Space: The New Military Frontier

Written by: Jason Geissler

“There is no war in space, just as there is no war in cyberspace. There is only war, and war can extend into any domain.”

General John Hyten, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command

Despite numerous treaties over the last half-century to prevent the militarization of outer space, the world’s superpowers have been perpetually interested in the defensive and offensive potential of space. Compared to the United States, China and Russia have been taking space far more seriously over the past few decades, which may have a large impact on the security of American satellites and future space exploration. 

In 2007, China destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a ground-based missile to take it out of commission without informing any other spacefaring nation in advance. While Russia and the U.S. have similar missile capabilities as China, this event was an opportunity for the American security sector to take a more serious look at the dangers of leaving U.S. space infrastructure undefended, a concern that has grown in recent years. The China National Space Administration plans to offer commercial recoverable satellites in the next two to three years and Russian state-owned Roscosmos wants to put humans on Mars by 2019. In contrast, the U.S. has largely supported the private sector’s efforts at space exploration and has not expanded the role of Air Force Space Command since 2009. As China and Russia meet and potentially surpass American space capabilities, it is important to understand the domain over which one of these countries may soon have clear supremacy.

There is a lot of stuff orbiting Earth at any given moment. There are nearly 2,000 active satellites currently orbiting Earth and nearly 3,000 more inactive satellites. The majority are commercial satellites for functions like radio transmitting, imaging Earth, and providing accurate GPS to your phone; still, many of these satellites have military and government applications, from tracking weather patterns to monitoring the activities of adversarial governments and non-state actors. It is difficult to appreciate just how much we all benefit from the orbital infrastructure the U.S. government and American companies have deployed.

This is why thinking about satellites as infrastructure is important. Imagine if the Department of Energy released a report that numerous oil fields and pipelines critical to U.S. energy security face credible threats from China or Russia, but the government is disinterested in building defenses and mobilizing soldiers due primarily to expenses. All across America people would demand their legislators provide at least a modicum of protection for such important infrastructure. Yet despite their similar importance, Americans seem far less interested in protecting assets in space.

Some members of the House have been outspoken in their advocacy for a sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Services dedicated to space, but a theoretical roadblock lies in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and subsequent international agreements. These treaties specifically prohibit the deployment and testing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space as well as any other military bases, installations, and even military maneuvers, a term the treaty does not define.

Although a body of space law exists, it lacks accurate foresight and enforcement mechanisms and has subsequently been violated without repercussions or bent to permit dubious behavior by all three principle spacefaring nations. Without enforceable constraints, no nation faces the disincentives necessary to avoid an arms race. In addition to prohibiting various military activities, the Outer Space Treaty also forbids using military assets in space for anything other than peaceful purposes, yet Russia’s and China’s space programs are entirely driven by their respective militaries and have clearly produced non-peaceful technologies like China’s 2007 anti-satellite missile strike. 

For the United States’ part, a law passed in 2015 grants all American companies property rights to any materials collected in space, which directly violates the Outer Space Treaty and the Declaration on the Exploration and Use of Outer Space. Already we have seen China and Russia violate the anti-military components of space law and the United States has violated aspects regarding property rights. As such, the U.S. has little disincentive to build up military capabilities in space: China and Russia could not criticize the U.S. because they have already been doing it themselves and the U.S. government has signaled their willingness to violate space law when it benefits Americans. Clearly, space law in its current state is insufficient, and it has not done enough to limit nations from engaging in military actions.

The shortcomings of the body of law regulating space imply two things. First, there must be new multilateral agreements, particularly between the U.S., China, and Russia. Much like maritime law has had to adapt as seafaring technologies have advanced, space law must modernize and solidify humanity’s vision for using outer space. By establishing rules to which superpowers will actually commit — at least at a negotiating table — there is a reduced risk of countries picking and choosing the laws they wish to follow and interactions between spacefaring nations will be more predictable and thus more safe. Second, lacking effective rule of law in outer space, the U.S. should consider defending critical space infrastructure as a priority similar to protecting infrastructure elsewhere.

Space exploration has, at different times, pitted superpowers in break-neck technological competitions as well as cooperative multilateral scientific missions. Humanity will almost certainly benefit from international cooperation in outer space as we slowly turn toward the stars for natural resource extraction and even human settlement. But that does not mean that the geopolitical realities down on Earth disappear when exiting the stratosphere; indeed, adversarial nations can use outer space as a new domain to improve their relative power over one another. The American government must seek parity of defensive capabilities in space so that Russia, China, and the U.S. can come to the negotiating table from similar positions and find real compromise on the future of space law.