In the 1950s, the United States began pushing for an international treaty on outer space — even before the 1957 launch of Sputnik atop a modified version of the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile. Fortunes have changed somewhat in the last 50 years, and the Pentagon has little interest in taking on further legally binding constraints these days. This is especially true in space, where "weaponization" is not only inevitable, but already well under way. In 1967, Washington became party to the "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies" (better known as the Outer Space Treaty). This treaty was quickly and readily accepted, in part because of its utter lack of definitions. Aside from some fairly unequivocal language about prohibiting the deployment of nuclear weapons in outer space and more broad military activities on the moon and other celestial bodies, the treaty is much more a loose collection of very large holes than it is a constraint on sovereign national action in space. Since then, the military utility of space has begun to be realized. Today, it is a cornerstone of global military communications and navigation. In Iraq today, for example, the U.S. military uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) for everything from squad level maneuvers to joint direct attack munition (JDAM) delivery. Largely from facilities inside the continental United States, the Pentagon controls some unmanned aerial systems half a world away. GPS has given rise to a new degree of precision in guided weapons. Imagery from space-based surveillance platforms has become commonplace and the Defense Support Program constellation continually monitors the surface of the earth for the launch plume of a ballistic missile. It is an incredibly valuable military domain. And just as it has become more valuable, the United States has become increasingly dependent on it. FREE PODCAST
Thus, space-based assets are susceptible targets for U.S. adversaries. Were the United States to lose these assets, its military capability on the ground would be severely affected. Any symmetric enemy knows that and will act to neutralize U.S. space capability. The United States knows that this attack will take place and must therefore defend the assets. In this sense, space is already a domain of military competition and conflict. There is no escaping it. In other words, space has already been weaponized, except that the actual projectiles are not yet located in space. Beijing's 2007
and Washington's recent anti-satellite weapons tests
only emphasize this point. The United States' satellite intercept demonstrated what STRATFOR has argued
for some time — that ballistic missile defense (BMD) ultimately is about space
. A defensive BMD interceptor was used in an inherently offensive role (one it would almost necessarily play as an interceptor capable of hitting a ballistic missile warhead hundreds of miles above Earth would be up to the easier task of hitting a satellite at the same altitude). BMD could well push the first "weapon" into space. The Missile Defense Agency is still working to secure funding from Congress for a space test bed to explore the role of space systems in BMD. While congressional funding is in question, there is broad bi-partisan support for BMD. And for strategic, intercontinental BMD, space is inherently superior to terrestrial basing for interceptors in terms of coverage, flexibility and response time. Put another way, while near-term funding for such projects remains questionable, those projects are the logical ultimate trajectory of the deliberate pursuit of BMD now underway. But BMD aside, the Pentagon intends to dominate space the same way it dominates the world's oceans: largely passively, allowing the free flow of international traffic, but with overwhelming and unchallenged military superiority. That will include not only defending assets in space, but holding those of a potential adversary at risk. Currently, Washington can do much of this from the ground; it is not only able to destroy a satellite with a BMD interceptor, it is also honing the technology
to deny and disrupt access to space systems. But the trajectory of development and the challenges that lie ahead will sooner or later dictate space-based weapons platforms (BMD is just one of a variety of potential justifications and applications). And since the United States intends to ensure that its dominance in space remains unrivaled, it will move preemptively to consolidate that control. At some point, that will include actual weapons in space. As has been said of other matters, the debate is over. Space is an integral part of U.S. military fighting capability, and therefore in all practical terms it has been weaponized.