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Space Weapons

by Daniel C. Smith

“As we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and, God willing, shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” — Eugene Cernan, Commander, Apollo 17.

Technology continues to grow by leaps and bounds, constantly propelling us all toward the rocket-fueled and robot-filled future that so many of us envisioned as children. In most instances, these advances are cause for celebration but, in some cases, they are cause for concern.

A new and growing movement within the official U.S. policymaking community is urging the development of a United States Space Corps. Not a scientific or exploratory endeavor, but a military force designed, equipped, and trained to wage war above our planet with the ultimate goal of establishing a dominating military presence in near-Earth orbit and beyond.

Following this path of imprudence can only lead our country and world to the precipice of disaster for reasons that should be obvious. This movement has gained momentum since the current POTUS has actually given members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the order to develop what he eagerly describes as a “new branch of the military.” Thankfully,no funds have yet been appropriated but, with the idea seemingly gaining momentum with a section of the public, it is in all probability just a matter of time.

For the moment, let us look beyond our society’s more immediate financial needs, from our staggering debt and our crumbling infrastructure to our dreadfully underfunded educational programs. Let’s pretend — for the moment, at least — that the as yet incalculable cost of such an undertaking is justified. Let’s first ask ourselves: Is such a force even necessary?

Do any potential rewards outweigh the obvious and immediate costs and risk, both of which are without doubt extremely high? Most importantly, is the militarization of outer space even legal? After a half a century of manned exploration, one would think that — at the very least — the international community would have set guidelines for humanity’s biggest adventure.

Currently, the United States faces no adversarial forces in outer space. While the use of satellites for surveillance of one’s rivals and one’s own populations is commonplace, it is a far cry from placing weapons and troops in orbit. Such militarization would most certainly be viewed as provocative by allies, rivals, and real and potential enemies alike. It would reopen old wounds and inevitably ignite a new and dangerous space race that would fill the sky with nuclear swords of Damocles hanging by hair-thin triggers over the entire world.

Such a picture not only represents the antithesis of security, it invites disaster. The potential risks in the militarization of space overshadow any possible benefits, immediate or otherwise. Yet a growing cadre of legislators, cabinet members past and present, as well as military leaders continue to advance the idea as the natural and, somehow, necessary next step in the extension of American military power. Some, echoing the colonialist instincts of the past, declare it to be the U.S.’s ordained responsibility.

To be perfectly clear, the only real beneficiaries in this scenario would be what President Eisenhower described to America in his farewell address as the “military-industrial complex,” that collection of companies and organizations — and the politicians whose strings they pull via funding — who develop and manufacture the weapons of war, more often than not supplying all sides indiscriminately.

The defense industry is heavily vested in directing American discourse and policy, and it is heavily rewarded for it. And the defense industry has a less than stellar record of delivering at cost and on time. Although scandals within industry and any governmental appendages are the exception, not the rule, they are extremely costly not only in terms of money but sometimes even in terms of inhibiting our troops’ ability to perform and succeed in the field, a price that cannot be measured.

What is most disturbing, however, is that introducing military forces into space not only violates the spirit and the letter of United States law but also international laws established at the dawn of the Space Age, treaties that the U.S. Senate ratified in good faith. At the end of World War II, the world found itself torn between two superpowers, and each of these two nations felt entitled, duty-bound, even destined to rule their side of the world as they saw fit, imposing their will on smaller, neighboring nations, often through covert manipulation and almost always to the detriment of the less-developed states.

After the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, it was clear that one side or the other would soon be able to launch man and his devices into orbit, providing that side with a serious strategic advantage. So began the so-called space race and the ensuing Cold War that lasted over four decades and cost hundreds of trillions of dollars. Suddenly, the defining question of the world’s first space-faring generation was whether our conquest of the “final frontier” would be peaceful or exploited for military gain. That generation rose to the occasion.

The USA, admittedly slow out of the gate, naturally wanted to ensure that the conquest of outer space would be peaceful; it was the most obvious and safest course. American space policy, from its inception, sought to enlist international cooperation and participation and to take only peaceful steps into space.

The U.S. assumed a leadership role, always being cognizant to include other countries in its research and exploration, thereby cultivating political support within the world community and averting the impression that the U.S. sought military superiority.

By the late 1950’s, the Senate decided to take steps to shape American attitudes into a cohesive policy regarding space exploration. Authored by Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and ushered through the legislature by Senators John McCormack and John F. Kennedy, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 overwhelmingly passed both chambers and was signed into law by President Eisenhower. This legislation accomplished three specific objectives:

  1. The Act states that America’s activities in outer space will indeed be peaceful ones.

  2. The Act provides clear provisions arming presidents with a legislative mandate to initiate new ventures in space exploration and wide latitude to enlist international support, cooperation, and participation.

  3. And finally, the Act underscored these peaceful intentions by assigning a very residual role to the military in the development of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The United Nations quickly followed suit and took steps to ensure that the exploration of space would be peaceful, creating The Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which is still active today. This committee was membered by representatives from several countries and charged with overseeing space exploration, an activity that laid the foundation for the many profitable and prosperous international partnerships that formed in the following decades, to the benefit of all nations.

The U.N. also issued a series of calls for adherence to a general set of principles governing space exploration, and it extended several already existing international laws to the “commons” of outer space. From this noble beginning the U.N. developed — and a continuous stream of U.S. administrations eagerly supported — what are known as the “Five Treaties” along with the “five declarations and legal principles” of outer space.

These treaties cover everything from activities by nation-states on the Moon and other celestial bodies to providing for the rescue and return of astronauts and even the return of objects launched into space. There is even a liability clause for damage incurred by someone else’s falling space junk!

Furthermore, the treaty explicitly bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit. At every point, the peaceful uses of space is emphasized. The U.S. took a leadership role in ushering many of these resolutions through the General Assembly, reiterating both America’s leadership role and the responsibility that comes with it as well as its intentions to use space exploration for peaceful purposes. These actions were not a one-time affair: as previously noted, the U.N. committee is still active, and U.S. administrations have been introducing, implementing, and obeying a constant stream of legislation for half a century.

Most pertinent is resolution 52/37 passed in December 1997. It reaffirms the gathered nations’ intention to prevent any type of arms race in outer space. Of specific interest is the so-called “Benefits Declaration,” General Assembly Resolution 51/122, which passed on December 13, 1996. It is titled: The Declaration on International Cooperation in the Exploration of Outer Space for the Benefit and in the Interests of All States, Taking into Particular Account the Needs of Developing Countries. It echoes the sentiments that Eugene Cernan, so far the last human being to walk on the Moon, stated so eloquently on the Lunar surface in December 1972.

While these treaties and declarations certainly made world opinion clear on weapons of mass destruction, unfortunately there is no current ban or even guidelines regarding air-, ground-, or conventional, space-based anti-satellite or anti-missile weapons. Still, wouldn’t the introduction of a significant number of troops into a low-Earth orbit be considered a “WMD”? Would not our own government interpret such a move by any other state a hostile one?

Regardless, such action would definitely lead to the introduction of far more dangerous weapons filling the sky. The U.S. should be taking the lead to insure that no weapons are introduced into space, not going backwards, forsaking sixty years of history, precedent, and international bonds and leadership just to feed a desperately outdated military-industrial complex spawned by the Cold War.

Any argument that these treaties are, themselves, somehow outdated or are no longer relevant is simply ludicrous. Some will suggest that the U.S. spends more money on space exploration than any other country, as though one could purchase providence over the realm. While it is true that the U.S. has spent very heavily, it has also reaped a wellspring of economic and scientific returns on the investment; the U.S. space program has virtually paid for itself.

And while the U.S. is the first and, so far, only country to land men on the Moon, input and assistance came from a multitude of international sources, including scientists, engineers, and even in some instances foreign navies or air forces, which often volunteered their aid in search and recovery operations. The exploration of outer space has, more than any other singular, historical event, united humanity in a way that nothing has before it, if only momentarily.

Think of the positive and even profitable things our digital space age has given us the opportunity to do. With our satellites we have increased crop production and harvested the bounty of the oceans more efficiently, feeding perhaps not enough but still more people than ever before. Technological advances have employed millions, exponentially expanded educational opportunities to previous isolated parts of the world, and we have in many cases learned how to utilize our limited resources more effectively. As far as the practical benefits offered through space exploration, we have really only just scratched the surface.

And yet, in spite of inestimable costs and risks as well as our proven ability to benefit humanity with our technology, the calls for the militarization of space continue. Alarmingly enough, they are heard more and more within the so-called establishment. Recently, Douglas MacKinnon, a columnist and broadcaster with a major news network, called for the establishment of a permanent military base on the Moon, even though though Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty expressly forbids the use of the Moon or any other celestial bodies for military purposes.

It seems that too many policy-makers and armchair generals view the Lunar surface as “the ultimate high ground” in war on Earth. In the past, military troops sought the high ground to facilitate three things:

The “high ground” has ceded its importance in the age of air power; anyone with superior air power can simply take the high ground higher. And it is a completely outdated concept in terms of space-age warfare. To paraphrase Ender Wiggin, “In space, up is down and down is up; it’s all a matter of perception.” If we do insist upon militarizing outer space, I would suggest that we at least try to update our thinking. Space is not like a piece of ground or the surface of the ocean. Old patterns of thought will not apply if we insist upon carrying old arguments into the sky.

I personally cannot fathom how weapons and troops on the Moon could possibly add to anyone’s security here on Earth. Any missiles launched from the Moon could be easily tracked and would allow plenty of time to be intercepted. The ability of any troops to do any actual fighting on the Moon would be limited by current technology. And once again, creating an outer space army — a provocative and illegal act — would itself create the need for an army in outer space. As stated earlier, the cost of such a venture is incalculable, yet Douglas MacKinnon championed this course of action as immediately necessary and a wise use of our money, while the idea of a manned Mars mission, which would reap untold scientific rewards, would somehow be a wasteful folly.

The legacy of the United States in space is one of triumph and glory, of technical and scientific achievement, tragedy and redemption. Yes, we have used and still use our satellites to spy and aid in waging war, but we have also used them to facilitate communications during severe weather and other natural disasters, saving countless lives all over the world. Data gathered by satellites has increased crop production, feeding more people than ever before and advancing the cause of environmental awareness. Satellites have created a digital global village, hopefully giving birth to a sense of global community for the first time in human history.

The shuttle program has made space travel — albeit still costly — commonplace. Space exploration has given the world its first up-close glimpses of the Solar System’s outer worlds, and space telescopes have extended humanity’s vision to the edge of the visible universe.

To sully this legacy by militarizing the skies above would be as if instead of launching the world’s first aritifical satellite in that dreary October of 1957, the Soviets had launched an atomic missile into orbit. The world would have reacted then, as it would now, not with admiration but horror. To do so now would represent the biggest step backwards ever in the history of international relations and reignite an even more dangerous new space race, where the finish line is Armageddon.

In the nuclear age, and especially in the space age, war is our greatest and only real enemy. Outer space promises a heritage and a legacy that belongs to everyone. Otherwise, there will be no room for humanity in space or, very likely, on Earth itself.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel C. Smith

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