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Military space race? Why some say now's the time for an upgraded treaty.

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As US policymakers call for developing space-based military assets, some observers say the absence of updated agreements between spacefaring nations could lead to further militarization of the realm.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle waits in the encapsulation cell of the Evolved Expendable Launch vehicle at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Florida in this April,2010 handout photo provided by the US Air Force. The X-37B is the U.S.'s newest and most advanced unmanned re-entry spacecraft.
U S Air Force/Reuters
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“I have to say,” said President Trump in an April video call with astronauts aboard the International Space Station that was broadcast to schoolchildren nationwide, “there’s tremendous military application in space.”

The United States has long worked on that assumption, to the extent that much of its military prowess now depends upon a vast network of satellites orbiting the planet.

Other nations have come to understand that dependence – both Russia and China have reportedly tested anti-satellite missiles in recent years – which in turn has led to a growing clamor from politicians and influential thinkers for the US to improve its satellite warfare capabilities.

Most recently, the rapid development of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program has boosted calls for all kinds of missile defenses – including those based in outer space.

Yet there is another side to the debate, with some calling for the strengthening of international agreements that would constrain all countries from escalating the militarization of space.

“Technology is developing rapidly,” says Laura Grego, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. “There are lots of changes happening. Many more actors are in space and many more people are interested in space. There are trends that might be stabilizing or might be destabilizing depending on how we create rules about how we use them.”

Ratified 50 years ago, the Outer Space Treaty binds its signatories to use ”celestial bodies” – the moon, asteroids, and planets, but not artificial satellites – for “peaceful purposes” and prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons in space.

But it does not enact a blanket prohibition on all space weapons, and it does not include rules for distances between satellites or for the appropriate use of military satellites. Nor does it specify protocols for how space-faring nations can interact with one another. This lack of clarity, say some observers, could leave the door open for increased militarization.

US still seen as dominant

“There are members of the current Congress quite hawkish on space and who see it as the next battleground, and if the Outer Space Treaty could prevent that, I think it would be a very good thing,” says Philip Coyle, a science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. “But this competes with people who want to do more, not less, in space, and industries that feel the same, that have systems they think would be useful in space.”

In 2016, Russia reportedly tested its first anti-satellite missile, and the country has long focused its energies on developing its space forces, with 150,000 troops in the Russian Aerospace Forces, compared with 38,000 troops in the US Air Force Command. China, too, has been steadily advancing its military capabilities in space, successfully testing an anti-satellite missile in 2007 and recently completing its own version of GPS.

Most analysts agree that the US still dominates with its array of capabilities in outer space. Back in 2008, it used a surface-launched missile to take out one of its own satellites that had malfunctioned.

According to Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Colorado-based Secure World Foundation, missiles of the type used in 2008 can reach an altitude of about 300 kilometers, or about 185 miles; but there are others, based in Alaska and California, capable of striking targets as high as 1,000 km – bringing the majority of satellites within range.

“None of this is any good if you don’t know where things are in space,” says Dr. Weeden, whose research areas include global space situational awareness and protection of space assets. Here again, the United States excels. Its Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program satellites, for example, sit 36,000 km above the planet’s surface and peer down toward the Earth, tracking other satellites that orbit far closer to home.

Then there’s the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, whose mission statement talks of developing “reusable spacecraft technologies,” but which, according to some observers, likely has additional, more classified, purposes. The latest iteration – OTV-4 – just touched down again in May, after 718 days in orbit.

Separate Space Corps?

Despite these assets, pressure has been mounting in the US to take space even more seriously as a new frontier in any large-scale conflict. Only last month, a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives ushered through a bill that would require the Pentagon to create a separate Space Corps within the Air Force – much as the Marine Corps is to the Navy. More recently, in the wake of North Korea’s rapid advancement in ICBM capabilities, dozens of Senate members are supporting a proposal to blanket outer space with a system of sensors to detect and track missile launches; Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas takes it further, having voiced his support for space-based missile interceptors.

Indeed, the Department of Defense is already undertaking “a comprehensive ballistic missile defense review,” says Heather Babb, a department spokeswoman, “which will include looking at number and placement of interceptor options.”

For some – including Dr. Coyle of the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation – space-based sensors could be a reasonable proposition. Escalating to space-based interceptors raises a host of uncomfortable questions, however.

“If we ever have ICBMs actually flying in space and space-based interceptors trying to shoot them down, there could be collateral damage to space-based assets that had nothing to do with that particular engagement,” says Coyle, who was formerly associate director for national security and international affairs in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Moreover, he adds, “Would they be just [defensive], or would they be anti-satellite weapons, too?”

In an October 2016 op-ed for Space News, a trade publication for the global space industry, Trump policy advisers Robert Walker and Peter Navarro called for the United States to step up its military-focused space initiatives. “The future military necessity of using smaller force projection into hostile arenas will demand the speed and agility that only space-based assets can supply,” they wrote, adding that “both China and Russia are aggressively moving forward with a range of hypersonic weapons that are very difficult to defend against with traditional air-defense interceptors.”

In a Nov. 21, 2016 article in the Washington newspaper Roll Call, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R) of New Jersey, now chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said he supported platforms for disabling another country’s satellites

Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Roll Call that “we find ourselves in a grave deficit” against other countries. “In every area of warfare, within the Geneva Conventions, America should be second to none. That includes satellite warfare, if it’s necessary. We cannot be victims of our own decency here.”

Norms of conduct

But not all observers say the US should pursue another arms race; some argue that an element of diplomacy is needed. Indeed, Russia and China proposed a treaty in 2014 that would ban “any weapons in outer space,” but the terms were rejected by the United States as “fundamentally flawed,” in the words of Ambassador Robert Wood, the US representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

Yet if a new treaty is too much of a stretch, there may be another way – something less than a formal treaty, more like “norms of conduct, or rules of the road,” as Coyle puts it.

“It is within those parameters I see the best opportunity for keeping the space environment usable for all countries and companies,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

The United Nations, for one, has endeavored to construct such a framework ever since the inception of its Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1959. The work of that body included the Outer Space Treaty, but over the past few years, says Dr. Johnson-Freese, it has also made strides toward bolstering such treaties with “ ‘best practices,’ voluntary guidelines for space activity.”

Such agreements, say observers, would serve the interests of every nation that aspires to participate in space activities. The debris from a satellite destroyed by a missile test, for example, can add hundreds of thousands of fragments to the cloud already encircling our planet, projectiles that threaten spacecraft and astronauts irrespective of their nationality.

“I think that there would be benefits to all spacefaring countries to agreed limits on behaviors and technologies,” says Dr. Grego. “There’s fertile ground where I think countries would find shared interests, and I think it’s way overdue that we talk about it in a serious way.”