A space arms race is impending. The treaties that govern outer space specifically allow its weaponization. Nations have already started deploying space weapons. And although the costs may not seem justifiable, being a leader in space now will require fewer resources than trying to surpass other nations later. Therefore, the United States risks losing its current advantage and will have to pay the cost of catching up if it does not lead the charge in space weaponization.
What will space weaponization look like? What is a space weapon? While experts have long discussed the issue, no accepted definition exists. After comparing several of these definitions, we seem to come to the same conclusion as the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Accordingly, a space weapon is any land-, sea- or air-based weapon able to damage space systems, such as satellites, their ground stations and communication receivers. It can also be any space-based weapon intended to attack space or ground targets.
A space weapon, therefore, is more than most of us would assume a space weapon is. It does not have to be deployed in space, but can be Earth-based. It does not have to attack targets in space; the targets can be here on Earth.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is a framework for space activities, specifically allows for space weaponization. It prohibits weapons of mass destruction in orbit, but it allows for any other type of weapon anywhere except for the surface of planets, moons and asteroids. Even one of the reasons the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, as one senator highlighted, was that it sanctioned the militarization of space. The United States wanted to be able to weaponize space in the future, if it chose so. It now has to use this possibility and beat other nations to be first, because they will not hesitate to beat the United States.
Others are also keeping their options open. Nothing proves this better than the number of countries that signed and ratified the 1979 Moon Agreement, which calls for greater control of weapons in space: As of 2014, that number is seven. Contrast this with the more than 100 countries that signed and ratified the Outer Space Treaty, which allows weapons in space.
Nations are already using the opportunity that the Outer Space Treaty presents to weaponize space. As some scholars observed, although we are yet to deploy space-based weapons, we have already made the first steps. The Soviet Union was building a secret military space station under the Almaz (Diamond) program and was also designing an anti-satellite spacecraft called Polyus. Currently, the Chinese are testing advanced anti-satellite weaponry and the Russians are building a system to neutralize space weapons. These countries are preparing for a space arms race. They will surpass the United States if it allows them to do so.
The cost of space weaponization might not seem justifiable in the short term, but in the long term the cost of inaction is higher. The public is not yet involved in the space weaponization debate, and therefore explaining the reasons for deploying space weapons to taxpayers is moot. Moreover, the costs of developing, deploying and maintaining space weapons can seem prohibitive. According to some estimates, the Brilliant Pebbles space-based anti-missile weapon proposed in the 1980s would have cost around $20 million apiece in today’s dollars.
However, if the United States does not act now, it will eventually have to pay the cost of neutralizing the threat of others’ space weapons. As history proves, this cost of catching up will be higher: Before the First World War, it was economically impossible for Germany to close the naval arms gap with the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union collapsed while trying to equal the United States in the Cold War arms race. Not being able to determine the rules of the game is also a cost of not being a leader — if the United States does not, someone else will determine what is and what isn’t allowed in the space arms race. Additionally, other nations will become technologically superior, and foreign space weapons will threaten the United States.
If the United States does not deploy space weapons now, it risks falling behind in the space arms race. Others will become dominant in outer space. Others will set the rules governing space activities to their benefit and to the detriment of the United States. Others will confine the United States to Earth and will deny its use of space and the vast opportunities it presents.
If the United States is not the first in space weaponization, it will lose the race for the future.
Peter Kamocsai is a graduate student at the George Washington University specializing in space policy.