China has criticized the creation of the United States Space Force as “a serious violation of the international consensus on the peaceful use of outer space … a direct threat to outer space peace and security.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Like Russia, China is waging a propaganda war to deny, distract and blame. We must be clear-eyed and punctiliously truthful in response to such baseless accusations and fear-mongering. The implication of China’s statement is that the United States, in forming the U.S. Space Force, is somehow at odds with international obligations or the beliefs and customs of the international community. That charge deserves close inspection.
The familiar phrase “peaceful use of outer space” stems from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), to which the U.S., Russia and China, among other states, are parties. The Outer Space Treaty does not limit how states organize military forces. It does mandate there will be no weapons of mass destruction or military bases on celestial bodies – neither of which are implied by the creation of the U.S. Space Force.
Further, Article I of that long-enduring treaty states, “The exploration and use of outer space … shall be the province of all mankind … in accordance with international law.” Article IV reiterates that international law applies to space, expressly including the Charter of the United Nations, which acknowledged that nothing “shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense.”
In launching the U.S. Space Force, the U.S. has strictly adhered to these provisions and emphasized that our purpose is to preserve and protect the nation’s vital interests, including the safety and security of U.S. and partner nations’ assets in space. Aggression, not self-defense, is prohibited by the treaty. Establishing a space force is not aggression. The United States is not creating a Space Force to fight a war in space. But, the U.S. must be prepared to address aggressive actions of any nation.
History teaches that even when nations agree to high-minded principles, the application of new technology in a modern war are bound only by the words included in treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty or the Hague and Geneva Conventions. On the other hand, in 1911, civilized nations proposed international legislation that championed the use of the newly invented airplanes for primarily peaceful purposes and further proposed limiting their wartime use to only observation and artillery spotting.
This “agreement” in Madrid was short-lived. By the end of World War I just seven years later, over 4,700 English civilians were killed by aerial bombardment in London alone. That same year, 1918, also saw the birth of the RAF – the Royal Air Force. It took us until 1947 to establish the U.S. Air Force.
As the U.S. Space Force is born, there is no question that the United States abides by the Outer Space Treaty – and agrees to be bound by it in any future conflict.
If past adherence to this and other international legal obligations is any guide, the same cannot be said for China and Russia. Examples abound: China’s debris-creating, anti-satellite test in 2007; China’s actions to build, occupy and militarize islands in international waters, and their complete disregard for intellectual property rights; Russia’s brazen attempted murder on a London park bench and occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
In space, both China and Russia monitor, target and track our military — and possibly commercial — satellites, and continue to develop both ground- and space-based anti-satellite weaponry. Both countries have placed an emphasis on the criticality of space capabilities. In 2015, China established a Strategic Support Force (SSF) consolidating space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities to enhance China’s ability to fight in these domains. Similarly, in 2015, Russia consolidated space, aerospace, and air defense into a single entity.
In the 1950s, Russia won the race to launch the first Earth-orbiting satellite with Sputnik. Today, all nations rely on space-based capabilities, an area where the U.S. leads the world. Impairing space capabilities can, in very immediate terms, threaten lives.
By gaining congressional support and creating a U.S. Space Force, President Trump seeks to maintain our technological lead, protect space for peaceful purposes, and avoid another Sputnik moment. And, as we maintain that technical advantage, the U.S will do as we always do – set the standard for compliance with the rule of law.