WASHINGTON — America’s “Space Force,” signed into law on Friday as the military’s first new branch in more than 70 years, sets up a potential test of international space law that could prompt the United States’ withdrawal from yet another treaty.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s signing of the 2020 National Defense Reauthorization Act included creation of a Space Force, one of his top political and national security priorities, as part of a US$1.4 trillion government spending package.
But by creating a new arm that answers to the Secretary of the Air Force, the United States could run afoul of some aspects of international space law that have been in place since the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik I. That launch triggered the infamous space race between the Russians and Americans, the start of the space industry and tech advances in both nations.
The new Space Force to oversee defense of American satellites, navigational equipment and other key national security interests in space also could lead to Trump deciding to withdraw from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which underpins space law. The United States flies more than 30 orbiting Global Positioning System satellites about 20,000 kilometers above Earth that provide key military and civilian navigational functions.
The Outer Space Treaty includes important and legally binding rules for the peaceful exploration and use of space, according to the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
Though it is not meant to put soldiers in space, the Space Force’s mission of asserting military dominance high above the planet could someday conflict with the treaty’s ban on stationing weapons of mass destruction in outer space — or conducting military activities on celestial bodies.
The treaty’s fourth article says nations must “undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” It is one of 17 articles that describe general principles for the use of space and how nations should behave there.
“This single line,” researchers with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University wrote last year in the International Journal of Security Studies, “bars the proposed Space Force from operating on celestial bodies other than the Earth.”
The Outer Space Treaty also requires that the United States inform the United Nations secretary-general, the public and international scientific community “to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, of the nature, conduct, locations and results” of its space activities.
That was meant to create some transparency and checks and balances on nations, according to the researchers, but its impracticality for secret defense operations means “a weaponized sixth branch of the military will likely not survive under the conditions outlined in the OST, which the U.S. is legally bound to.”
In August, the U.S. Space Command was created as “a war-fighting command whose mission is to conduct space operations, to deter conflict from beginning or extending into space, to defend our vital interests in space, to deliver space capabilities to our joint and coalition partners and to develop space warfighters,” said its new commander, General John Raymond. The Space Force will work in tandem with the Space Command.
“The U.S. Space Force will protect America’s national interests by its singular focus on space,” Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, told a press briefing. “The United States has the best space acumen in the world. Still, now is the time to establish a team, a separate service totally focused on organizing, training and equipping Space Forces.”
— Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Barbara Barrett (@SecAFOfficial) December 21, 2019
Space is vital to the security of our nation & we look forward to working with our nation's newest military service. The Army is the largest user of space-enabled systems. #SpaceForce will improve our #Soldiers ability to fight & win on the battlefield. pic.twitter.com/4A7BK3T6V3
— SecArmy (@SecArmy) December 21, 2019
Fears of a new space arms race
Trump has made no secret of his disdain for multilateralism, international organizations and agreements. He announced withdrawal from organizations including the U.N. Human Rights Council and UNESCO, and from treaties such as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
Due to Cold War tensions, the U.N. General Assembly set up the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or COPUOS. Its peace mission expanded the U.N.’s Earth-bound aim to prevent more wars by recognizing a “common interest of mankind as a whole in furthering the peaceful use of outer space.”
But the assembly remained concerned for decades that a space arms race could develop over hypersonic rockets or satellite-launched super weapons developed by China, Russia or the United States. Those concerns led to years of talks over a proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Space Treaty, or PAROS.
The proposed treaty would build on five U.N. outer space treaties: the 1967 Outer Space Treaty; 1968 Rescue Agreement; 1972 Liability Convention; 1976 Launch Registration Convention; and 1984 Moon Agreement. Outside the United Nations, there also are the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and 1971 Intelsat Agreement. All of these forbid weapons of mass destruction, but not other types of weapons, in space.
Trump, a Republican president, noted that the Space Force opposed by many Democratic lawmakers represents the first new U.S. military service created since the Air Force was taken out of the Army in 1947. The Space Force will have only a US$40 million budget and 200 staff during its first year, a tiny fraction of the US$14 billion a year that American’s military spends for space operations.
“Going to be a lot of things happening in space. Because space is the world’s newest war-fighting domain,” Trump said at a signing ceremony for the defense spending bill at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, near the nation’s capital.
“Amid grave threats to our national security, American superiority in space is absolutely vital,” he said. “And we’re leading, but we’re not leading by enough. But very shortly, we’ll be leading by a lot. The Space Force will help us deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground.”