What it is: the build-up of technical devices in space for military purposes. This includes equipment for spotting and tracking incoming ballistic missiles, and for getting satellite and other intelligence about military activity on land and sea.

What it means: The states who have signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) – 125 of them by the year 2005 – agree that the exploration and use of outer space should be for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of all humanity. In 1983, in the last decade of the Cold War, US president Ronald Reagan announced the launch of a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). This was a programme of research and development of space-based weapons which would intercept and destroy any nuclear missile fired at the USA. SDI was quickly nicknamed ‘Star Wars’. But it was found to be unworkable, and was abandoned. But in the 1990s, after the Cold War, plans for National Missile Defence (NMD, and also dubbed ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Son of Star Wars’) were made. As the USA saw it, ‘peaceful purposes’ allowed ‘defence and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national security and other goals’. But the American government’s thinking seemed to go dangerously beyond that: if the US could make itself invulnerable, it could also attack other states who had long-range missiles. The US relies on space and satellites for its eyes and ears more than any other country, and by 2001 there were 110 of them circling the globe providing intelligence information and navigation guidance for the military. In the wars in Iraq (1991, 2003) and the attacks on Afghanistan (2001) the US military relied heavily on satellite information. US Space Command’s policy statement ‘Vision for 2020’ describes its mission ‘to dominate the space dimension of military operations in order to protect US interests and investments’. (Recent US plans for space exploration include mining for valuable helium – a valuable fuel source that could replace oil - on the moon.) It also aims to ‘integrate space forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.’ Since 2001 the US has revived (as Ballistic Missile Defence, BMD) the earlier projects for a multi-layered, satellite-guided ‘missile shield’ in space. The US has not only militarised space, it has begun cornering it for use as a battlefield. ‘A key objective is not only to ensure US ability to exploit space for military purposes but also, as required, to deny an adversary’s ability to do so.’

Think about it:
(1) What do you know about ‘the space race’? The first moon probes were sent into space by the Soviet Union, and in 1959 sent back the first photographs of the far side of the moon (which is always invisible to planet Earth). In 1957 the Soviet Union had also launched ‘Sputnik’, the world’s first orbital satellite. It was another decade before the USA landed the first men on the moon. This all happened during the Cold War. Do you see it as a kind of competitive flexing of scientific muscles, emphasising that the USA and USSR were head-to-head in every area? Or was it a more sinister step that took the world closer to war in space?

(2) The 1980s ‘Star Wars’ concept was strongly opposed by many countries. But the new plans for BMD have been received in comparative – and worrying - silence. Why might that be?

(3) In 2000, a UK parliamentary committee did criticise NMD. ‘If a rogue state did decide to inflict mass casualties on the US it’s unlikely to use the one method – ballistic missiles – which would leave no doubt of the aggressor’s identity.’ The committee also feared a new arms race – in space. (The Soviet Union had tried to compete with the 1980s SDI programme, with disastrous consequences for its economy. But by the end of the 20th century, China was planning its own first excursion into outer space.) In 2001, America was attacked – in a way that no space shield could prevent. Work out more arguments for keeping war out of outer space.

(4) A scientific advisory report for the US Air Force (called ‘New World Vistas, Air and Space Power for the 21st Century’) was published in 1995. Here are two quotations from it: it forecasts ‘an intimate intertwining of commercial and military applications to an extent not yet encountered. The intertwining will blur the distinction between threat and asset, offence and defence, and, even, friend and foe.’ ‘The Air Force must begin to think and bring forward the technologies necessary for space control. Capabilities to defend our own space-based resources and to disrupt, degrade, deny or destroy that of the enemy will be needed sooner or later in the 21st century.’ What attitudes does this kind of language convey? How might people who want peace respond to them – and in what other kind of language?

(5) Since the Second World War several UK Air Force sites have been under US control, and the UK government has agreed that they can be upgraded to become part of the BMD system (the sites are needed for BMD radar installations). The people of Britain have had no say in this decision, even though it could, for example, make the UK a target if the BMD system was attacked. Should citizens protest, and, if so, how?