Intergalactic Drama: How does the Outer Space Treaty inform the development of the U.S. Space Force?

February 24, 2020

In signing the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act merely two months ago, President Donald Trump gave rise to the first new military service branch in over seventy years, “the world’s new war-fighting domain,” the U.S. Space Force. The introduction of the Space Force served as the response by the administration to the recent report by the U.S. Department of Defense as to the development by China and Russia of technologies that may enable them to disrupt or destroy U.S. and allied satellites and spacecraft.

Supporters, on one hand, maintain that the Space Force will promote national security. Detractors, on the other hand, say otherwise. “In every war game, we determined that, if you move first in space, you’re not guaranteed to win. But, if you move second, you’re likely to lose,” said General David L. Goldfein, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, demonstrating the very “use-it or lose-it” viewpoint detractors maintain may accelerate the costly and destabilizing overdevelopment of space weaponry.

The Space Force, however, has become somewhat of a caricature, what with the public taking to Twitter with potential recruitment posters, theme songs, and uniform designs and questions as to whether The Pentagon will now become The Hexagon with the addition of a sixth military service branch. Some have pointed out the strong resemblance between the Space Force logo and the fictional logo of Starfleet from the “Star Trek” series. Even Netflix recently began filming a workplace comedy series, “Space Force,” akin to “The Office” and featuring Steve Carell.

Nonetheless, the Space Force constitutes a very real, $40 million investment, its Chief of Space Operations having recently been sworn in, its uniform designs having recently been decided upon, and the location of its command currently being contemplated. Accordingly, the Space Force has elicited very real legal concerns, most prominently in relation to such international treaties as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, often regarded as the foundational document outlining a basic legal framework for the peaceful exploration of outer space.

Geng Shuang, spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, recently remarked that the introduction of the Space Force is “a serious violation of the international consensus on the peaceful use of outer space, undermin[ing] global strategic balance and stability, and pos[ing] a direct threat to outer space peace and security.” In so remarking, Shuang demonstrates that the Outer Space Treaty, of which the U.S. is both a signatory and ratifier, establishes boundaries within which the Space Force would be expected to operate. The treaty, however, leaves unaddressed several concerns that may prove consequential for the development of the Space Force.

The treaty, for instance, permits the presence of militaries in outer space, specifically for peaceful purposes and scientific research purposes, but prohibits certain activities thereof. The treaty, for instance, prohibits any nation from declaring sovereignty over outer space and from preventing other nations from the exploration and use thereof. It prohibits the establishment of military bases and installations outside of the low-Earth orbit as well as the use of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in outer space, in general. It restricts, furthermore, the presence of militaries on such heavenly bodies as the moon, providing that such presence “shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

The treaty, however, does not explicitly prohibit non-nuclear weaponry, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, from being used in outer space, perhaps permitting the use of such weaponry to disrupt or destroy satellites and spacecraft. “If there were a war in space, the United States is the country that has the most to lose,” noted Joanne Gabrynowicz, a director of the International Institute of Space Law and an official observer to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The United States, arguably, maintains more important assets in space than other nation, including communications satellites, remote sensing satellites, and weather satellites.

The treaty, furthermore, does not explicitly address the concern of orbital debris. Insofar as satellites and spacecraft wear down over time, increased military presence in space, Gabrynowicz reasons, may accelerate the creation of an orbital debris field, the likes of which may occasion a series of collisions with satellites in low-Earth orbit and effectively inhibit global communications capabilities for decades. The destruction of a single large satellite in low-Earth orbit, for instance, would more than double the amount of orbital debris that currently exists.

The explicit prohibitions and the ambiguities provided for by the treaty have prompted some commentators to suggest a revision of the treaty or, at the very least, its being supplemented by additional international treaties. More significantly, the fact that the treaty does not explicitly provide for an enforcement body effectively enables nations to bypass the treaty if they so desire. All in all, the development of the Space Force ought to be informed by the explicit prohibitions and the ambiguities provided for by the Outer Space Treaty because, although the treaty does not explicitly provide for an enforcement body, any violation thereof by the United States may effect further violations by such other nations as China or Russia, increasing the weaponization of outer space and the attendant risk of destabilizing orbital debris, at the very least, or international and intergalactic conflict, at the very worst.

Mousa Alshanteer