Time to rethink the Outer Space Treaty
[This article on Nature’s news site formed part of the journal’s “Sputnik package”.]
An agreement forged 40 years ago can’t by itself keep space free of weaponry.
Few anniversaries have been celebrated with such mixed feelings as the launch of Sputnik-1 half a century ago. That beeping little metal orb, innocuously named “fellow traveller of Earth”, signalled the beginning of satellite telecommunications, global environmental monitoring, and space-based astronomy, as well as the dazzling saga of human journeys into the cosmos. But the flight of Sputnik was also a pivotal moment in the Cold War, a harbinger of intercontinental nuclear missiles and space-based surveillance and spying.
That’s why it seems surprising that another anniversary this year has gone relatively unheralded. In 1967, 90 nations signed the Outer Space Treaty (OST), in theory binding themselves to an agreement on the peaceful uses of space that prohibited the deployment there of weapons of mass destruction. Formally, the treaty remains in force; in practice, it is looking increasingly vulnerable as a protection against th militarization of space.
Updating and reinvigorating the commitments of the OST seems to be urgently needed, but this currently stand little chance of being realized. Among negotiators and diplomats there is now a sense of gloom, a feeling that the era of large-scale international cooperation and legislation on security issues (and perhaps more widely) may be waning.
Last year was the tenth anniversary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and next year the fortieth anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the world’s strongest nuclear power, the United States, refuses to ratify the CTBT, while some commentators believe the world is entering a new phase of nuclear proliferation. No nuclear states have disarmed during the time of the NPT’s existence, despite the binding commitment of signatory states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament”.
In this arena, the situation does seem to be in decline. For example, the US appears set on developing a new generation of nuclear weapons and deploying a ballistic missile defence system, and it withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. China and Israel have also failed to ratify the CTBT, while other nuclear powers (India, Pakistan) have not even signed it. North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT in 2003, now claims to have nuclear weapons.
Given how poorly we have done so close to home, what are the prospects for outer space? “For the past four decades”, says Sergei Ordzhonikidze, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, “the 1967 Outer Space Treaty has been the cornerstone of international space law. The treaty was a great historic achievement, and it still is. The strategic – and at the same time, noble and peaceful – idea behind [it] was to prevent the extension of an arms race into outer space.”
Some might argue that those goals were attained and that there has been no arms race in space. But a conference  convened in Geneva last April by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research suggested that the situation is increasingly precarious, and indeed that military uses of space are well underway and likely to expand.
Paradoxically, the thawing of the Cold War is one reason why the OST is losing its restraining power. During a confrontration of two nuclear superpowers, it is rather easy to see (and game theory confirms) that cooperation on arms limitation is in the national interest. But as Sergey Batsanov, Director of the Geneva Office of the Pugwash group for peaceful uses of science, pointed out in the UN meeting, “after the end of the Cold War, disarmament and non-proliferation in their traditional forms could no longer be considered as vital instruments for maintaining the over-all status quo.” Batsanov suggests we are now in a transitional phase of geopolitics in which new power structures are emerging and there is in consequence a “crisis in traditional international institutions, and the erosion, or perhaps evolution, of norms of international law (such as the inviolability of borders and non-interference in another state’s internal affairs).”
It’s not hard to see what he is alluding to there. Certainly, it seems clear that the US plans for maintaining “space superiority” – the “freedom to attack as well as the freedom from attack” - does much to harm international efforts on demilitarization of space. The tensions created with Russia by US plans to site missile defence facilities in eastern Europe is just one example of that. James Armor, Director of the US National Security Space Office, indicates that, following the “emergence of space-enabled transitional warfare” using satellite reconnaissance in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991, military space capabilities have now become “seamlessly integrated into the overall US military structure”.
But it would be unwise and unfair to imply that the United States is a lone ‘rogue agent’. China has exhibited a clear display of military capability in space; as Xu Yansong of the National Space Administration of the People’s Republic of China explained at the UN conference, China’s space activities are aimed not only at “utilizing outer space for peaceful purposes” but “protecting China’s national interests and rights, and comprehensively building up the national strength” – which could be given any number of unsettling interpretations. Yet China, like Russia, has been supportive of international regulation of space activities, and it’s not clear how much of this muscle-flexing is meant to create a bargaining tool.
The real point is that the OST is an agreement forged in a different political climate from that of today. Its military commitments amount to a prohibition of nuclear weapons and other “weapons of mass destruction” in space, and the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies “exclusively for peaceful purposes.” That’s a long way from prohibiting all space weapons. As Kiran Nair of the Indian Air Force argued, “the OST made certain allowances for military uses of outer space [that] were exploited then, and are exploited now and ill continue to be so until a balanced agreement on the military utilization of outer space is arrived at.”
What’s more, there was no explicit framework in the OST for consultations, reviews and other interactions that would sustain the treaty and ensure its continued relevance. And as Batsanov says, now there are more players in the arena, and a wider variety of potential threats.
Both Russia and China have called for a new treaty, and earlier this year President Putin announced the draft of such a document. But we don’t necessarily need to ditch the OST and start anew. Indeed, the treaty has already been the launch pad for various other agreements, for example on liability for damage caused by space objects and on the rescue of astronauts. It makes sense to build on structures already in place.
The key to success, however, is to find a way of engaging all the major players. In that respect, the United States still seems the most recalcitrant: its latest National Space Policy, announced in October 2006, states that the OST is sufficient and that the US “will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit US access to or use of space.” In other words, only nuclear space weaponry is to be considered explicitly out of bounds. Armor made the prevailing Hobbesian attitude clear at the Geneva meeting: “In my view, attempts to create regimes or enforcement norm that do not specifically include and build upon military capabilities are likely to be stillborn, sterile and ultimately frustrating efforts.” Whatever framework he envisages, it’s not going to look much like the European Union.
But it needn’t be a matter of persuading nations to be more friendly and less hawkish. There are strong arguments for why pure self-interest in terms of national security (not to mention national expenditure) would be served by the renunciation of all plans to militarize space – just as was the case in 1967. Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy pointed out that after the experience in Iraq, US strategists are “coming to see that consolidating the security of existing assets is more crucial than pursuing the chimera of multi-tiered invulnerability.” The recent Chinese anti-satellite test, for from being a red flag to a bullish military, might be recognized as an indication that no one stays ahead in this race for long, and the US knows well that arms races are debilitating and expensive.
The danger with the current Sputnik celebrations is that they might cast the events in 1957 as pure history, which has now given us a world of Google Earth and the International Space Station. The fact is that Sputnik and its attendant space technologies reveal a firm link between the last world war, with its rocket factories manned by slaves and its culmination in the instant destruction of two cities, and the world we now inhabit. The OST is not merely a legacy of Sputnik but the only real international framework for the way we use space. Unless it can be given fresh life and relevance, we have no grounds for imagining that the military space race is over.
1. Celebrating the Space Age: 50 Years of Space Technology, 40 Years of the Outer Space Treaty (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Geneva, 2007).