As the United States invests in new technologies aimed at defending its orbital assets against attack from foreign nations, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson now claims in no uncertain terms the United States intends to field weapons in Earth orbit. While doing so would be a direct violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, of which the United States is a signatory member, there are loopholes America could use to remain in the treaty’s good graces.
While Russia and, more recently, China have both begun fielding autonomous orbital platforms that appear to have the capabilities necessary to serve as anti-satellite weapon systems, the United States has yet to mount any significant orbital defense strategy aimed at protecting America’s infrastructure of satellites relied on for navigation, communications, and more. In recent statements made at the 2019 Space Symposium, Wilson not only inferred that the U.S. may already have orbital capabilities that have not been disclosed, but also made it seem certain America intends to field weapons in space.
Her remarks began with the suggestion that the United States may “demonstrate some capabilities so our adversaries understand that they will not be able to deny us the use of space without consequences.” Though, Wilson offered no further details into just what sort of demonstration she may have in mind, adding, “There are certain things we don’t discuss publicly about our capabilities.”
While the Outer Space Treaty (formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) explicitly bars the placement or use of nuclear weapon systems in space, it does allow for the deployment of defensive weapons or systems that are not considered “weapons of mass destruction.” While Wilson offered no details pertaining to the types of systems the U.S. may deploy (or may have already deployed), that loophole could be the key for America to avoid violating the treaty.
Article IV of the treaty reads (in part):
States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.
Both Russia and China are also signatory members of the Outer Space Treaty, and both nations already have branches of their armed forces that were established specifically for space-based defense. Russia’s “inspector” satellites have already drawn accusations from the French government over what seemed to be an effort to eavesdrop on a joint French/Italian defense communications satellite, with the supposition these platforms are capable of more than just listening.
“There may come a point where we demonstrate some capabilities so our adversaries understand that they will not be able to deny us the use of space without consequences. That capability needs to be one that’s understood by your adversary. They need to know there are certain things we can do, at least at some broad level,” Wilson said.