Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

Common Ground in the Sky: Extending the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to Reconcile U.S. and Chinese Security Interests

Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

Common Ground in the Sky: Extending the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to Reconcile U.S. and Chinese Security Interests

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

China's recent test of an anti-satellite weapon on January 11, 2007, put the incipient arms race in space between the United States and China back into the public consciousness.1 Under the Bush Administration, the United States has been aggressively pursuing offensive space weapons that have the potential to seriously threaten China and upset the longstanding geopolitical equilibrium based on mutually assured destruction.2 Russia and others also fear the U.S. pursuit of space weapons,3 and these countries are likely to rally to China as the arms race progresses. As the overall situation continues to deteriorate, it is becoming increasingly clear that the unbridled American pursuit of space weapons is a dangerous game and that the consequences could be very severe indeed.

The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies ("Outer Space Treaty")4 is the major legal instrument dealing with weapons in space.5 Originally, it concerned mainly the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War-these were the only countries with space programs at the time. But the treaty now has ninety-one states-parties, including all members of the United Nations Security Council. Article IV of the Treaty bans the stationing of all weapons of mass destruction in space,7 but says nothing about the emerging threats of kinetic kill vehicles, space-based lasers, and anti-satellite weapons.

This Comment examines the incipient arms race between the United States and China and the current state of the Outer Space Treaty. It argues that Article IV of the Treaty should be updated in order to deal with the new types of weapons that form the backbone of this arms race. Part II provides background on the current state of space weapons technology and the dangerous geopolitical ramifications that are likely to result from the further pursuit of that technology. Part III examines the Outer Space Treaty as it currently exists and demonstrates that it is dangerously outdated. Part IV argues that the international community should look to the principles that guided it in developing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ("UNCLOS III")8 for the law of the sea, as well as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty ("ABM Treaty") and other Cold War era arms control treaties, and update the Outer Space Treaty accordingly.


The development and deployment of space weapons will cost enormous sums9 and ultimately lead to a much less safe and stable world. Kinetic kill vehicles and space-based lasers are very complex devices that have the potential to unleash enormous firepower on ground targets, but they are themselves extremely vulnerable to relatively cheap and simple antisatellite weapons ("ASATs").10 Moreover, the deployment of space weapons and further development of ASATs will upset the longstanding strategic logic of mutually assured destruction by significantly weakening the effectiveness of intercontinental ballistic missiles ("ICBMs") armed with nuclear warheads.11 If the United States chooses to go the route of aggressive space weapons development in spite of these dangers, it is sure to further alienate the rest of the world-especially Russia-and drive it into the arms of a welcoming China.12 In short, there are a number of very serious long-term consequences to the development of space weapons that the United States would be wise to consider before it is too late.

A. A Number of Very Dangerous Space Weapons Are Being Developed

A variety of space weapons are currently being tested in preparation for deployment over the next several years. These weapons generally fall into one of two categories: kinetic kill vehicles and directed energy weapons.13 Kinetic kill vehicles are conceptually straightforward-they are simply solid objects designed to crash into their targets. …

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