Outer Space Treaty May Ban Strike Weapons

By Bunn, George; Rhinelander, John B. | Arms Control Today, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Outer Space Treaty May Ban Strike Weapons


Bunn, George, Rhinelander, John B., Arms Control Today


To the Editor:

In his excellent article on space arms control (ACT, April 2002), James Clay Moltz recommended five core provisions for a new, international space arms control agreement. We believe that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 may already address the third and arguably most important recommendation: no stationing of strike weapons of any sort in low-Earth orbit, including kinetic kill vehicles and lasers.

The Outer Space Treaty was the second multilateral "nonarmament" treaty, following the model of the Antarctica Treaty of 1959. The Eisenhower administration, which negotiated the latter and laid down principles for the former, focused on the objective of prohibiting military competition in Antarctica and space before it occurred. A 1957 proposal by the Eisenhower administration, which was endorsed by Canada, France, and the United Kingdom, sought "to assure that the sending of objects through space will be exclusively for peaceful purposes." This objective was then agreed internationally in a unanimous 1963 UN General Assembly declaration of legal principles, which stated that "the use of space shall be carried on for the benefit and in the interests of all mankind...."

The Outer Space Treaty was intended to implement this principle. Its first article says that the use of space "shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries." The only weapons it explicitly bans from orbiting around Earth are nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction because they were the primary concern in 1967. Indeed, the negotiating history shows that this prohibition focused on the immediate concern (i.e., nuclear) of the parties in the 1960s-stemming in part from the Cuban missile crisis-but that it did not obviate the broader peaceful-purpose principle of the 1957 proposal.

In fact, the Outer Space Treaty contains one overall rule: space shall be preserved for peaceful purposes for all countries. It requires any state considering activities that "would cause potentially harmful interference" with other states' activities to under-- take appropriate consultations. Similarly, other states may request consultations.

Further provisions for consultation were included to give the parties realistic opportunities to achieve post-1967 agreements on what the general provisions should mean in the future. For instance, if a state decided to test and possibly orbit in space an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) utilizing a laser or kinetic kill vehicle, other states-- parties to the space treaty could request consultations. They could conclude that the treaty prohibits the orbiting of the proposed ASAT. We believe that such an interpretation could be a permissible interpretation of the treaty.

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