This morning, Vice President and head of the National Space Council advisory board Mike Pence was asked whether he thinks that nuclear weapons should always be banned from space, and he didn’t say no.
Pence has been a supportive, reinforcing voice in President Trump’s repeated insistence that the US creates a “Space Force,” a controversial, ambiguous, possible sixth branch of the military that would centralize and direct an estimated $3 billion toward strengthening the US military presence in space. American activity in space has always been under the leadership of the military (specifically, the Air Force), but Pence’s refusal to rule out the storage or use of nuclear weapons in space should raise alarms for anyone that believes that a US military presence in space will make the domain “safer.”
In a live-streamed conversation with Washington Post reporter Robert Costa for “Transformers: Space,” a forum presented by the Washington Post focused on American leadership in space that was sponsored by Boeing and the University of Virginia, Pence made a reference to John F. Kennedy’s aspiration to make space a domain of peace rather than war. In response, Costa asked Pence whether he thinks that nuclear weapons should be banned from space. “Well, they are now,” Pence said.
Per the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the United States and dozens of other nations signed during the Cold War, “States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner.” That’s comforting, but Costa followed up and asked Pence whether nuclear weapons should always be banned from space.
“Well, look,” Pence said. “I think that what we need to do is make sure that we provide for the common defense of the people of the United States of America. And that’s the president’s determination here.”
“I think that it’s in the interest of every nation to continue to ban the use of nuclear weapons in space,” Pence said. “But what we want to do is continue to enhance the principle that peace comes through strength.”
So, it’s not that Pence aggressively wants to help America dismantle the Outer Space Treaty and shoot up a nuke in space in the next four years. However, it seems like Pence is leaving political wiggle room for however the Space Force, or the US military, chooses to use space in upcoming years or decades. If he abides by the principle that a military presence and weapons make an area safer—believe what you will about the veracity of that—then it’s only natural that he’s not ruling out an escalation of arms stored and used in outer space.
Of course, such an escalation would directly contradict the Outer Space Treaty. However, Pence has a generous interpretation of the treaty as it is now.
“[The Outer Space Treaty] doesn’t ban military activity,” Pence said. “It actually, it gives nations a fair amount of flexibility for operating in their security interests in outer space. And at this time, we don’t see any need to amend the treaty. But as time goes forward, the hope that we could continue to see outer space as a domain where peace will reign, it will require military presence.”
Earlier during the Transformers forum, Pence went so far as to characterize space as a “warfighting domain.” It’s not a factually incorrect claim, as the military has always been managing US activity in space. Still, it’s not a claim that we should be proud of, or look to expand, considering the immense number of invaluable satellite assets that are used for everything from science, to global positioning, to television and satellite signal transmission. Encouraging war-like activity on the very assets that make modern life as we know it possible—whether or not this entails the use of nuclear weapons—is an immense gamble.