Small Wars Journal

Do National Interests Extend Past the Atmosphere?

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The primacy of the state may be nowhere more pronounced than where terrestrial political borders have no relevance. Conflict may not be inevitable, but the lack of an updated framework to guide responsible state behavior in outer space needs to be addressed.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty declared outer space the “province of all mankind,” but since the launch of Sputnik and the start of the space age, many activities in this so-called global common have been intimately tied to national interests. Today, space-based technologies are an increasingly indelible component of states’ military arsenals, which depend on them to navigate, communicate, identify targets, and conduct reconnaissance. And while so far there has been no weaponization of space, some believe it is only a matter of time. A 2001 report to the US Congress submitted by the Rumsfeld Space Commission stated:

“We know from history that every medium – air, land and sea – has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different. Given this virtual certainty, the U.S. must develop the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space.”

The belief that space conflict is inevitable is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dozens of corporations, defense contractors, as well as national space programs have space weapons in development, with states quick to respond to perceived ‘gaps’ in their space security apparatus vis-à-vis others. For instance, what has popularly been referred to as the Asian space race reached a tense climax in 2007, when China demonstrated its new anti-satellite weapons capabilities by downing one of its old weather satellites. The US quickly responded by doing the same the next year. The sensitivity of state interests regarding space could even be seen in the initial debate surrounding the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system, and the brief uncertainty it inserted into the transatlantic relationship.

Dangers of escalation in the space realm are clear: they include the possibility of harming essential civilian and commercial assets, proliferating space debris, and the high probability of a triggering a costly and potentially deadly arms race. But the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits only the deployment of nuclear weapons and WMDs in space, and has no provisions on non-nuclear weapons (including ground-based ones), is still the only internationally accepted framework for governing space behavior today. This treaty is widely recognized as archaic and insufficient to address technological advancements, but consensus on an updated space security agreement is hampered by the desire of states to maintain freedom of action, mutual suspicions, and the difficulty of enforcement. This is further complicated by the issue of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), which has inherent anti-satellite capabilities and lies at the core of strategic deterrence and national defense for many states.

More progress has been made in civilian space cooperation, through the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), the International Space Station, as well as a plethora of bilateral and multilateral agreements, but major gaps also remain in that area: Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is still fragmented under national programs; “space junk” (>10cm) capable of destroying essential space assets now number some 21,000 pieces – though these pose a threat to all states, there is no guideline prohibiting debris-generating activity, nor any substantive cooperation regarding clean-up; corporate and private uses of outer space still lack a framework of regulation; and no international mechanism exists to deal with potential Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that could threaten the globe. Given the vulnerabilities of space-based systems, the dangers of escalation, and the value of outer space as an asset for commerce, science, and as our heritage – waiting for a galvanizing crisis before taking action to address these glaring holes in the international security regime is in no one’s interest.

Fortunately, states have taken some steps in the right direction in recent years, though cooperation remains hampered by trust-based barriers: Russia and China’s 2008 draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, The Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPW) has been rejected by the US as unacceptable. The EU’s 2008 draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities has received a somewhat better reception, but a number of developing countries who were not involved in the drafting process remain skeptical. More promising is the UN-established Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Space Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs), which is chaired by Russia and has received widespread endorsement, including from the US. The GGE met for the first time in 2012, and will meet two more times before it submits its report in 2013. The Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities (LTSSA) Working Group, an initiative of UNCOPUOS, is also currently in the process of reviewing civilian space-use guidelines. Along with the Obama administration’s endorsement of a voluntary international Code of Conduct, it seems that for the first time in decades, a policy window has opened for meaningful dialogue on space security. But turning this dialogue into real policy progress will require more dedicated and sustained attention from the international community. The point here is not to argue for a rigorous legally binding treaty, but that states should work towards a more clearly defined space regime, keep this issue on the agenda, and sustain dialogue moving forward. This will provide a more stable environment for the expansion of civilian use, technology, and exploration in space – at the same time that it will serve to the benefit of states’ security interests.

Ironically, it was Cold War strategic considerations that drove the adoption of the 1967 treaty declaring space a global common. Signed and ratified, among others, by the United States (by a unanimous Senate), the Soviet Union, and the UK, its spirit and message was that sometimes states and their societies will be more in peril if national walls do not come down and commonalities are recognized. Outer space could live up to this promise of a domain that transcends our politics – but to get there will take much more dialogue, negotiation, and groundwork from all of us.

About the Author(s)

Jiayi Zhou is an dual Master's candidate and Atlantis Fellow at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and the Hertie School of Governance.



Sun, 02/17/2013 - 8:53am

I forgot to add that these "large events" are also not all man-made. The recent meteorite shower in the Urals - the first one close to urbanized areas- will also make governments more aware of the need for common research and perhaps global protective measures - pssive and active - against this kind of phenomena.
Those who know the inner workings of the Ad-Hoc Task force on Planetary Defense, under the NASA Advisory Council, will recognize what I mean: the name of the game is not (only) national policies, but also cooperative efforts in asteroid detection, probe and survey, warning and response systems, possible models and concepts for deflection, minimization, break up of large masses, "intercpetion", etc.
The EU, Russia, China and Japan have also teams working on this , and - outside of US orbit (mind the pun)- Moscow already launched the first models of possible interceptors, and proposed the SDE global system (besides working on transformed ABM concepts at least since 1995). We should also note, for example, the IAA 2011 Planetary Defense Conference (Bucharest), where most of those themes were deeply debated.


Sun, 02/17/2013 - 8:39am

The real question here is space and dimension. They are no more controllable now by politics alone as the oceans were when parts of the globe were still "terra incognita". That was the time, until the adoption of the fist "global" public international law (of European influence, thus "jus publicum europeaum", and under the intellect of the likes of Hugo Grotius), where maritime sovereignty was measured not by treaties but by the range of embarked or coastal defense artillery.
To create new norms and forms of cooperation is great, in any decent society, but developments - in war, peace, and between (we know that there is a middle space between war and peace, for example in sanctions, boycotts, blockades)- will be determined, in outer space, by technical achievements. The rest will come after. Most time treaties reflect the will and reality. It is not them that create wills and realities.
Anf of course large scale incidents in outer space will also cause jumps and "revolutions". Like the events leading to the passage of an unknown world to a known one, at the beginning of our sixteenth century.

N. Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal


Sun, 02/17/2013 - 8:31am

In reply to by Brian_Deuce

Thanks for the feedback. My point was exactly that conflict is not inevitable. Nevertheless, self-fulfilling prophecies are those which result in behavior which feeds back into the belief. Unchecked by confidence-building measures between states, it can and will result in escalation. However not all policy-makers and political actors hold to the "virtual certainty" of space conflict.

States will continue to pursue their national interests in space. As I stated: "The point here is not to argue for a rigorous legally binding treaty, but that states should work towards a more clearly defined space regime."

This is not, I believe, an overly naive vision.


Thu, 02/14/2013 - 1:40pm

While I appreciate the authors sentiments, and wish the world was peaceful and abided by international rules and norms, I cannot agree with his arguments. You state that "the belief that space conflict is inevitable is a self-fulfilling prophecy." First, the statement is false and not backed by any empirical evidence; did the nuclear arms race cause a nuclear war. Did the invention of the sword lead to warfare? Invention of the gun then? Tank? Fighter Jet? Pretty sure man has been using weapons against his fellow man since he learned to use his opposable thumbs. Second, preparing for conflict in space will not cause it to happen... but how do we (USA) justify not preparing for a space conflict if other nation states are? There are international treaties against chemical and biological warfare; I guess we no longer need gas masks or antidotes? If and when someone discovers an economically feasible way to extract resources from space, I guarantee there will be a competition for resources, just like there was/is for water, gold, oil, etc.