Is Antarctica demilitarised?
23 Apr 2013|

Guest editor Anthony Bergin

Flags from international research collaboration team on the CHINARE Arctic cruise.Article 1 of the Antarctic Treaty provides that Antarctica ‘shall be used for peaceful purposes only’. It prohibits ‘any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military manoeuvres, as well as the testing of any type of weapons.’ However, it allows the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose. Thus, countries such as the US, New Zealand, and occasionally Australia, use military personnel in support roles in Antarctica, but in doing so, conform to Article VII of the Treaty that requires a party to the Treaty to inform other parties of the details of any military personnel or equipment introduced into Antarctica.

The demilitarisation of Antarctica was a major goal of the Antarctic Treaty. But the treaty was negotiated in a very different world, strategically, technologically and politically, to the one we have today. If we take a broad view of ‘measures of a military nature’, Antarctica is no longer demilitarised.

It’s difficult to define ‘measures of a military nature’. Such measures don’t necessarily have to be carried out by military personnel. Scientific research and development for military purposes may be carried out by civilian scientists and private sector contractors. Antarctic bases are increasingly used for ‘dual use’ scientific research that has utility for military purposes, including possibly for controlling offensive weapon systems.

Private security contractors undertake many tasks for the military, including research and development, engineering and maintenance, program management, intelligence analyses and security for military facilities. The requirement under the Antarctic Treaty for a party to inform other parties of the details of military personnel or equipment to be introduced into Antarctica, is rather meaningless if it’s taken as referring only to uniformed military personnel.

The rapid pace of technological development in recent decades has implications for assessing the militarisation of Antarctica. Technology has advanced enormously in military areas such as missile warfare, information technology, intelligence collection, satellite surveillance, and the military use of space more generally. This is in ways that were unforeseen when the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated in the 1950s.

The intensity of peacetime technical intelligence collection operations is increasing. The newly modernised military powers of Asia might be expected to use the full range of technical intelligence collection measures, including signals intelligence, by means of satellite systems. As well, they’re likely to field their own version of technologies like GPS. Lacking access to sites worldwide like the United States has, countries could make use of Antarctic bases as ground stations for the monitoring and controlling of satellite constellations.

Satellite technology and research is now central to Antarctic operations. The inland environment of Antarctica is optically very clear and ideally suited for astronomic and space research. It’s also remarkably quiet with little human radio interference.

With technological developments in information processing, nanotechnologies, astrophysics and so on, research is now possible in Antarctica that was inconceivable in past years. Much of this research has military applications and is conducted for military purposes.

It’s open to question at what stage research becomes non-peaceful and more overtly military or potentially offensive in nature. Most activities associated with the military use of space could be explained away under the guise of scientific research for peaceful purposes.

Both China and India have active Antarctic programs, and are seeking to increase the number of their Antarctic bases. Neither country, however, currently reports the use of military personnel in Antarctica.

China’s third scientific research station in Antarctica, the Kunlun Station located at Dome A (Dome Argus), one of the highest and coldest points on the Antarctic continent, was completed in 2009. It’s ideally suited for sending, receiving or intercepting signals from satellites.

Two considerations flow from the likelihood that Antarctic bases are being increasingly used for military research, particularly associated with space and satellites. The first is whether this research is being conducted for peaceful purposes and thus doesn’t contravene the provisions of the Treaty. As a general principle, it’s well accepted that military operations per se don’t necessarily breach such provisions.

The second is whether the verification and inspection regime under the Antarctic Treaty is up to assessing whether research activities are actually being conducted for non-peaceful purposes. We could be moving towards the increased weaponisation of Antarctica through the use of Antarctic bases to control offensive weapons systems. This would be more unacceptable than the militarisation of Antarctica.

Possible increased weaponisation of Antarctica is a worrying trend, with the potential role of Antarctic bases in offensive space-based weapon systems. Meeting these challenges requires better adherence to the verification and inspection regime and more transparency in reporting than has been the case in the past.

Some re-examination of what constitutes ‘measures of a military nature’ is also necessary. This might include, for example, the widening of the reporting of the introduction of military personnel into Antarctica to recognise the possible employment of private security contractors and other civilian personnel on activities of an essentially military nature.

Sam Bateman is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.