Trump's 'dominance' in space is playing with international space treaty

The principle of non-militarization of space is a oft-breached ideal

The principle of non-militarization of space is a oft-breached ideal

US military concept art of a laser weapon anti-satellite system. (US Air Force)

This week U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the formation of a "Space Force," referring to space as a "war-fighting domain" where he will not only increase the presence of the U.S., but will assert "American dominance in space." The idea of imagining space as a battleground, however, violates the spirit of an international treaty banning weapons of mass destruction in space whose history goes right back to the beginning of the space age.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 — the world's first satellite — the reaction around the world was immediate. The beach-ball sized silver sphere with its simple beeping transmitter passed directly over the United States along with other countries. It was a breakthrough in space exploration, but also served as a threat, demonstrating that the Soviets had the rocket power to reach the ultimate military high ground. After all, from orbit, a weapon could be dropped anywhere on the planet and there is very little defence against it.

An Allied test of a German V2 rocket after World War II (Imperial War Museum)

Access to space has always been considered a strategic opportunity, going back to the German V2 rockets of World War Two. V2s were essentially the first space weapons, reaching the edge of space at 80 km while crossing the English Channel, before ultimately falling like explosive lawn darts on London. Their speed and ballistic trajectory made them unstoppable.

Following the war, both the Americans and the Soviets employed German scientists who had worked on the V2 and other programs. They pushed rocket technology further to create intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, designed to carry weapons across oceans and around the globe. The Russians built on their early lead in space after Sputnik, with a much larger capsule that carried Laika the dog into orbit, and eventually the even bigger Vostok spacecraft that carried the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space. And of course the implicit threat in these triumphs was that if they could put a capsule large enough to carry a human to orbit, they could put a nuclear weapon up there, too.

A replica of the Soviet Sputnik satellite (NASA)

The Americans struggled to catch up. Even though NASA was established as a non-military civilian research and scientific agency, the rockets the first astronauts rode to space, the Redstone, Atlas and Titan, were all repurposed ICBMs. The civilian space program effectively functioned as a test-bed for military rockets.

In an effort to pre-empt the militarization of space that could elevate the threat of catastrophic warfare, the United Nations developed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The treaty declared that no nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction would be placed in space or on any celestial object, and that space would be free to all for peaceful purposes. It was first signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, and is still open to signatories internationally today. But even though the treaty seemed to ensure that space would not become a military war zone, there is a loophole: Military technology can be sent to space if it is for "defensive" purposes.

As a result we've seen two parallel paths in the exploration and exploitation of space.

The civilian space program has been the epitome of international cooperation, with the Apollo-Soyuz project between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in 1975, American space shuttles visiting the Russian Space Station Mir in the 1990s and now the International Space Station with 22 countries (including Canada) working together.

Artisti's conception of the Apollo-Soyuz docking which actually took place in 1975 (NASA)

But at the same time, hundreds of military rockets from many countries have launched surveillance and communication satellites to gather intelligence and support troops on the ground. And while no country has put nuclear weapons in orbit, there have been initiatives to put "defensive" weapons in space.

Perhaps the most famous was the Reagan Administration's Strategic Defence Initiative, or "Star Wars" program. It was proposed to include systems for early detection of hostile missile launches, but also space and ground-based laser weapons with the capacity to shoot missiles down. That project was never completed, but it did push the boundaries of the Outer Space Treaty with its proposal of weapons in space for defensive purposes.

US military artist's concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System. (US Air Force)

Today the new threat is weapons systems aimed not a the ground, but at our constellation of essential satellites orbiting the Earth. The U.S., Russia and China all have anti-satellite weapons programs. The danger here is the degree to which we've come to depend on satellites for vital services for global communication, GPS, weather forecasting, environmental monitoring — not to mention a host of military applications. Any disruption to this network of devices orbiting the Earth would be both an economic and military disaster.

It is with that threat in mind that the Trump administration apparently wants to bolster the U.S. military presence in space. What this means is not clear, especially considering the U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy already have space divisions.

But the nightmare scenario around talk of military "dominance" in space is a space-based arms race, with more and more powerful weapons placed in orbit for "defensive" purposes. Of course, any defensive weapon could potentially be used for offensive purposes.

The Outer Space Treaty represented a recognition that no one can own space because once you reach orbit, you circle the globe every 90 minutes, so international boundaries disappear. That's why it should be a place of cooperation rather than conflict. Unfortunately, space is also a place of high strategic value from a military point of view, which is why talk of space as a "war-fighting domain" is disturbing and violates the spirit of the agreement signed more than 50 years ago.

May common sense, and the spirit of that treaty prevail.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.


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