Moral and Ethical Decisions regarding Space Warfare

By Hyten, John; Uy, Robert | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Moral and Ethical Decisions regarding Space Warfare


Hyten, John, Uy, Robert, Air & Space Power Journal


Editorial Abstract:

The possibility of warfare in space not only reshapes the traditional view of conflict, but also challenges national leaders and military commanders. Outlining the moral and ethical dimension of determining the right course of action in space, the authors consider the consequences of moral and ethical choices in the context of the appropriate and measured development of certain space weapons.

IN COMBAT TODAY, United States military commanders face many difficult moral and ethical decisions. The nation has entrusted them with her most precious resource-her sons and daughters-to fulfill their obligation to protect and defend her vital interests. Commanders' decisions have life-and-death consequences for Americans, allies, enemy forces, and, unfortunately, sometimes noncombatants. Without a doubt, these decisions are among the most difficult any human being could ever face.

The potential for warfare in space adds a new dimension to our traditional view of war and further challenges national leaders and military commanders. The debate over weapons in space continues to be vigorous and controversial; both sides are entrenched in their own positions, asserting that only their judgements are buttressed by "moral" and correct arguments. The purpose of this article is to highlight the moral and ethical challenges that surround space warfare in a way that helps clarify the issues for all who must examine these choices and make appropriate decisions in future combat situations. Ethics and morality issues are often not clearcut, and future decision makers must be open to the possibility that the greater good-a means to measure the consequences of moral and ethical choices-may be served through an appropriate and measured development of certain space weapons.

The Dichotomy: Who is Right?

It would be a disaster for us to put weapons in space of any kind under any circumstances. It only invites other countries to do the same thing.

-Senator Tom Daschle, 2001

We know from history that every medium-air, land and sea-has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different.

-Report of the Commission to Assess United States National security Space Management and Organization, 2001

Defining Space Weapons

It is essential to first define the term space weapon and the nature of space warfare; doing so will clarify this discussion, since the number of definitions for space weapons is nearly as infinite as space itself. Many authors have defined the term using slightly different criteria. In general, the most significant difference between these definitions reflects the weapon's basing mode; specifically, must the weapon be based in space to be a space weapon? If the answer is yes, then ground-based lasers or ground-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons would not be considered space weapons. This article will, however, use a more inclusive definition.

Wulf von Kries, a member of the German Space Agency, addressed the difficult topic of defining space weapons at a Berlin conference in June 2002. He noted that "nothing can, might, and will stop the routine use of space for military activities." Since the existing legal framework dates from and uses the body of knowledge that existed over 40 years ago, he suggested that "the discussion on space weapons should not be limited to deployment in space but include those weapons on Earth that can be directed into space."1 This article will follow his suggestion and use a broader definition of a space weapon, which is (1) a ground-based or space-based weapon that can attack and negate the capability of space systems on orbit or (2) a weapon based in space that can attack targets on the earth.2

Defining Space Superiority

The purpose for employing space weapons in space warfare is to achieve space superiority and, along with air and surface capabilities, establish a battlespace in which we can satisfy our national security objectives. …

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