Matthew Loffhagen / Outer Places & Joe Pappalardo / Popular Mechanics – 2018-08-26 00:26:35
US Refuses to Sign Space Arms Race Prevention Treaty
While Ramping Up Hypersonic Rocket Tests
Matthew Loffhagen / Outer Places
(January 26, 2018) — In the modern era of advanced technology, old-world nostalgia is incredibly fashionable.
Vinyl record players are popular yet again, movies are soaked in ’80s visuals, and the Cold War is back with a vengeance. America is currently gearing up for an anticipated arms race with Russia and China, as three of the world’s greatest superpowers rush to create the coolest Star Wars style space weapons.
The developing space travel technology that will soon make space tourism a reality is something of a double-edged sword, as anything that grants greater access to our planet’s orbit can also be used to drop explosive things on distant countries with less fear of fallout.
This week, Russian and Chinese diplomats have been lambasting America for refusing to sign the aptly titled Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty. Indeed, the US is moving forward with tests of all kinds of terrifying weapons, most notably hypersonic rockets.
Air travel is currently being rethought as various aeronautics organizations worldwide investigate affordable methods to get planes to move significantly faster than the speed of sound for long-haul commercial journeys.
Hypersonic weapons are essentially a real-world equivalent to the infamous Holdo Maneuver from Star Wars: The Last Jedi as a bomb would launch down onto a target faster than the speed of sound from outer space, causing widespread devastation with little to no warning.
This is just one of the fun new tools of destruction that can be created by sending otherwise benign new technology up into orbit. Powerful lasers have a lot of benefits to medical and scientific causes, but they can just as easily be turned into a makeshift Death Star above the planet’s surface.
Basically, anything that’s ever turned up in a Star Wars movie is fair game in the modern era of our very literal space war, and nobody wants to be the Ewoks, stuck fighting with the equivalent of bows and arrows while their opponents have lightsabers.
A large part of the reason why the US is unwilling to sign the PAROS treaty is because, as is standard for any Cold War, there’s a constant suspicion that other countries won’t actually stick to the promise of not weaponizing space.
According to General John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command:
“They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the Earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret.”
On the one hand, these satellite-launched superweapons are preferable to nuclear war because there’s significantly less fallout, but there is the danger that once the threat of global contamination is removed, it’ll be more likely that countries will get trigger-happy with their new orbital toys.
Everyone’s eyeing each other with suspicion on the global stage, as America, China, and Russian are all trapped in an enormous Mexican standoff, trying not to blink as they rush to stockpile the most advanced explosives imaginable.
It’s no wonder the Doomsday Clock just ticked forward.
No Treaty Will Stop Space Weapons
Russia and China are shaming the US for
not signing a treaty against weapons in space.
In reality, all three nations are racing to
weaponize the final frontier on their own terms
Joe Pappalardo / Popular Mechanics
(January 25, 2018) — Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is fired up. In comments to the Russian media this month, Lavrov excoriated the United States for refusing to back the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), a treaty to ban the placement of conventional weapons in space.
“The United States continues nurturing plans to militarize outer space, I mean the deployment of weapons in outer space,” Lavrov said. “Which will, naturally, have very adverse consequences for problems of international security.”
The Obama administration wouldn’t go for the treaty, and neither will the Trump White House. It’s not hard to see why. The Air Force has flown a secretive unmanned space plane into orbit and tested hypersonic weapons that, if they ever work, could strike targets worldwide. The Pentagon has launched satellites that can maneuver to keep an eye on other spacecraft, which is a defensive move — but also could be the first step toward attacking them.
Don’t be fooled by the Russian outcry, though. Lavrov’s rhetorical double-take is significant: The difference between “weaponizing space” and “putting weapons in space” is a big one. China and Russia very much want to bring war to space — on their own terms.
“They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the Earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret,” Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command, said in a recent public speech in California.
Any discussion about weaponizing space will reflexively cite the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which many erroneously think forbids it. The reality is that a slew of interesting, martial systems have been researched, tested, and even fielded over the decades.
Orbit is already a pivotal battleground. And there’s not a piece of paper in the world that can stop it.
Nukes on the Moon
It’s June 9, 1959, in Washington D.C. US Army Lt. Gen. Arthur Tredeau files a report detailing Project Horizon, a military base on the moon. “The employment of moon-based weapons systems against Earth or space targets may prove to be feasible and desirable,” the report says. “If hostile forces are allowed to arrive first they could militarily counter our landings.”
Back then it was not a stretch to think the moon could be a base for nuclear missiles. In a world ruled by mutually assured destruction, the gold standard was putting missiles where they could not be attacked, ensuring a nation’s ability to strike back. “Moon-based military power will be a strong deterrent to war because of the extreme difficulty, from the enemy point of view, of eliminating our ability to retaliate,” the Project Horizon report states.
Still, Cold War military planners in Russia and America knew that mutually assured destruction was the best guarantee that nukes would never fly. MAD is often attacked a lunatic’s gamble (it certainly sounds crazy when you think about it too hard). But it worked, and MAD remains the foundation of national security strategy, especially today as North Korea builds its arsenal.
Any technology or strategy that threatens the balance of nuclear-armed powers is seen as dangerously destabilizing. This can be seen in the arguments against the Star Wars program in the 1980s, and the current critics of hypersonic weapons who point out they could be confused for nukes, sparking retaliation.
That’s how the “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space” came to be passed in 1963. It stated that signees “refrain from placing in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction or from installing such weapons on celestial bodies.”
So much for Project Horizon.
The intent of that ’60s treaty is to preserve MAD. It does this by keeping all nukes within range of other nukes — on the Earth. But this single-minded focus on WMD left a large loophole. While the treaty was expanded in 1967, there is no prohibition against conventional weapons in space.
That’s crucial, because there’s been a subtle but vital shift in the way national leaders view space weapons in the decades since Project Horizon. Until recently, the arguments surrounding space weapons have been part of the calculus of nuclear warfare. But now, because of technologies like GPS, the United States has demonstrated how vital space is to a modern military, starting in the Gulf War and only growing in importance since.
Space war concerns are turning toward the tactical. In a conventional shooting war, disabling US sats blunts the precision weapons and navigation systems that enable the US military to operate. You can see, then, why the Chinese and Russians are very interested in banning conventional weapons in space, but not so interested in banning weapons that could blind, kill, or disable satellites from Earth.
It’s November 5, 2015, at the United Nations 70th General Assembly on Disarmament and International Security. This is the place where world powers debate matters of weapons, war, and security. Today, the topic the China-Russia sponsored “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space.” The language is rich with irony, considering who wrote the resolution.
In 2007 China shot down one of its own satellites in low earth orbit, sending a ring of orbital space debris spiraling in a ring over the globe. It conducted another test in 2014, prompting Air Force Lt. Gen. Jay Raymond to say that, “soon every satellite in every orbit will be able to be held at risk.”
The United States does not back the resolution. “This proposal does not adequately define what constitutes a weapon in outer space,” UN Ambassador Robert Wood tells the Assembly, and that “it would not enable effective confirmation” (read: there’s no way to be sure Russia and China won’t cheat). Wood adds that the language focuses exclusively on space-based weapons and overlooks earth-based anti-satellite weapons.
Of course, the United States’ position before the assembly is ironic as well. Just after the Chinese shot their sat down, the US Navy demonstrated its own ground-to-space missile by destroying a disabled US military satellite. So the United States has already demonstrated the very capability that Wood warned against.
While the Obama White House didn’t adopt the treaty, officials moved to support a European “code of conduct” for space. The Trump administration has not embraced this code, instead promising that “any harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of our space architecture that directly affects this vital US interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing.”
That umbrella of protection extends to civilian satellites, which the military relies on more a little less than half of its communications.
Military conflict in space has only gotten more likely since 2015. From orbital satellite refueling to laser tracking stations on earth to lunar exploration, efforts with seemingly civilian purposes now have a dark shadow of military programs behind them. A recent Chinese Air Force paper on using lasers in space to sparked fears they would use a similar technology to blind US satellites.
As long as China, Russia and the United States harbor these suspicions — born out by a history of trying to militarize space — they will act like these weapons are being developed.
Fear, doubt and the need to plan for military contingencies drives international arms races. The hardware has changed, but the mistrust, political maneuvering and uncertainty of the 21st century is vintage Cold War.
Here Is the Soviet Union’s Secret Space Cannon
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