals, and verify arms control agreements. Currently more than 50 nations own satellites (or a share in one), and satellites are used in virtually every spot on the globe.

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Given these facts, it is important that we ensure the ability to use this resource far into the future. As space becomes more crowded with satellites and debris, laws and rules of the road are needed to regulate space traffic, resolve disputes, and control the production of space debris. In addition, space is in danger of becoming weaponized. While space has long supported military forces through reconnaissance, navigation and communication satellites, there currently are no weapons based in space.

However, this norm is being challenged. The Bush administration has been pushing to develop weapons that could be used to deny other countries the use of space in a crisis; these include space-based interceptors, which could be used to attack satellites. The fiscal 2008 budget included a Pentagon request for initial funding of a "space testbed" to develop such interceptors. Meanwhile, China's successful test of an anti-satellite weapon last January dramatically demonstrated that satellites are already at risk.

Left unchecked, the fear that controlling space may afford a decisive military advantage threatens to trigger a space arms race. That would divert economic and political resources from other pressing issues, and hinder international cooperation necessary to make progress on such problems as nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, and terrorism. In addition, increasing reliance on satellites for crucial military functions could cause instability in a crisis. Military war games suggest that the loss of important satellites, such as reconnaissance satellites, could spark a quick escalation in a conflict.

The international community must find ways to keep space free of orbiting weapons, to place limits on potentially harmful or destabilizing technologies—such as a ban on testing and use of weapons that destroy satellites—and to develop verification measures to instill confidence in and strengthen adherence to such agreements.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, signed by more than 90 countries, including the United States, bans weapons of mass destruction from space and extends the U.N. Charter to cover space operations. It states, "The exploration and use of outer space…shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind…[and] shall be guided by the principle of co-operation and mutual assistance …" The Outer Space Treaty lays out the fundamental principles for governing space, which should be used to create a legal framework that addresses today's issues and technologies.

A number of other relevant treaties and international agreements exist, but the legal framework addressing space weaponization is far from comprehensive. International negotiations are urgently needed to extend the framework. However, a handful of countries—including the United States—has blocked efforts to begin international negotiations on space arms control since 1994. Given its long history in space, the United States—which owns more than half of the active satellites orbiting today—instead should be promoting negotiations to protect to our future in space as well as security on Earth.

UCS's project on space weapons is intended to analyze the range of technical and political issues underlying the development, use, and control of space weapons, and to use this analysis to develop recommendations for U.S. and international policy on these issues.