Is space warfare inevitable?

What would become of the International Space Station if there were weapons in orbit?
What would become of the International Space Station if there were weapons in orbit?
Image: NASA
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Diplomats call for it. Astronomers see it as vital. Even military officials usually separated along old geopolitical fault lines view it as a matter of mutual self-interest.

Virtually everyone agrees that outer space should remain free of weapons. But decades of diplomatic efforts to ensure that it does have failed to produce a significant new agreement among nations. And with the United Nations set to discuss space arms once more later this month, experts anticipate little headway.

To blame for this stalemate are clashing visions of what an agreement on space weapons should look like. A majority of countries, led by the Russian Federation and China, support proposals for a legally binding treaty prohibiting the placement of weapons in space. But the United States has consistently opposed such a deal, endorsing voluntary measures instead.

This protracted impasse reflects the enduring influence of Cold War-era geopolitics on every terrain of military activity. But as both sides have come to depend increasingly on space technology for everything from communication to navigation to scientific research, observers say that failing to prevent the weaponization of outer space could have dire consequences.

“The collateral damage of a war in space would be extraordinary,” Michael K. Simpson, the executive director of Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates on space policy, tells Quartz. Simpson says space warfare would probably produce a massive amount of debris. Prime satellite orbits are already crowded with many thousands of pieces of this so-called “space junk”—the byproduct of decades of human activity in space.

This detritus poses major risks to space technology. According to data collected by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science-advocacy group based in the US, there are currently around 1,300 operational satellites in orbit. The US operates around 120 satellites exclusively for military purposes, which is more than twice as many as either Russia or China.

This military presence in space is nothing new. “Space is totally militarized,” John M. Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, tells Quartz. “But to date there have been very few tests of weapons in space, and as far as we know no deployment of any weapon.”

To maintain this status quo, countries have turned to the UN. The General Assembly has passed a resolution annually since 1981 calling for the “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space” (PAROS). China and Russia proposed a treaty banning the deployment of weapons in space at the Conference on Disarmament in 2008 and 2014, and Russia introduced a similar resolution at the UN General Assembly in 2014 as well.

Such efforts have received broad support, but failed year after year to lead to concrete agreements—in part because of US opposition. The US and Israel were the only two UN member states not to vote in favor of the PAROS resolution last year, abstaining instead. And the US has remained steadfast in its opposition to Russia and China’s treaty proposal, arguing that, among other problems, it does not include enforceable verification protocols or account for ground-based space weapons such as anti-satellite missiles. (The US, Chinese, Russian, and Israeli missions to the UN did not respond to requests for comment.)

“The United States is willing to consider space arms control proposals and concepts that are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the security of all nations,” US representative Christopher L. Buck said at the UN at the UN last year. But the proposals put forth by Russia and China fail to meet these criteria, he continued.

Instead, the US has mostly backed voluntary initiatives like the so-called “transparency and confidence-building measures,” including the “International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities” that the EU began developing in 2008.

While many view US concerns about treaty proposals as legitimate, they have also been subject to scrutiny.

“Disingenuous,” is how Paul Meyer, a professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada, describes the US complaint that the treaty proposal doesn’t consider ground-based satellite weapons. “It would be highly unlikely that the US would agree to the kind of intrusive verification that would go along with an arms control regime that also covered ballistic missile interceptors,” Meyer tells Quartz, referring to ground-based weapons that can also reach targets in space.

Meyer also challenges the US contention that the treaty proposal doesn’t offer a clear definition of a space weapon. “That’s exactly the sort of thing that a negotiation can generate,” he says. (Meyer previously served as a Canadian diplomat at the Conference on Disarmament.)

Meyer suggests that US resistance to more forceful space arms agreements might reflect a shift in authority over space policy within the US government. “It’s [the Department of Defense] and, to some degree, the intelligence community that really calls the shots when it comes to what kind of space-security policy the US should put forward,” he says. “The State Department’s become basically a kind of message boy for this policy rather than an equal determiner of it.”

Others think that US resistance to diplomacy on the issue stems from the country’s ambition to preserve its decisive military advantage in outer space. “Whoever controls space wins the wars, because all wars today on the earth are coordinated and directed by space technology,” Bruce Gagnon, secretary of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, tells Quartz. “The US didn’t want to allow anyone else to have that ability.”

Major diplomacy on space weapons dates back to 1967, when the Outer Space Treaty prohibited sending weapons of mass destruction into orbit or militarizing celestial bodies, among other things. The nearly-50-year-old accord remains the most significant multilateral agreement on the issue, but many view it as insufficient, as it does not ban the deployment of conventional weapons in space.

UN discussions of the issue this year will include a joint meeting of the General Assembly’s first and fourth Committees on Oct. 22, 2015. Gagnon is pessimistic about diplomatic efforts on space arms, but stressed the urgency of reaching an agreement. “It’s very necessary,” he says. “It’s fundamental to global peace.”