The Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL) is a non-partisan institute dedicated to the preservation of the rule of law in 21st century regarding warfare and national security. The only center of its kind housed within a law school, CERL draws from the study of law, philosophy, and ethics to answer the difficult questions that arise in times of war and current transnational conflicts. On Thursday, April 5th, CERL held a public keynote at the University of Pennsylvania Law (Penn Law) Michael Fitts Auditorium on “The Weaponization of Outer Space: Ethical and Legal Boundaries” with Major General David D. Thompson, Air Force Space Command. Claire Finkelstine is the founder and faculty director of CERL and also a professor of law and professor of philosophy at Penn Law Algernon Biddle. She opened the conference speaking about a variety of space related concerns.

The conference revolved around the idea that our 21st century lives are highly dependent on satellites and space-based technologies, and our military depends on these technologies for its operations and communications. The conference addressed topics such as ways in which the military uses outer space, the risk of weaponization of outer space, and issues faced by the U.S. in terms of protecting its assets while seeking to avoid a space conflict. It also addressed the effects of a conflict in outer space. Questions were address such as what can and should the U.S. be doing to protect against attacks on satellites, how does the law of armed conflict apply to outer space, and how would a space conflict affect us all in our daily lives. The conference brought together approximately 40 top-tier experts, including faculty members of Penn Law, specialist practitioners, and global experts from diverse fields including academia, public policy, the aerospace industry, and national security. The conference offered foundational views on the pressing ethical, legal, and policy issues arising out of the potential of armed conflict in that domain. Some other topics included ways in which the U.S. and other leaders in space can protect their space assets in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty, the prohibition on non-peaceful uses of outer space, arms control measures, and the role that commercial actors play in securing space for sustainable civilian and military uses.

The Space Age began with the development of several technologies beginning with Sputnik 1 launched by the Soviet Union in October of 1957. This was the world’s first artificial satellite. The launch of Sputnik 1 began a new era of political, scientific and technological achievements that became known as the Space Age. The Space Age was characterized the United States and the Soviet Union making Rapid advances in technology including rocketry, materials science, computers and other areas. In 2011, NASA permanently grounded all U.S. space shuttles and has since relied on Russia to take American astronauts to and from the International Space Station.  Restraint has been the dominant approach among space faring nations, all of whom understood that continued access to and use of space required holding back on any threats or activities which might jeopardize peace in space. Recently, there has been a shift in international rhetoric towards more offensive capabilities in space. China, Russia, and the United States have all held various tests in space in recent years, leading to speculation that they all possess anti-satellite weapon capabilities. These tests suggest that there is a move towards weaponization of space. But what about the core principles of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that space shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes?

India, Israel and Japan are now taking a more active stance towards space defense. The U.S. Space Command, U.S. Strategic Command, and the U.S. Air Force Headquarters have been undertaking an assessment to determine how the U.S. Government can gain dominance in the space domain. Their goal is to develop offensive space control and active defensive strategies and capabilities.  There is also a distinct lack of transparency about actual capabilities and intentions on the part of all major players in space leading some commentators to describe this as a conceivable return to a Cold War-type arms race, and to the foreseeability of a space-based conflict. United States is at highest risk for the most to lose from a space-based conflict having the most technology in space.So how can the U.S. and its allies protect their space assets from being targeted in a space-based conflict?  There is a critical need for clear representations from States as to their position on national and international law applicable to space on the emerging weaponization of space. Cassandra Steer, the acting executive director of CERL at the University of Penn Law, recently told Politico that the U.S. is on the verge of “a cyclical escalation” that some may believe is a “conceivable return to a Cold War–type arms race.