Conflict, clashes, and fighting occur in the air, on land, and at sea here on Earth. There is a growing belief that the ocean of space will be turned into a battleground next.
Various nations’ strategic use of space is a hot topic of discussion. For example, the newly formed United States Space Force is hard at work figuring out how to better defend US and allied interests in the highly contested and congested space realm.
What circumstances could lead to space clashes? Is this a foregone conclusion, or will problems be avoided in advance? Will nations “slip into” off-planet muscle-flexing, quarreling, and real warfighting in space, provoking conflict on Earth?
Space.com asked a number of top military space and security specialists to get their take on the emerging state of space militarization.
Interference should be avoided.
According to Mark Gubrud, an adjunct assistant professor of the Curriculum in Peace, Conflict, and Defense at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the word “space warfare” may refer to things that are already happening. Satellite communications jamming, laser dazzling of photo-snapping satellites, hacking networks to selectively obstruct or eavesdrop on phone or data sources, and poking systems to see if they can be compromised are all examples he gave.
“While the full scope of such events can not be understood,” Gubrud said, “they seem to occur sporadically at this time.” According to some sources, the US and possibly others have made effective use of their capacity to intercept and intervene with commercial telecom traffic, notwithstanding the fact that this is an asymmetric capability of major powers with little chance of escalation, he added.
All of these types of negative intervention, according to Gubrud, could theoretically lead to escalation threats as they become more frequently used and adversaries improve reciprocal capabilities.
“As a result, we should draw on the UN Outer Space Treaty with a new treaty that prohibits all kinds of dangerous activity as well as missiles for causing interference,” he added.
There are no legally binding agreements.
The biggest threat would come from a widespread proliferation of Earth-based anti-satellite devices capable of affecting satellites in geosynchronous orbit and beyond, or from the pre-deployment of different forms of such missiles in space, allowing them to strike their targets in minutes or seconds rather than hours, according to Gubrud.
“As the major confronting forces will almost definitely be the US, Russia, and China,” he said, “the opportunity for rapid proliferation becomes a serious danger to nuclear security.” He went on to say that the only positive thing is that it hasn’t happened yet, owing to widespread awareness of how dangerous it will be.
“In fact, the road to war in space is a space arms race,” Gubrud concluded, “one that has been delayed for a long time but that is only becoming more urgent and potentially explosive as technology progresses in the absence of binding commitments to space arms control.”
According to Brian Chow, an independent policy consultant with over 25 years of experience as a senior physical scientist specialized in space and national security, space is now weaponized by dual-use robotic spacecraft acting as missiles to destroy our satellites.
“They should not be banned because their peaceful uses are critical to space prosperity,” Chow said. “Actually, we will embrace certain rules and measures so that we can reap the advantages of these spacecraft while still ensuring that they do not damage our satellites.”
Chow believes the current issue is that the international community has not made it illegal for spacecraft, whether peaceful or violent, to remain in orbit.
“Attacking these spacecraft from such a near range will give us inadequate warning time to fashion a defense and save our targeted satellites,” Chow told Space.com.
According to Chow, the international community is divided about whether a country is permitted to follow another’s satellites. In addition, he said, the new US national security space policy is unclear regarding preemptive self-defense, even when the country is threatened by space stalkers.
Uncertainties can be dangerous.
The ambiguities around preemption and harassment, according to Chow, are dangerous. For example, China might argue that space stalkers are the best form of anti-satellite system because it would force the US to choose between two bad options.
“First, the US could kill the space stalkers ahead of time to save the targeted satellites and sustain space support to military operations during crisis and conflict,” Chow said. “However, until these two ambiguities are discussed and resolved with the international community in peacetime, the United States risks being labeled as the aggressor who fired the first weapon, potentially leading to a space war.”
Second, according to Chow, the US might not be able to combat successfully without the assistance of any key satellites.
“Faced with these two poor options, the US can decide not to intervene at all. This would be ideal for China because it would deter US involvement without firing a single shot “Chow remarked. “If we continue to use our current space policy without making the required and necessary adjustments, the United States and other countries may’stumble into’ those conflicts.”
This is a lose-lose situation.
Wendy Whitman Cobb, an associate professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the United States Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, said, “I’m not a big believer in inevitability.”
“Since the 1960s, analysts have been predicting attacks and missiles in space as imminent and just around the corner.”
Whitman Cobb said that targeting a satellite of another nation has long been regarded as a lose-lose situation for all parties involved.
“Not only will the space atmosphere be clogged with garbage, making it more difficult to fly there,” she added, “but it will also be open season on all spacecraft, including their own.” “Rather than endangering your own geopolitical status, it was only easier to allow satellites to function safely because of the stability that surveillance from space provided to the nuclear arms race.”
As Whitman Cobb points out in her latest book, “Privatizing Peace: How Commerce Can Reduce Conflict in Space,” the growing commercialization of space and the global economy’s dependence on space-based systems makes open conflict in space very expensive (Routledge, 2020).
“A single piece of debris is what it takes to bring down a satellite that transports financial transfers and critical communications. The incorrect satellite may have far-reaching economic consequences that would not be limited to a single nation “Whitman Cobb stated the following. “As a result, all military and economic considerations can be used to limit countries’ use of missiles in space.”
Whitman Cobb said, however, that states may also stumble into war or be provoked into conflict by rogue states such as North Korea or Iran. For example, the electromagnetic radiation from a detonating nuclear weapon will rapidly and efficiently destroy all satellites in the area.
“It’s definitely a non-discriminatory tool,” she said, “but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for North Korea or Iran if they’re cornered.”
Because of the dual existence of space technologies and the implicit confidentiality involved, there’s a high risk of misinterpretation, according to Whitman Cobb, who emphasizes that misunderstandings of both technology and purpose are common.
(Her opinions are her own and are focused on open source, unclassified information; they do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Air Force.)
Thumping of the chest
There’s a lot of chatter that space is now weaponized, but some people think the US would be remiss if it didn’t “keep up,” according to Joan Johnson-Freese, a national security relations professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
“For at least a decade, dual-use technology has indicated that there have been ‘potential’ space weapons around,” Johnson-Freese said, “but now we are going, if not racing, toward the blatant weaponization of space.” She believes what’s going on has to do with defining the criteria for the Space Force’s effort to plan, prepare, and equip.
“It can be narrowly described — as the Trump Administration seems inclined to do — or narrowed a bit to mitigate any of the chest-thumping, warfare-fighting connotations given to its existence, some of which Space Force has since perpetuated,” Johnson-Freese said, adding that her opinions are her own and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of telecommunications, or the Department of the Interior.”
Perhaps the Biden Administration would refrain from using chest-thumping language. Will, though, technological advancements and war-fighting plans continue?
“Yes, I believe it is unavoidable. However, I believe that without any kind of space diplomacy, there is a significant risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy of some kind of space war “Johnson-Freese said. “I’d like to see this new administration make a significant effort in space diplomacy, especially in terms of openness and confidence-building steps.”