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The Future of Outer Space Security

Studienarbeit 2011 20 Seiten



As one gazes up at the stars on a clear night, tracing constellations or wishing on a shooting star, it is unlikely that most of us would stop to reflect on the role this once distant and mysterious realm plays in our contemporary world today. Nor would we pause to reflect on the possible threats that might endanger it and our comfortable way of life that we have grown so accustomed to. Often portrayed as the doorway to mythic worlds, outer space held until very recently, the title of the last frontier. However during this past century, mankind has set out to explore the shores of a new world, just as Christopher Columbus did five centuries ago. And just as these former pioneers found with the Americas a world of opportunity and exploration, so have our modern day scientists and astronauts, discovered the same with outer space. It is with this exploration of our last frontier that we have been able to make scientific advances and discoveries that have so profoundly shaped the world we know. Early on in this human adventure, world leaders realized the potential for greed and selfishness to destroy the delicately established common community which recognized no nation’s colors. It was with this in mind, at the beginning of the US and USSR space race that US President Eisenhower stated: “I propose that we agree that outer space should be used only for peaceful purposes. We face a decisive moment in history in relation to this matter.… Should not outer space be dedicated to the peaceful uses of mankind and denied to the purposes of war?”[1] Fifty years after this statement, we are faced with the ever-increasing militarization of space and the possibility of space weaponization. Despite general worldwide consent that the prevention of space weapons is imperative in ensuring relative security in outer space, progress towards this objective has been disheartening. The inherent structure of the international system as well as recent non-cooperative actions and attitudes displayed by the world’s powers, leave little hope for Eisenhower’s proposition, made those fifty years ago. The comprehensive security of outer space is threatened, and with that so are the substantial benefits that mankind has reaped from its use.

I will in this paper argue that space weaponization is inevitable and consequentially then so is an outer space arms race. In order to fully understand the implications of this statement as well as the logic behind this argument, it is important to have a general understanding of the role of space in our world today, as well as to have a comprehensive concept of space security and the general threats facing it. Therefore, before providing the arguments to support my hypothesis, I will provide the reader with a comprehensive summary of the current space situation and relevant concepts tied to it. I then will focus on the specific threat of space weaponization and an outer space arms race. A discussion concerning a comprehensive definition of what constitutes a space weapon will be provided as will a prediction of the devastating consequences of such weapon deployment. This will be followed by an overview of preventative measures that have been taken against the deployment of space weapons, as well as the effectiveness of these measures. After this basic summary of the current outer space situation has been established, I will analyze the likelihood of space weapons deployment in the future, based on recent international trends as well as the national space policies of influential states. I will subsequently support my conclusion that space weaponization and a space arms race are inevitable by providing theoretical arguments that prove this point.

In order to fully understand the devastating effects space weaponization would have on our world, it is important to be conscientious of the vast and diverse roles outer space use plays in today’s contemporary society.


Commonly considered ‘the last frontier’, outer space is a vast mass of potential for discovery that mankind, although having advanced a lot, still knows very little about. Since our first ventures into space nearly sixty years ago, technological advances have allowed the world community to make extraordinary achievements especially in the field of science. The benefits of space exploration, and our consequential use of space technology, are undeniable, as it has allowed us to gain a better understanding of our globe’s environment. The use of satellites has allowed us to observe the Earth below sea level, at ground level, and in the air. It has allowed us to study changes in climate and provides us with valuable information concerning natural and man-made disasters such as forest fires, oil spills, and floods[2]. Furthermore, satellites play an essential role in the functioning of our infrastructure; whether it concerns public services, medical systems, financial services, police forces or the military.[3] In addition to providing essential and at times lifesaving information for various sectors, the use of satellites has revolutionized the way in which our world communicates. Wireless phones, the internet, and satellite television permit our world community to be connected to one another in ways never thought possible one century ago. The use of outer space activities has even spread to include commercial use. This proves to be a growing industry, with one third of all space launches being accounted for by the commercial sector.[4]

As the only common space that is shared by all countries, it is evident that outer space is a complex field with many uses and actors involved. The peaceful uses of outer space, which have been mainly focused on scientific advancement and discovery, are very valuable to all nations and citizens on Earth, whether involved in space activities or not. Sixty years after this space adventure began; there are more than 125 countries involved in various space activities and close to 780 spacecraft currently deployed in the near-Earth space environment.[5]

Yet within this maze of scientific discovery and the use of satellite technology for development purposes, is the often overlooked exploitation of technological advancements for military purposes. Around forty percent of the spacecraft currently in orbit are active military satellites. A large proportion of these satellites are the possession of the USA, yet NATO allies, as well as Russia, have also deployed satellites serving military purposes.[6] Such satellites main role is to provide military forces with information that will aid them in their land, sea and air missions.[7] The use of satellites for defensive purposes by the military has been accepted over the past fifty years as comprising part of the ‘peaceful uses of outer space’. This claim has been justified by the fact that the satellites used for military operations, possess no destructive capabilities on their own.[8]

Our world’s ever-increasing and evident dependence on satellites span almost all sectors of modern day life. The undeniable advantages obtained through the unprecedented levels of knowledge concerning our environment that we have attained through the use of outer space related technology, should ignite within all an interest for the safekeeping of this vast common space. International cooperation on the scientific and commercial uses of space has been quite consistent and encouraging. However the vulnerability of satellites is reason for concern for countries such as the USA, who depend largely on satellite systems in order to carry out their military operations.[9] The military aspect of outer space thus provides incentive for outer space weapons systems that would protect such satellites but paradoxically, simultaneously create serious outer space security issues.


Given its essential role in a vast range of domains of modern life, as mentioned above, the security of satellite systems (essentially outer space security), has become an important part of national security concerns in nearly all developed nations.[10] Yet given the vast use of space, the uniqueness of its environment, and the rapidity with which technologies in this realm are advancing, creating a comprehensive definition of space security is a rather challenging task. Nevertheless, the Space Security Index (SSI), an organization initiated by the Government of Canada in response to a diplomatic deadlock concerning international cooperation on space security, has created a comprehensive definition of space security that seems to have been generally accepted worldwide.[11] The SSI states space security as “the secure and sustainable access to and use of space and freedom from space-based threats for all actors in space”.[12] Using this definition, space security can be evaluated using nine different security indicators, which are; the s pace environment, laws and policies, civil space programs and global utilities, commercial space, space support for terrestrial military operations, space systems protection, space systems negation, space-based strike weapons, and space situational awareness.[13] These measures can further be categorized into three main areas which are; the operating environment, actors and activities in space, and space technology. This widely accepted definition, mentioned above, provides a global concept of space security. It reflects a shift from the general traditional concept of security that focuses on the military, to a broader, more global concept of space security which takes into consideration the uses of military, civil and commercial actors.[14] This definition emphasizes the fact that outer space is a shared security as the environment of this vast shared space affects actors from all countries, and thus requires cooperation from mankind as a whole, if this precious last frontier is to remain one of discovery and not of threats.


Once the definition of space security has been defined, the most interesting and obvious next step is to assess the threats posed to space, given the established space security definition. The challenges to outer space security can be divided into two categories; environmental threats and deliberate threats (use of force in outer space).

a) Environmental Threats

The environmental threats are the inevitable result of the expansion of human outer space activities. The use of outer space by an ever-increasing number of countries has resulted in crowded orbits, a shortage of channels for frequency distribution, and an increase of space debris.[15] Environmental threats are thus not tied to any deliberate action, but to the changing space environment in which the increase of space traffic risks interference with or destruction of orbiting satellites. Although outer space may seem like a virtually unlimited space welcoming new spacecraft, there is in reality a limited number of orbits suitable for most satellite use. This means that the increase in outer space activities is taking place in a limited area, and thus increases the density of satellites in a given orbit, which in turn increases the probability of a collision.[16] This proved to be the case on February 10th, 2009, when an American and Russian spacecraft collided in low earth orbit.[17] This collision not only legitimized the fear of satellite collisions, it also brought to light the issue of the proliferation of space debris which is of particular concern to space security. There are currently over 19,000 objects 10cm in diameter or larger, orbiting the Earth, of which 90 percent are space debris. Such debris is extremely dangerous for orbiting satellites because travelling at speeds of 7.5 km per second, even the smallest pieces of debris can have a devastating impact on a spacecraft.[18] What complicates matters is that to date, there exists no way to remove this debris from its destructive path. Thus the effects of space debris risk having a compounding effect in which existing debris causes a collision which creates more debris, which in turn increases the chances of a future debris creating collision.[19] However international cooperation to address this environmental issue has been very encouraging. Pressure by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, has resulted in the adoption of voluntary space guidelines to be followed by space powers. These guidelines should help limit the proliferation of space debris, yet for the time being it is feared that the creation of such debris will continue to outpace mitigation efforts.[20]


[1] S. Estabrooks « Opposing weapons in space », The Ploughshares Monitor, 23.3, Sept. 2002.

[2] A. Arbatov, Outer Space : Weapons, Diplomacy and Security (Washington, D.C., 2010) 4.

[3] Cesar Jaramillo, “Space Security Fact Sheet” Space Security Index, 2010, Web.

[4] S. Estabrooks « Opposing weapons in space »

[5] Arbatov xxi.

[6] Ibid. xxii

[7] Arbatov 12.

[8] S. Estabrooks « Opposing weapons in space »

[9] S. Estabrooks « Opposing weapons in space »

[10] Arbatov xxii.

[11] Jessica West « Reaching out : New approaches to security in space », The Ploughshares Monitor, 30.1, Mar. 2009.

[12] Cesar Jaramillo, “Space Security Fact Sheet”

[13] Ibid.

[14] West “Reaching out : New approaches to security in space” .

[15] Pan Jusheng, « Addressing the Outer Space Security Issue », UNIDIR, Building the Architecture for Sustainable Space Security (Conference Report) Mar. 2006.

[16] West « Back to the Future: The Outer Space Treaty turns 40 » The Ploughshares Monitor, 28.3, Sept. 2007.

[17] West “Reaching Out: New approaches to security in space” .

[18] Cesar Jaramillo, “Space Security Fact Sheet”

[19] West « Fallout from China’s anti-satellite test » The Ploughshares Monitor, 28.1, Mar.2007.

[20] West “Back to the Future: The Outer Space Treaty turns 40”.


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future outer space security



Titel: The Future of Outer Space Security