By Jeffrey Nocton Contributing Writer 7 May 2019

Outer space fascinates us. Satellites are critically important to modern life, and space exploration is a pinnacle of human achievement. However, intense international competition could bring an end to our ability to access and operate beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

The United States, China, and Russia are leading the world down a dangerous path by militarizing outer space. The destruction inherent in any such conflict would fill the Earth’s orbit with debris, making the future use of space or satellites difficult, if not impossible. The movie Gravity shows strikingly how orbital debris can wreck satellites and spacecraft. The United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union recognized such a threat in 1967 when they signed a treaty banning the placement or use of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. Now it is time for a new treaty to ban conventional weapons in space.

An international treaty is necessary. A unilateral declaration from any one country, or even an unofficial ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between nations, is insufficient; there is too much competition and mistrust. Only a treaty with verification measures can assure signatories of each other’s compliance.

A ban on space weapons will make international conflict less likely. Satellites are integral to communications and sensor networks and represent tempting first-strike military targets. Banning weapons from orbit means such attacks must originate on the ground. Long flight times from earth to orbit will give nations the time to react to a weapon’s launch. Ground-based lasers will likely require fixed installations, making detection possible well in advance of an attack. Greater decision time allows leaders to de-escalate and avoid unwanted conflict.

A ban on space weapons will foster international cooperation. The international community achieved great things in space through cooperation, most notably the International Space Station. A weapons ban builds upon these projects and sets up future space cooperation on colonies or manned exploration beyond Earth.

A ban on space weapons will ensure humanity’s continued access to outer space. Satellite destruction and the resulting debris fields would render large swaths of orbit effectively useless for satellite deployments. Disruption to GPS and communication networks would create chaos for modern, globalized civilization. Space exploration missions would halt for fear that debris would damage launch vehicles. Removing weapons from space makes this disastrous outcome less likely.

Concerns that parties would cheat or refuse to comply with such a ban are overblown. The proposed ban eliminates the most destructive form of anti-satellite activity but does not protect satellites from all methods of disruption. Lasers and cyberweapons can affect satellites without destroying them. Thus, nations tempted to cheat will have the means to disrupt satellites without creating an orbital debris field.  The ban aims at the possible — to channel military competition, not to end it.

Verification methods for the proposed ban are simple. There is no need to consider a weapon’s explosive yield, range, or components. Simply the presence of a conventional weapon on a satellite or space exploratory vehicle would constitute a violation. Simple verification procedures will streamline enforcement and ensure greater compliance.

The proposed ban will reduce the chance of conflict, foster international cooperation, and ensure that humanity retains access to space. Conflict in space threatens to upend modern civilization and halt exploration and research efforts for decades, if not centuries. A conventional weapons ban will free future generations to expand human civilization beyond Earth, to reach the final frontier.  

* * *

Jeffrey Nocton is an M.A. candidate in the Security Policy Studies Program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His research focuses primarily on defense analysis, nuclear weapons, and artificial intelligence. Jeffrey is a current Presidential Management Fellowship finalist pursuing a career in security policy.