Refusal to Rule Out Orbital Nukes Sparks New Space Force Fears

Upending the Outer Space Treaty could hobble commercial space activity and ignite a celestial arms race.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a visit to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston on Aug. 23.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Oct. 24, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Trump administration prides itself on doing things differently than its predecessors. But when Vice President Mike Pence declined to definitively rule out the placement of nuclear weapons in space, it marked a break in tradition that some experts fear will be truly explosive.

While speaking Tuesday at a Washington Post event on the White House’s burgeoning plans for a Space Force—a new military branch to focus exclusively on operations outside Earth’s atmosphere—Pence refused to firmly commit the United States to a no-nuke policy in space. “What we want to do is continue to advance the principle that peace comes through strength,” the vice president said.

But a strict ban on orbital weapons of mass destruction is a key tenet of the Outer Space Treaty, a 51-year-old agreement established at the height of the Cold War and signed by over 100 nations. And while Pence said the Trump administration has no imminent plans to renegotiate that treaty, his failure to affirm one of its central pillars is an unprecedented step for a presidential administration.

It was President Reagan who popularized the “peace through strength” motto. But Frans von der Dunk, a director at the International Institute of Space Law and a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law, said Pence’s quibbling on the question of space nukes is “radically different from what either President Reagan or other administrations have done in the past.”

“For the first time, we now have at least this suggestion that nuclear weapons will be orbited,” von der Dunk told National Journal. “That’s where the whole space-law-and-policy community—at least the people I know—are getting very worried.”

President Trump’s plans for a Space Force had already caused some consternation in the global space community.

“Just the idea of a Space Force goes against the general idea that the Outer Space Treaty was to protect all countries’ access to space,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on space and national security at the Naval War College. By announcing its intent to create “American dominance in space,” Johnson-Freese worries that the administration is signaling a possible desire “to hold court over who can go to space and who can’t.”

But Tuesday’s implicit threat against the Outer Space Treaty sent any anxiety already percolating into the stratosphere. If the White House’s plan for a Space Force does call for the militarization of space in ways that violate the treaty, experts warn the impact on both international stability and the commercial-spacefaring industry would be disastrous.

“If that happens, you can bet that the other couple of countries which are vying for supremacy in outer space will double their efforts as well,” said von der Dunk. “And then we are back to the arms race of the ‘60s and the ‘70s.”

And while the stationing of orbital nukes would be both destabilizing and psychologically disturbing, it’s not clear whether the increased risk would lead to a strategic payoff down the line.

“There’s nothing that a nuclear weapon in space can do that can’t be done from the ground,” said Johnson-Freese. “So the rationale behind this potential new move is beyond me. It makes no sense whatsoever.”

Even if the White House decides against putting nukes or other devastating weapons into orbit, its plans for a Space Force may still run afoul of international norms.

Though some remotely piloted military satellites could theoretically function as battering rams, no nation is believed to have kinetic or laser weapons in orbit. And if the coming Space Force plan calls for the stationing of any type of U.S. weaponry in space, experts worry that it could lead to a “Wild West”-style escalation that could impact commercial space activities.

“The Rubicon that hasn’t been crossed is into weaponization,” said Johnson-Freese. “This would overtly do that. And once you do that, then all bets are off.”

Pence’s comments marked a rare moment of public hesitation over the Outer Space Treaty by a sitting administration. But the vice president is not the first Republican politician to recently call into question the treaty’s virtues.

In May of last year, Sen. Ted Cruz convened a hearing with officials from the private space industry to discuss whether the aging Outer Space Treaty was limiting their ability to operate. Cruz was especially curious about provisions barring the sovereign ownership of celestial bodies and requiring the “authorization and continuing supervision” of private entities in space.

But the assembled space-industry executives pushed back hard against Cruz’s suggestion that the treaty constrained their behavior, arguing that their businesses depended on the reliable framework afforded by the Outer Space Treaty and that upending the agreement would cause more problems than it would solve.

“They need the legal certainty [the treaty] provides to encourage people to invest in their industries,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law.

Gabrynowicz expects commercial space firms to aggressively respond to any further efforts by the White House to undermine the treaty. “At the national level, there is going to be resistance and pushback,” she said.

Von der Dunk also noted a unique provision of the Outer Space Treaty that holds a nation-state liable for any accidents caused by the private space firms operating under its oversight.

“If Boeing launches something from Cape Canaveral, and something goes horribly wrong and the rocket crashes in Mexico City and causes $1 billion in damages, at the international level it is not Boeing which has to pay for the damage, it’s the United States government that has to pay for the damage,” said von der Dunk, explaining why private industry remains loath to upset the treaty.

But even with a united front of industry and academics in favor of the Outer Space Treaty, experts remain concerned about the pact’s future under the Trump administration. Gabrynowicz pointed specifically to this week’s announcement that the White House will abandon the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia as proof that even longstanding agreements can suddenly show up on Trump’s chopping block.

“This current administration has demonstrated a willingness to withdraw from international agreements,” said Gabrynowicz. “Why would the Outer Space Treaty be any different than the ones we’ve already withdrawn from?”

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