Brief historical outline of space arms control

Early efforts to prevent an arms race in space

In the context of a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities known as the “International Geophysical Year” 1957-58—both the United States and the Soviet Union launched satellites into Earth’s orbit for the first time ever. The United States also proposed, in 1957, that these scientific endeavours should be accompanied by an arms control agreement covering space. The idea was for international inspectors to establish whether all the objects sent to space would serve exclusively peaceful ends and scientific purposes. The Soviet Union rejected the US-American initiative because they were hoping to offset US military superiority by means of intercontinental missiles. Having succeeded, in the course of 1957, to become the first country both to test intercontinental missiles and put a satellite into orbit, the Soviet Union enjoyed, if only temporarily, a military advantage over the United States in terms of space technology. It was in this situation that US President Eisenhower proposed, in 1958, a ban on any testing of weaponized intercontinental missiles. The Soviet Union responded by declaring its readiness in principle to prohibit intercontinental missiles but on the precondition that all military foreign bases would be closed. Moscow argued that the United States was able to use such bases to threaten the Soviet Union with aircraft and medium-range missile attacks, whereas the Soviet Union possessed no comparable capabilities. This Soviet counter-proposal was, in turn, rejected by the United States because Washington had no wish to sacrifice its worldwide network of bases and lose its military advantages. In the end, the United States was soon to catch up with the Soviets in the field of space technology and then lost interest in an agreement to outlaw intercontinental missiles.

By the end of the 1950s, discussions were already taking place in the United Nations on the peaceful use of space. There were also deliberations on proposals by Western nations and the Soviet Union for “comprehensive and complete disarmament” under the UN umbrella that included references to space. Subsequent years saw at least a consensus emerging on the need to prevent weapons of mass destruction from being deployed in space. Finally, several UN resolutions led to the adoption of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967. This agreement outlawed not only the stationing of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in space but also military tests in space and military installations on celestial bodies. However, the Treaty left a number of other military uses of space unregulated, including detonations of weapons of mass destruction, traversal through space of missiles, whether conventional or weapons of mass destruction, and the stationing of conventional weapons in space.

Still, three nuclear powers, the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, did succeed, partly under pressure from international public opinion, in reaching an agreement in 1963 to ban weapon tests in space under the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

The nuclear powers were able to incorporate arms control elements into both the Outer Space Treaty and the Partial Test Ban Treaty because they did not believe these concessions would greatly interfere with their respective military strategies and military technology programmes. And plans by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to have the stationing of smaller nuclear weapons exempted from prohibition under the Outer Space Treaty were at least turned down by the US administration of the day.

Space weapons and nuclear arms control

After 1967, the issue of preventing a militarization of space mainly related to arms reduction and control talks on US-American and Soviet nuclear weapons. In the Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty (ABM Treaty) of 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to limit land-launched missile defence systems aimed at intercepting intercontinental missiles essentially to one location on either side. Each party also undertook not to “develop, test, or deploy ABM systems or components which are … space-based” (Article V). This stemmed from the realization that, alongside the arms race in offensive nuclear systems, an arms race in defensive systems would ultimately not be of an advantage on either side However, in 2001, the United States unilaterally terminated the Treaty to pursue its anti-missile plans without legal obstacles.

In 1978/79, Washington and Moscow also held special talks on anti-satellite weapons. Both sides had already tested Earth-based and space-based anti-satellite systems. The negotiations failed to produce results.

Space weapons control and missile defence programmes

In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union presented the UN General Assembly with a draft treaty aimed at banning the deployment of weapons of any kind in space. In 1983, US President Ronald Reagan launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed the “Star Wars” programme. This was an attempt to step up the development of land-based, air-based and space-based missile defence weapons designed to render harmless any missile attack on the United States. However, numerous SDI projects were later cancelled because they proved to be either technologically unfeasible or far too expensive.

The SDI programme sparked concerns that it would lead to further militarization of space. Organizations representing American scientists put forward proposals for a ban on ground-based and space-based anti-satellite weapons. German scientists also came up with a draft agreement in 1984 on limiting the military use of space. It called for an end to the development, testing and deployment of space weapons. As the East-West antagonism came to an end with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Strategic Defense Initiative was drastically downgraded by Reagan’s successor, the international community treated such recommendations for wider arms control agreements for space with less urgency.

In 2001, US President George W. Bush unilaterally terminated the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty of 1972. This gave fresh sustenance to the discussion of an arms build-up in space. The United States has since argued that its—now significantly pared down— missile defence programme is aimed at so-called rogue states like North Korea or Iran, but Russia and China interpret this as another move to impair their nuclear second-strike capabilities. In 2007, China successfully shot down one of its own satellites with a missile test and so did the United States in 2008 showing their capability to destroy satellites in orbit from the ground or from the sea. Potentially, any state that can launch rockets into space has got that capability.

Current discussion

It is in this context that the UN General Assembly has long been calling for talks to resume on ways of preventing the deployment of active weapon systems in space. In 2008, Russia and China jointly submitted such a draft treaty to the UN Conference on Disarmament, a Geneva-based negotiating forum. Under its provisions, the states parties would undertake not to station any weaponized objects in space or on other planets and would renounce all use of force against space objects. Ground-based anti-satellite weapons, however, are not mentioned in this draft. In any case, it would hardly be possible to control compliance with such a ban because any state with the capability to launch rockets into space would also be able to destroy satellites.

In drafting a treaty, China and Russia are therefore partly keen to prevent the United States from gaining even greater military-technological superiority in space by banning any deployment. The United States has, however, rejected a comprehensive and binding arms control agreement for space. US President Barack Obama—in part due to strong domestic pressure from the Republicans in Congress—did not wish to see constraints on America’s freedom of action and supremacy in space. Nevertheless, Obama was, in contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush, willing to negotiate on a “code of conduct in space”. A proposal to this end has been taken up by the European Union. The EU proposes voluntary notification commitments along with transparency and confidence-building measures for the peaceful use of space, but does not call for explicit bans on space weapons. Individual EU countries have, in fact, been advocating more comprehensive arms control measures for space, but they recognize that the US position is a stumbling block. As for talks on a code of conduct, these have not yet resulted in anything concrete.

Sources and further information

BICC 11/2013

Buchhandlungen bangen um die Buchpreisbindung

Data tables

For some select map layers, the information portal ‘War and Peace’ provides the user with all used data sets as tables.

More ...
Magnifying Glass in front of a Boston map

Country portraits

In the country reports, data and information are collected by country and put into tables that are used in the modules as a basis for maps and illustrations.

More ...
Compass with Mirror

Navigation and operation

The information and data of each module are primarily made available as selectable map layers and are complemented by texts and graphs. The map layers can be found on the right hand side and are listed according to themes and sub-themes.

More ...