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Stopping Star Wars

Ready? Goooo! Some historic vectors at the Nasa Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral at sunset

In August 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an earth-shattering announcement for space politics: By 2022, India plans to become the fourth country to independently achieve human spaceflight. Just a few months later, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan made a similar declaration, pledging to send Pakistani astronauts into space that same year. 

Although this space race is symptomatic of Indian-Pakistani relations, it is also indicative of the broader trend of space militarization. India’s ability to mount such an independent mission testifies to its incredible advances in space-based military technology, including enhanced targeting, navigation, reconnaissance systems, and the ability to sabotage enemy satellites. The same is true for Pakistan, although Pakistan’s mission will also heavily depend on assistance from China. As nations begin to treat space as a competitive front, the US should grow increasingly concerned with the lack of international regulations on space militarization. To prevent continuous militarization, the US must push for the drafting of a new international treaty and an overhaul of the existing UN Conference on Disarmament (CD). 

The need for a new treaty is especially pressing given that the most recent international agreement on the subject—the Outer Space Treaty—was signed in 1967 in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1. As the world’s first satellite, Sputnik raised concerns about nuclear weapons in space. To address this, a UN legal subcommittee drafted a set of broad rules on international behavior in space that the US, India, and China ratified. But just two tenets pertain directly to militarization: “States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit” and “States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.” 

Though this is a good start, the wording of these two tenets is rather vague and leaves a lot of dangerous wiggle room. When it comes to protecting space, and in turn, ensuring the safety of Earth, the UN must set the bar higher. For instance, the current treaty does not explicitly describe what constitutes “mass destruction.” But countries today have access to a much greater variety of deadly weapons than they did in 1967, and as technology advances, their arsenals will only grow. Thus, any new treaty on weapons in space must include a concrete definition of the term “weapons.” Absent this, efforts to regulate weapons in space will prove fruitless.

In fact, this was the logic behind the US’s rejection of a treaty recently proposed by China and Russia in 2008. This agreement, called the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty outlined specific arms but did not account for technological advancement in weapons that would have quickly rendered the treaty outdated. As a result, the US criticized the bill as a “diplomatic ploy by two nations to gain a military advantage.” 

For a space treaty to remain current in the midst of technological advancement, it must define weapons by their ability to damage rather than by their specific technology. Only such a definition offers a sufficiently strong legal basis to regulate. For this reason, the second tenet of the 1967 treaty holds states accountable for any damage they cause, emphasizing results rather than intent. For example, if a state builds a carrier vessel for weapons transport that accidentally causes damage on Earth, the state is held responsible for the damage. 

Regulation of space militarization must also protect innocent vehicles passing through contested areas. At present, space is not territorial: The Outer Space treaty mandates that space be “common heritage of all mankind,” which negates the possibility of national claims on extraterrestrial objects. However, should countries ever make claims on areas of space, space experts suggest regulation should be modeled on laws regulating international waters: Hostile vessels would be barred from entry, while innocent ships would be guaranteed safe passage. As companies such as SpaceX begin to explore the idea of sending civilians to space, the need for such legislation is greater than ever.

Another challenge to developing effective space regulation is the fact that no treaty, no matter how well-formed, can succeed unless all four major powers—the US, China, Russia, and now India—stand behind the agreement. But progress on space treaties has long been impeded by US reluctance to have substantive conversations about the subject. Furthermore, tensions between China and India make it difficult for them to make the compromises needed to create a coherent set of regulations.

In particular, many nations are concerned about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to better integrate China into the economies of foreign countries by financing infrastructure projects like the construction of ports, airports, and satellites. Though China claims its satellites are only for civilian use, civilian satellite technology can also be used for military purposes. In response, President Trump has set up roadblocks to China’s BRI, pushing countries to distance themselves from Chinese 5G networks. Though this sends a strong message, the US can do better. If India and the US offered to collaborate with China on the BRI—a presently stalled project that has proved incredibly costly—the US may be able to win China’s support on a new space disarmament treaty. 

Some may argue that allowing countries to develop anti-space militarization technology on their own is easier than ratifying a whole new treaty. Several countries are doing this: In recent years, China has developed and tested several anti-satellite ground-based missiles (ASATs) that allow them to destroy enemy satellites. Yet, despite being dubbed as “anti-militarization,” ASATs are destructive forces that contribute to the threat of violence in space. As more countries move to develop their own ASATs, the need for a space treaty becomes more, not less, urgent. 

India and Pakistan’s recent space race is just a peek into what may become a full-blown militarization of space. To prevent this, the UN must recognize that current regulation on space militarization is insufficient and lead a global discourse on space technology. An ideal treaty drafted by an empowered UN Council should reclassify weapons based on their damage, not their function, and regulate space ownership based on the international waters model. This treaty would go a long way toward preventing a kind of warfare that Earth has yet to experience, and for which the decades-old 1967 treaty is wholly inadequate.

Photo: The Space Race

About the Author

Roxanne Barnes '21 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Roxanne can be reached at