Space War: The Militarization & Weaponization of Space

By Angela White

During the mid-part of the 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union used space exploration to develop and demonstrate ballistic missile technology. A ballistic missile is a missile that follows an airborne route with the objective of striking a predetermined target.[1] Early space exploration was motivated, in part, by the possibility of military use. As technology continued to develop, some feared the possibility of a war in space, but the nuclear balance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union averted it. Today, there are approximately sixty countries that are active in space and whose militaries use satellites for command and control, communication, monitoring, and other functions.[2]

The United Nations has made the prevention of an arms race in outer space a priority on its arm control agenda.[3] One of the main issues regarding space is that almost anything can be a weapon – something as small as space debris can cause serious damage to satellites and other devices.  According to the U.S., because the term “space weapon” is difficult to define, an effective treaty cannot be created, much less agreed upon.[4] In creating a treaty, there is an important distinction between militarization of outer space and weaponization of outer space.

Outer space has been militarized since the earliest launches of communication satellites. In addition to the uses mentioned earlier, militaries can also use these satellites to arrange “prompt global strike” capability – the ability to deliver a precision-guided weapon airstrike anywhere in the world within a specified time period.[5] Weaponization of outer space can be understood as placing a space-based device that has destructive capacity in orbit.[6] The 1967 Outer Space Treaty made weaponizing space possible.[7] Some argue that devices that are not placed in orbit, but have the ability to destroy space-based devices also constitute space weapons.[8] Others argue that devices that travel through space to reach their targets could play a part in weaponizing space.[9]

Today, there are no weapons in deployed in space – that we know of. Under the 2006 U.S. National Space Policy, the U.S. reserves its rights in space, discourages others from hindering those rights, and pledges to “take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities.”[10] In 2010, the U.S. National Space Policy made a noticeable departure from its predecessor in that it pledged to pursue bilateral and multilateral transparency measures to encourage responsible action in space.[11] Further, under the new Policy, the U.S. will consider arm control measures that are “equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the U.S. and its allies.”[12]

Some argue that the U.S. should be a lead in space weaponization.[13] Arguably, being a leader now will cost less than trying to meet and surpass others in the future.[14] The impending space arms race is evident by the Soviet Union’s secret military space station, in which it was designing an anti-satellite spacecraft, the Russians building a system to neutralize space weapons, and the Chinese testing advanced anti-satellite weaponry.[15] Although this raises concerns, since the public is not involved in the debate, it would be difficult for the government to explain the reasons for spending millions on space weapons. While the “if you’re not first, you’re last” argument is understandable, it seems little dramatic.  

Though the thought of a space arms race is concerning, the U.S. should not make rash decisions, which is a strong possibility when focusing on the now. The U.S. must consider the consequences of today and the future. Will the U.S. emphasize its ability to its ability to destroy and protect satellites in space or emphasize programs that allow it and other nations to benefit from space? Both ends are not possible. The U.S. cannot gain maximum military and civil benefits and at the same time deny the possibility of those benefits to the Soviet Union.

Another option is to negotiate with the Soviet Union with the goal of a treaty that prohibits damage and destruction of satellites and the deployment of space weapons. In 1983, the Soviet Chairman Andropv met with the U.S. Senate and made the following statement:

The Soviet Union considers it necessary to come to a complete ban of tests and of     deployment of any space-based weapons for striking targets on Earth, in the air and in space. Furthermore, we are ready, n the most radical way, to resolve the issue of anti-satellite weapons – to agree to eliminate anti-satellite systems already in existence and to ban creation of new ones. At the forthcoming session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, we will introduce proposals developed in detail on all these issues.[16]

The U.S., the Soviet Union, and several other nations have spent decades trying to identify and prevent the weaponization of space. Because almost anything can be used as a weapon in space, it is impossible to define what constitutes a space weapon. For this reason, an attempt to control an arms race based on the definition of space weapons is sure to fail, unless it relates to objects that specifically pose a substantial threat to humanity or have been deployed for the purpose of causing damage or destruction. Revisiting past discussions and proposed treatises could lead to a better outcome for all nations concerned.

* * * * *

[1] “ballistic missile.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, (last visited Nov. 3, 2016)

[2] Global Space Programs, Space Foundation (last visited Nov. 3, 2016)

[3] Momentum Gathering for Weaponization of Outer Space, Risk of Outer Space Arms Race Rising, Warns China’s Delegation in First Committee, Urging Binding New Treaty, United Nations, (Oct. 25, 2010)

[4] Brian Weeden, Space Weaponization, Arms Control Assoc., (last visited Nov. 3, 2016)

[5] See, Amy F. Woolf, Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues, Congressional Research Service (Feb. 26, 2016) available at

[6] Peter Kamocsai, Why the U.S. Should Be a Leader in Space Weaponization, Space News (Jan. 10, 2015) 

 [7] See

[8] Kamocsai, supra note 6.

[9] Id.

[10] U.S. National Space Policy (2006) available at

[11] National Space Policy of the United States of America (2010) available at

[12] Id.

[13] Kamocsai, supra note 6.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Strategic Defenses: Two Reports by the Office of Technology Assessment 98 (1972).