Published online 4 October 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.142

Column: Muse

Time to rethink the Outer Space Treaty

An agreement forged 40 years ago can’t by itself keep space free of weaponry, says Philip Ball.

Few anniversaries have been celebrated with such mixed feelings as the launch of Sputnik 1, half a century ago this week.

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, some 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 the militarization of space.

The commitments of the OST need urgently to be updated and reinvigorated, but right now there seems rather little prospect of that happening. Among negotiators and diplomats there is 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.

Bad to worse

Even for ground-based weapons, no nuclear states have disarmed since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was created 39 years ago, despite the binding commitment of signatory states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament”.

And the world’s strongest nuclear power, the United States, still refuses to ratify the 11-year-old Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), even as some commentators say the world is entering a new phase of nuclear proliferation. China and Israel have also failed to ratify the CTBT, while other nuclear powers (India, Pakistan) have not even signed it. Indeed, there is not just stagnation but back-stepping. The United States seems set on developing a new generation of nukes (see Nukes: next generation not fit for certification) and deploying a ballistic missile defence system. North Korea, which withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 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 Research1 suggested that the situation is increasingly precarious, and indeed that military uses of space are well underway and likely to expand.

Hot times

Paradoxically, the thawing of the cold war is one reason why the OST is losing its restraining power. During a confrontation of two nuclear superpowers, it is rather easy to see (and game theory confirms) that cooperation on arms limitation is in the national interest.

Today, suggests Sergey Batsanov, director of the Geneva Office of the International Pugwash group for peaceful uses of science, we are in a transitional phase of geopolitics in which there is 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. James Armor, director of the US National Security Space Office, says that following satellite reconnaissance in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991, military space capabilities have now become “seamlessly integrated into the overall US military structure”.

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 (see Satellite kill creates space hazard). 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.

Modern renovation

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 will continue to be so until a balanced agreement on the military utilization of outer space is arrived at.” 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.

There was no explicit framework built in to the OST for consultations, reviews and other interactions that would sustain the treaty and ensure its continued relevance. 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 what we have.

Unwilling party

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 United States “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.

US representative Armor made it clear at the Geneva meeting that “attempts to create regimes… 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 nicer. 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. The recent Chinese anti-satellite test, for example, shows that no one stays ahead in this race for long; and the United States 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, against a picture of today’s world where space activities give us 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. Unless the Outer Space Treaty can be given fresh life and relevance, we have no grounds for imagining that the military space race is over. 

  • References

    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).
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