Approaches to Regulating Weapons in Space

Publication Date: 
March 2006

in Safeguarding Space Security: Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space Conference Report, 22 March 2005, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Geneva, Switzerland

Re-evaluating Space Security
The Reconsidering the Rules for Space Project
Document Type: 
Articles and Op-Eds

The current rules regulating space activities were originally developed when the technology was new, the number of space users was small, and future uncertainty was high. The space security environment has changed dramatically since the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, raising questions about which uses of space should now have priority and how they should be protected. The Bush Administration’s approach amounts to deregulation of military space activities in the expectation that US military power will be able to protect and promote US interests in a more competitive arena. I will argue, however, that the increased complexity in the space security environment strengthens, rather than undermines, the case for mutual restraint and protective regulation based on equitable rules, agreed operating practices and increased transparency.1

In the early years of the space age, the United States worked hard to gain international agreement to a set of formal and informal rules that increased predictability and helped protect those uses of space that it deemed most valuable. The overarching objective of US space policy during the early decades of the Cold War was to develop and legitimate reconnaissance satellites and other military support systems that helped stabilize deterrence, while preventing the Soviet Union from using space in ways that the United States neither wanted to pursue nor would concede to its rival.

The Outer Space Treaty codified the key principles upon which the original space security system was built, including free access, nonappropriation, equitable benefits and peaceful use. It explicitly prohibits only a few military uses of space—i.e. weapons of mass destruction in orbit and military activities on celestial bodies. The treaty tacitly legitimates the use of space for surveillance (which the Soviets had denounced as espionage until the early 1960s) and is silent about other space-based military support activities. It clearly states, however, that all uses of space must be “in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations”.2