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Outer Space: Proposed Demilitarised Status

Volume 413: debated on Wednesday 8 October 1980

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3.7 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what decision has been made at the Geneva Committee on Disarmament on the Italian proposal that outer space shall be given a demilitarised status, and what was the attitude of the British representative to this proposal.

My Lords, the Committee on Disarmament, which has a full programme, has not initiated discussions on this item. The British representative has not therefore expressed a view on the Italian proposal.

My Lords, while I thank the Minister for that reply, is it not the case that this detailed protocol, introduced by the Italian delegation at the Geneva Committee, follows a unanimous decision supported by the British Government at the United Nations Special Assembly on Disarmament to prevent the arms race in outer space? Is there not a great danger that if war occurred it would be extended to outer space, in view of the fact that four out of five of the satellites now going around the world are devoted to military purposes?

My Lords, it is not necessarily the case, because there are some limited, but important, military applications to be pursued in space, that we are therefore pursuing an arms race in space; that is not the case. The British Government are certainly opposed to an arms race in space. Indeed, a research study on this subject by the Foreign Office Arms Control and Disarmament Research Unit was published in December last year, and copies are available in your Lordships' Library.

My Lords, does the Minister consider that a mission of Ministers might be sent to outer space to investigate this matter?

My Lords, would not this proposal, if adopted, lead to severe unemployment among the writers of science fiction and in parts of the film and television industries?

Doubtless, my Lords; but it is important to remember that there are a number of military activities which take place in space and which we would not wish to see affected; for example, the testing of inter-continental missiles, military communications conducted through satellites, satellite-borne navigation beacons, and indeed the remote sensing of the earth by military surveillance satellites.

My Lords, with regard to the Minister's reply to me, may I ask whether it is not the case that each of the two super powers are now establishing stations of missiles to attack the satellites of the opposing country? Does this not inevitably mean that any war would be extended to outer space? Does he remember that Article 4 of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 bans weapons on the moon and celestial bodies, and also bans the means of mass destruction in the earth's orbit? Would it not be logical to extend that to neutralising the earth's orbit altogether?

Not necessarily, my Lords, for the reasons that I have already given. In any event, useful discussion in this matter could not proceed, I think, without an agreement or a heads of agreement at least between the United States and the Soviet Union.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the treaty to which the noble Lord refers applies specifically to nuclear weapons and not, as he suggested, to weapons in outer space? Would he not also agree that at the moment the most military satellites operating in outer space are reconnaissance and intelligence satellites, by which the super powers monitor each other's activities; and is not an exchange of intelligence of this kind, at the highest possible level, desirable?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is quite right. The existing treaty in fact bans nuclear weapons and what are called weapons of mass destruction; but certainly the surveillance capability which satellites possess is vital.

My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind the answer given by the late Lord Melbourne when he was asked to promote an international agreement to establish the peace of God?

My Lords, is it not the case that the military satellites in the orbit have many more duties than just reconnaissance? For example, is it not the case that they have the duty of providing accurate navigation aids and are a part of the build-up of military weapons on both sides?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is quite right. There is more than surveillance. As I said earlier, there are communications and navigation satellites, but they, too, remain a vital part of our defence posture.

My Lords, perhaps it is time now to come back to earth. Do noble Lords agree? There is a Private Notice Question awaiting us.