The Delineation of Militarisation in Antarctica

Australia claims over 42 percent of the Antarctic continent. Furthermore, of the total Australian maritime jurisdiction, 36 percent of this is to south of Australia. The consequences of the Antarctic region no longer being one of peace and stability are especially pertinent for Australia but also significant for many others in the southern hemisphere. The strategic significance of Antarctica is made clear in the 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan[1] as well as the 2016 Defence White Paper, which looks to prevent any militarisation of Antarctica which could threaten Australia’s sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory and its sovereign rights over its offshore waters.[2] But that is as far as either of these two documents go to highlight potential threats or reference militarisation. Neither document addresses what militarisation looks like, nor the appropriate response to it based on potential triggers or conflict. This paper explores the concept of militarisation in Antarctica, and its significance to Australia with a view to identifying a path ahead for Antarctic Treaty policy.

The Strategic Environment: Then and Now

Emblem of the Antarctic Treaty (Wikimedia)

Signed in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was designed to ensure Antarctica is only ever used for peaceful and scientific purposes. At its conception, the world was a different place strategically. Cold War tensions and the threat of an all-out nuclear war were high, and there were fears that Antarctica could be used as a strategic location for nuclear attack.[3] The USA and USSR, as well as the ten other claimant nations agreed that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.[4] To this end it prohibits "any measures of a military nature" but does "not prevent the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose."[5] While an absolutely necessary inclusion, this article actually creates the confusion as to what is defined as militarisation.

Fast forward to 2017, the global dynamics have shifted from a duopoly to a multipolar power system, and it is no longer sufficient to just focus on traditional security threats. In this time, the ten claimant nations have remain extant however, a further 49 countries have acceded to the treaty since its inception, with 17 of these nations claiming consultative status.[6,7] As such, the agreement signed in 1959 did not include a vast number of nations such as China and India who are now major regional powers. The presence of these nations in Antarctica and their rejection of the sovereignty of the claimant states is but one reminder that their view of the status quo is fundamentally different.[8] Despite the shifts in global dynamics, there remains a consensus, for now, that Antarctica shall remain demilitarised. What Article 1 fails to adequately provide is a clear definition of militarisation.

Defining Militarisation

What constitutes militarisation or weaponisation is an ongoing debate across a number of technologically advancing fields. Consequently, confusion predominantly occurs due to a lack of precedence. In new fields of strategic competition and conflict (such as space and cyber), there is no well-defined battlefield and rules of engagement are still evolving. To date, there has been a distinct absence of result. But regardless of these technological advances, militarisation is an end state. It is the commitment of force resulting in violence and destruction. Given that "the interaction of technologies for the sciences and for military activity cannot be divorced from each other," militarisation has occurred when an adversary has the sole aim of causing a military effect in war.[9]

Using these constructs, militarisation has not occurred within Antarctica. The case for militarisation largely centres on ground stations supporting satellite technology. While there is potential for military application, there is no clear or direct link to ground stations in Antarctica causing a military effect with the intent of violence and destruction. Satellite technology attracts attention in this domain due to their dual use functionality and ability to support military capability. The interior of Antarctica is electromagnetically quiet and optically very clear and is thus well suited to astronomical and space research

Satellite receiving stations have been operated by Germany, Norway, Japan, and America for a number of decades. It has only been recently that the dual-use functionality has been highlighted as an issue with the construction of a Chinese ground receiving station. China’s fifth station within Antarctica will be a receiving station for their sovereign Beidou Satellite navigation system. The stations’ presence in Antarctica will improve "China's Antarctic mapping autonomy" as well as improving the system's precision on the whole.[10] Beidou currently has a 10 metre accuracy however, this will improve to one meter with the installation of reference stations in geographically diverse locations such as Antarctica.[11] Russia is also constructing a ground receiver station in Antarctica for their sovereign Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS). Russia has one GLONASS ground station in Antarctica at their Bellingshausen station with another expected to be built in the near future.[12]

The first Beidou Navigation Satellite System Reference Station in the Antarctic was officially put into operation on February 3, 2015. (National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation of China)

Though additional ground receiver stations enable high precision accuracy for navigation systems, they also enable "powerful and high-precision military tracking, targeting and coordinating capacities which appeal in the strategic realm."[13] Through maintaining control over a satellite navigation system, nations are able to influence states and regions producing intense global competition "in terms of satellite-borne time-space locators, as well as in the development of counter space weapons."[14] It has also been mooted that through the use of Antarctic bases, increased weaponisation may occur due to their ability to control offensive weapons systems.[15] However, it remains to be seen what the full impact of satellite navigation systems and space borne systems would resemble in a true time of tension or war.

Providing further fuel to this argument is the assessment that there are "parts of Antarctica that are ideal for intercepting signals from satellites or re-tasking satellite systems, potentially enhancing global electronic intelligence operations."[16] However it is important to note that espionage and intelligence gathering operations do not alone constitute war or produce an end state of violence and destruction.

Inspection and Compliance

To ensure Antarctica remains demilitarised, a regular appraisal of the inspection and compliance procedure is required. Official guidance regarding the inspection and verification regime exists under Article VII, and offers that all areas of Antarctica are open to inspection by qualified observers.[17] In practical terms, this means that the demilitarisation status of Antarctic stations is verified during an annual visit to a random selection of stations. To ensure a standardised verification process, a set of non-mandatory Inspection Checklists are provided.[18] The checklists however, do not define what, if any, qualifications the observer must have to make assessments on potential military use of the stations. Over 50 inspections have taken place between 1961 and 2015  with a record of all inspection reports provided on the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) website.[19] With respect to compliance, there is no administrative body to oversee the implementation of recommendations of the reports. If there were to be a breach of the Antarctic Treaty, the methods of dispute resolution provided by the Antarctic Treaty are negotiation, arbitration or adjudication by the International Court of Justice.[20] While conceptually sound, this does not necessarily mean the results would be binding.

The 2014-2015 inspection of the O’Higgins German Antarctic Receiving Station (GARS) saw the first example of querying the military status of equipment.[21] The report recommend that "the German Remote Sensing Data Centre (DFD) and German Aerospace Centre (DLR) should consider clarifying whether the station processes data for military purposes."[22] In an appendix to the report it was confirmed that the satellite missions are "purely civil satellite missions, i.e. there is no dual-use character of these missions."[23] This process suggests that while these particular observers were not qualified to make assessments, they were aware of their inspection requirements. Of note, the last time the GARS was inspected was in November 2006 by the US however, the military status of equipment was never questioned. This case highlights the importance of standardisation in verification and reporting. While it is important to have multiple countries conducting inspections, the ATS should consider a permanent standardisation position in order to ensure continuity. While the standardisation officer may not be an expert in all fields, they would be able to ensure consistency across the inspection requirements.

Antenna of the German Antarctic Receiving Station (DLR Earth Observation Station Photo)

The so what?

In accordance with Article 1 and the aforementioned definition of militarisation, Antarctica currently remains demilitarised. Should a nation with a satellite capability in Antarctica use their system for weapon guidance, counter space or signal intelligence resulting in a direct military effect, the region would subsequently become militarised. Despite the best intentions, the current status quo within Antarctica does not necessarily translate to continued demilitarisation in the region. In order to ensure demilitarisation, Australia and other claimants must advocate for a strong verification and compliance program. Australia has always been a leader in Antarctic affairs, and should use this position to ensure that annual inspections are consistently carried out in accordance with the intent of the Antarctic Treaty. A standardisation officer could be from any nation a part of the consultative group, and be held as a five year rotational post.

To maintain peace and security in the region, it is important to understand how militarisation is defined with respect to continuously evolving technological advances, as well as having a solid inspection and compliance framework. Satellite receiving stations attract the most debate due to due to their potential dual use capability. This is not due to their immediate utility but rather their potential exploitation in a time of war. In order for the region to maintain demilitarised, especially with respect to satellite technology, a continual revaluation of the ATS verification and compliance program needs to be conducted. By doing so, it is ensured that no military effect with the intent of war or violence is produced.

Jenna Higgins is an Australian Air Force Officer and represented the Australian Defence Force at the NATO Future Leaders Summit in Warsaw. She is completing a Masters in Strategy and Security with the University of New South Wales. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

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Header Image: The flags of 13 nations which have officially adopted the Antarctic Treaty fly at the South Pole and represent the unprecedented international cooperation among the world community on the continent. (Petty Officer 2nd Class John K. Sokolowski/DoD Photo)


[1] Press, A. J. 2014. 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan. [ONLINE]

[2] Department of Defence. 2016. 2016 Defence White Paper. [ONLINE]

[3] Bateman, S., 2012, Strategic competition and emerging security risks: Will Antarctica remain demilitarised? p117

[4] The Antarctic Treaty was negotiated between the seven territorial claimant states of Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK, along with non-claimants Belgium, Japan, South Africa, the USSR and the US

[5] Conference on Antarctica. 1959. The Antarctic Treaty. [ONLINE]

[6] According to Art. IX.2, all countries are entitled to participate in the Consultative Meetings during such times as they demonstrate their interest in Antarctica by “conducting substantial research activity there.” Seventeen of the acceding countries have had their activities in Antarctica recognized according to this provision, and consequently there are now twenty-nine Consultative Parties in all. The other 24 Non-Consultative Parties are invited to attend the Consultative Meetings but do not participate in the decision-making. Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty. 2015. ATS Parties. [ONLINE]

[7] Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty. 2015. ATS Parties. [ONLINE]

[8] Darby, A. 2010. China flags its Antarctic intent. [ONLINE]

[9] Almond, H., 1985. Demilitarization and Arms Control: Antarctica. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, p250. [ONLINE]

[10] Darby, A. 2014. China's Antarctica satellite base plans spark concerns. [ONLINE]

[11] Ibid.

[12] RT. 2014. GPS sites in Russia can’t be used now for ‘military purposes.’ [ONLINE]

[13] Wade, G. 2014. Beidou: China's new satellite navigation system. [ONLINE]

[14] Ibid..

[15] Bateman. S. 2013. Is Antarctica demilitarised? [ONLINE]

[16] Romero, S. 2015. Countries Rush for Upper Hand in Antarctica. [ONLINE]

[17] Conference on Antarctica. 1959. The Antarctic Treaty.

[18] University of Canterbury. 2014. 1.3 Inspections Under Article VII of the Antarctic Treaty. [ONLINE]

[19] Nuclear Threat Initiative. 2016. Antarctica Treaty. [ONLINE]

[20] Ibid.

[21] ATS. 2015. Antarctic Treaty Inspections Programme Report 2014-15. [ONLINE]

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.