Saturday, 12 July 2014 10:25


Two years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to venture into space, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the ‘Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space.’ It recognized “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.” These ideals were enshrined in an international treaty called the Outer Space Treaty that was adopted in December 1966 and which entered into force a year later.

The Outer Space Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law and, among its principles, it bars States Parties to the Treaty from placing nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or to otherwise station them in outer space. It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military manoeuvers, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications (Art.IV). Moreover, it explicitly forbids any government from claiming a celestial resource such as the Moon or a planet. Art. II of the Treaty states that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

Nevertheless, the treaty is driven by loopholes. It is not clear, for instance, where air space (over which countries have national sovereignty) end and space, which is open to all nations, begins. The treaty makes no effort to specify what ought and ought not to be considered “peaceful purposes” in space or define a space weapon.

Human endeavours in space are often intrinsically dual-purpose. Early satellites and the first human space travellers journeyed aboard powerful rockets that were initially developed by the Soviet Union and the U.S. to lob nuclear warheads at one another. High-resolution space imageries of the sort now freely available from Google Earth over the Internet were once only produced by spy satellites. Communication satellites that employ much the same technology as the ones that beam TV programmes, relay large quantities of data and carry telephone conversations are an increasingly important part of the war machinery of many countries.

In the absence of definitions laid down in international law, the use of space for military purposes has ballooned, with possibly dangerous consequences. These days, “peaceful” use of outer space is often taken to denote only a “non-aggressive” purpose and even that conceptual distinction may not long endure.

The use of satellites to support conventional warfare has grown dramatically. The U.S. demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy in the first Gulf War of 1991 and space has played an important part in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years. It is a lesson that other countries have no doubt taken to heart.

But the resulting dependence on space assets inevitably raises concerns of protecting those vital satellites. It also sets off ideas of trying to blunt an opponent’s military capabilities by temporarily or permanently disabling their access to satellites.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union tested a range of anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry during their Cold War stand-off, including hit-to-kill devices carried by missiles. More recently, China destroyed one of its aging weather satellites with an impactor launched by a missile in January 2007. The U.S. responded by blowing up one of its dying spy satellites in February last year with a modified version of a missile interceptor developed for ballistic missile defence.

Besides, more and more countries are developing space capabilities of one kind or another. Given the dual-use possibilities, such capability can also mean the option to turn space into another theatre of war. Bilateral arms treaties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at least provided a measure of stability in that they forbade attacking each other’s key military satellites. But these treaties do not apply to the new players.

An internationally-binding agreement to strengthen the Outer Space Treaty is therefore both desirable and increasingly a necessity. The obvious forum for that would the U.N.