There's been some media attention to my statement to New Scientist Magazine that the US is not in compliance with the UN Convention on Registration of Outer Space Objects (1975) and UN Resolution 1721B (1961). In my newsletter, JSR 453, I stated: "The bulk of the information provided to the UN on classified satellites is deliberately wrong or misleading". Here's a clarification of my position.
UNR 1721B (1961) and the Convention (1975) which eventually resulted from it were adopted in the face of worries that weapons of mass destruction (in particular nuclear weapons) might be placed in outer space. The intent of the Convention was to ensure a degree of openness in the use of space, so that member states and their citizens would have some way of knowing whether the sky over their heads was full of weapons. A separate Outer Space Treaty forbids specific kinds of weapons.
I believe that the Convention remains as important as ever after the end of the Cold War. Although it has not received much attention, it means that independent analysts such as myself can reassure the world that the scope of military activities of the spacefaring nations are known at least in broad outline. I have been surprised how often I get asked whether the US already has extensive weapons systems in space, and whether we would know. Even with the existing spotty compliance with the Convention, I can confidently state that the US does not have significant numbers of weapons systems currently based on orbit (at most a handful, and most probably none at all).
Even if the proposed deployment of space-based weapons systems takes place, I believe that compliance with UNR1721B is in our nation's interest. Based on historical examples (e.g. the ICBM `missile gap'), and on my own impression of the fears and beliefs of everyone I have talked to across the world, I am sure that even if we press on with the introduction of space weapons, what we actually do will be much less controversial than what everyone will assume we're doing if we're secretive about it. If we comply, I and others will be able to independently address claims made by the government about its degree of compliance with other space treaties, and I think that's an important thing.
For the record, I personally believe that although some military uses of space, particularly surveillance, are good things and contribute to international safety and stability, the proposed deployment of weapons, even for strategic defense, is a very bad idea and we shouldn't do it. However, I consider that a separate issue from whether or not we should be open about what we're doing.
Because this is the first time since the late 1960s that space weapons and secret satellites have been a real probability, and I believe there needs to be public discussion in the US on the subject.
If we decide as a nation to have covert satellites, then we should publicly withdraw from the convention. To cheat on the convention in really obvious ways and then pretend we're in compliance makes us look silly and undermines confidence in our honesty. We're meant to be the good guys, right?
I don't want to overstate the case. This is not the End Of The Republic, or Iran-Contra, and maybe not even Monicagate.
Although there is a pattern of obfuscation and occasional outright
non-compliance in the US filings with the UN, let me be clear that
IN MY OPINION, THE UNITED STATES IS *NOT* CARRYING OUT A COVERT MILITARY SPACE PROGRAM AT THE PRESENT TIME.
There are satellites whose nature is classified, but the fact that they have been launched is public knowledge (even when the US forgets to tell the UN about it).
However, I do believe that the US is deliberately muddying the waters, and that such a covert program may be on the cards in the future. So I'm making a small fuss now, in the hope of saving the US having to face a big fuss later.
Other nations are just as bad, with the surprising exception of Russia; the former USSR violated the convention a couple of times in the mid 1960s but has been scrupulous about it since then. But China, Germany, Japan, etc., all have unregistered space objects.
On the other hand, they are much smaller players in the space business and, more importantly, they aren't the ones going around talking about putting weapons up.
My note in JSR 453 focussed on US violations, but for many years I have been criticising other spacefaring nations as well - my web page with a list of unregistered satellites has been up for five years.
If I can get the US to clean up its act, I'll be on China's case next.
I don't think there is a big consipiracy. Part of the problem is deliberate neglect: I suspect that the UN filings are made by relatively junior staff with relatively little review or insight into the information they are compiling. There is clearly a long and lossy chain of communication between those determining the orbits (US Space Command) and the point where the State Department prepares the document to give to the UN.
Nevertheless, there are a few examples where it seems clear that highly classified satellites have been deliberately omitted by someone along the chain, which is a clear and serious violation of the Convention, and there is a clear policy to provide misleading information for many of the classified satellites, representing at best a highly tendentious interpretation of the resolution and the convention.
There are also many examples where commercial satellites which should have been registered by the US have not been. Even some Shuttle missions were missed. This is simple incompetence, but such sloppiness makes it easier to hide deliberate mistakes.
The info provided to the UN is enough to make a general statement about what kind of satellite it is. It's not enough to locate the satellite in space (only three of the seven classical elements are provided). The ones where it matters - low orbit imaging satellites - are easy for Saddam to spot anyway, all you need to track them is a pair of binoculars, a stopwatch, and simple math. Amateurs do it all the time. Of course you can't be sure who the satellite belongs to if you don't have a corresponding UN filing.
In general, I argue that the loss of secrecy is balanced by the gain in international security. This 'open skies' argument is used by us to justify spy satellites looking at the Earth in the first place, and it seems to me it works equally well in reverse (the Earth looking at spy satellites).
I identify five kinds of error made by the US:
Let's take the example of a typical geostationary communications satellite launch. The rocket second stage goes into "parking orbit" of 200 by 200 kilometers. The third stage and attached satellite separate from the second stage, and seconds later the third stage fires to enter a 200 x 35780 km "transfer orbit". The satellite then separates from the third stage and both coast to apogee at 35780 km. The satellite then fires its engine to enter a circular 35780 x 35780 km "operational orbit" where it will circle the Earth once every 24 hours.
For civilian satellites, in every case, the US registers the three objects from the launch in three separate orbits: stage 2 in the parking orbit, stage 3 in the transfer orbit and the satellite in the operational orbit.
In contrast, for many classified satellites, the US registers the three objects all in the parking orbit. This is clearly silly because in the parking orbit the three objects are still attached to each other, and in general while the satellite is in the parking orbit the launch is considered to be still in progress.
The US will argue that the convention allows them the leeway to choose to provide such parking orbit data, even if the satellite was only in that orbit for a few minutes and was still attached to the rocket. I can see that from a legalistic standpoint they may have an argument, but it's clearly against the spirit of UNR 1721B and the Convention and that is made a little obvious by the fact that they only do it for the classified satellites and other countries don't do it.
It is worth noting that other countries don't always register their rocket stages and never bother registering small debris objects ("space junk") The US registers both of these classes of object, so in that sense it is being more complete that other countries. On the other hand, a suspicious person might think that swamping the UN with data on hundreds of boring pieces of space junk makes it harder for people to keep track of the actual payloads, especially as the US is the only country that doesn't give the names of the satellites when it registers them. Japan will say "we launched satellite Nozomi (PLANET-B), international designation 1998-41A, a Mars probe..." while the US will just say "object 1998-37A" without saying what it is called or what it does.
Type D and E errors have only been made by the USA. Type C errors have been made by the USA and China, although the unregistered Chinese military satellites have been described publicly (including pictures of the satellites) in the Chinese media, while no information has been released by the US on the unregistered US military satellites.
I'll give the details of the US errors here (Appendix A). If you are a citizen of some other country, I encourage you to check Paper 1 and pressure your country to fix its errors.
Jonathan McDowell, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2001 Aug 16.
Type A errors:
US 1981-119A Intelsat 5 F3 1981 Dec 15 US 1982-97A Intelsat 5 F5 1982 Sep 28 US 1985-25A Intelsat 5A F10 1985 Mar 22 US 1985-55A Intelsat 5A F11 1985 Jun 30 US 1985-63B PDP 1985 Jul 29 US 1985-87A Intelsat 5A F12 1985 Sep 28 US 1990-02A STS 32R 1990 Jan 9 US 1990-21A Intelsat 6 F3 1990 Mar 14 US 1990-56A Intelsat 6 F4 1990 Jun 23 US 1991-40A STS 40 1991 Jun 5 US 1991-80A STS 44 1991 Nov 25 US 1992-26A STS 49 1992 May 7 US 1993-17B SEDS 1 1993 Mar 30 US 1993-58B ACTS 1993 Sep 12 US 1994-64A Intelsat 703 1994 Oct 6 US 1994-73A STS 66 1994 Nov 3 US 1995-01A Intelsat 704 1995 Jan 10 US 1995-13A Intelsat 705 1995 Mar 22 US 1995-69A Galaxy 3R 1995 Dec 15 US 1998-14A Intelsat 806 1998 Feb 28 US 1998-37A Intelsat 805 1998 Jun 18 US 1998-69F Unity 1998 Dec 4 US 1999-31A Globalstar 1999 Jun 10 US 1999-31B Globalstar 1999 Jun 10 US 1999-31C Globalstar 1999 Jun 10 US 1999-31D Globalstar 1999 Jun 10
Type B errors:
US 1983-105A Intelsat 5 F7 1983 Oct 19 US 1984-23A Intelsat 5 F8 1984 Mar 5 US 1988-40A Intelsat 5A F13 1988 May 18 US 1989-06A Intelsat 5A F15 1989 Jan 27 US 1989-87A Intelsat 6 F2 1989 Oct 27 US 1991-55A Intelsat 6 F5 1991 Aug 14 US 1991-75A Intelsat 6 F1 1991 Oct 29 US 1993-66A Intelsat 701 1993 Oct 22 US 1994-34A Intelsat 702 1994 Jun 17 US 1994-40A PAS 2 1994 Jul 8 US 1995-23A Intelsat 706 1995 May 17 US 1995-72B Skipper 1995 Dec 28 US 1995-73A Echostar 1 1995 Dec 28 US 1996-15A Intelsat 707 1996 Mar 14 US 1996-35A Intelsat 709 1996 Jun 15 US 1997-09A Intelsat 801 1997 Mar 1 US 1997-30A Iridium 9 1997 Jun 18 US 1997-30B Iridium 10 1997 Jun 18 US 1997-30C Iridium 11 1997 Jun 18 US 1997-30D Iridium 12 1997 Jun 18 US 1997-30E Iridium 13 1997 Jun 18 US 1997-30F Iridium 14 1997 Jun 18 US 1997-30G Iridium 16 1997 Jun 18 US 1997-31A Intelsat 802 1997 Jun 25 US 1997-51A Iridium 1997 Sep 14 US 1997-51B Iridium 1997 Sep 14 US 1997-51C Iridium 1997 Sep 14 US 1997-51D Iridium 1997 Sep 14 US 1997-51E Iridium 1997 Sep 14 US 1997-51F Iridium 1997 Sep 14 US 1997-51G Iridium 1997 Sep 14 US 1997-53A Intelsat 803 1997 Sep 23 US 1997-83A Intelsat 804 1997 Dec 22 US 1997-86A Asiasat 3/HGS-1 1997 Dec 24 US 1998-18A Iridium 1998 Mar 25 US 1998-18B Iridium 1998 Mar 25 US 1998-21A Iridium 1998 Apr 7 US 1998-21B Iridium 1998 Apr 7 US 1998-21C Iridium 1998 Apr 7 US 1998-21D Iridium 1998 Apr 7 US 1998-21E Iridium 1998 Apr 7 US 1998-21F Iridium 1998 Apr 7 US 1998-21G Iridium 1998 Apr 7 US 1998-65A Panamsat 8 1998 Nov 4 US 1998-67A Zarya 1998 Nov 20 US 1999-04A Globalstar 1999 Feb 9 US 1999-04B Globalstar 1999 Feb 9 US 1999-04C Globalstar 1999 Feb 9 US 1999-04D Globalstar 1999 Feb 9 US 1999-12A Globalstar 1999 Mar 15 US 1999-12B Globalstar 1999 Mar 15 US 1999-12C Globalstar 1999 Mar 15 US 1999-12D Globalstar 1999 Mar 15 US 1999-14A DemoSat 1999 Mar 28 US 1999-19A Globalstar 1999 Apr 15 US 1999-19B Globalstar 1999 Apr 15 US 1999-19C Globalstar 1999 Apr 15 US 1999-19D Globalstar 1999 Apr 15 US 1999-49A Globalstar 1999 Sep 22 US 1999-49B Globalstar 1999 Sep 22 US 1999-49C Globalstar 1999 Sep 22 US 1999-49D Globalstar 1999 Sep 22 US 1999-53A LMI 1 1999 Sep 27 US 1999-58A Globalstar 1999 Oct 18 US 1999-58B Globalstar 1999 Oct 18 US 1999-58C Globalstar 1999 Oct 18 US 1999-58D Globalstar 1999 Oct 18 US 1999-62A Globalstar 1999 Nov 22 US 1999-62B Globalstar 1999 Nov 22 US 1999-62C Globalstar 1999 Nov 22 US 1999-62D Globalstar 1999 Nov 22 US 2000-74A QuickBird 2000 Nov 20
Type C errors: these are the unregistered US military satellites which are the clearest examples of US non-compliance with the Convention. (it's arguable that the two NATO satellites should have been registered by some other state, but they were developed and operated by the US Air Force).
US 1978-106A NATO 3C 1978 Nov 19 US 1984-115A NATO 3D 1984 Nov 14 US 1988-52A Nova 2 1988 Jun 16 US 1989-72A USA 45 1989 Sep 6 US 1990-31A USA 56 1990 Apr 11 US 1990-31B USA 57 1990 Apr 11 US 1990-31C USA 58 1990 Apr 11 US 1990-50E USA 62 1990 Jun 8 US 1991-76D USA 76 1991 Nov 8 US 1991-76E USA 77 1991 Nov 8 US 1995-04H ODERACS 2F 1995 Feb 3 US 1995-57A UHF F6 1995 Oct 22
Example of Type D errors
1990-50B/C/D (NRO) - No orbit given 1978-38A (NRO) - Spurious orbit given (probably forgot to subtract Earth radius) 1978-93A (GPS) - Spurious orbit given (probably confused nautical mi. and km) 1991-76C (USA 74) - Spurious orbit given
Recent Type E errors: these are the ones that DoD would argue are a legitimate loophole rather than a violation. There are many more examples in earlier years.
1999-17A (DSP) Parking orbit given 1999-23A (Milstar) Parking orbit given 2000-01A (DSCS) Transfer orbit given 2000-65A (DSCS) Transfer orbit given 2000-80A (NRO) Transfer orbit given