Space, “The Final Frontier,” is getting crowded. More and more nations and private entities are taking an interest in this area for the many benefits that can be obtained by having a presence in space. While most are peaceful, there is a conflict aspect as well. The weaponization of space and emergence of outer space as a war-fighting domain is a reality that must be confronted soon.
With such an important role in communication and scientific networks for all nations, it is no wonder that powerful countries are eager to gain an edge in this underdeveloped area. As this process continues, it is important to understand the goals of major powers in space, especially within the context of international agreements that govern space.
The United Nations Outer Space Treaty, created and adopted by the General Assembly in 1966 and put into effect the following year, is the primary document that outlines the basic framework for international space law. Within the treaty is the right of all states to explore space, the status of the moon and other celestial bodies as reserved for peaceful purposes, the illegality of sovereign claims over space, and the principle of non-nuclearization of space. While the entire outer space treaty, and specifically the part about not allowing nuclear weapons or other WMDs in space, might seem to set forth satisfactory guidelines and prevent militarization, this is not the case, as the treaty contains numerous grey areas.
For one, the treaty does not address the use of conventional or other non-nuclear weapons in space. Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons to be deployed in space, but the failure of the treaty to recognize the use of conventional weapons is apparent and undermines its effectiveness. Furthermore, the treaty bans the placement of nuclear weapons in space, but what about a land based nuclear weapon fired into orbit during a strike? Does the brief time said weapon spends in space make it in violation of the treaty? The Outer Space Treaty does not address this possibility.
As such, within the context of new processes of militarization and weaponization of space, the 1967 treaty is inadequate, as it does not speak to all facets of this issue.
In June of 2018, President Trump announced his goal of the formation of the United States Space Force as a 6th independent branch of the US military. In his speech, the President explained that “It is not enough to have an American presence in space, we must have American dominance in space.” While the name and rhetoric surrounding this program might seem comical, the need for such an organization exists. The United States has always been at the forefront of space technology and throughout this history the military has played a crucial role.
Before NASA, in the earliest days of space exploration, operations were undertaken by the military, whose interest in space ranged from communication technology to tactical advantages. Therefore, the notion that the United States needs a separate military branch to manage space-based operations is not far-fetched. The Space Force will likely exist within the Air Force, in a similar fashion to how the Marine Corps operates under the US Navy.
The goal from President Trump is to counter the advances made in space weaponization made by China and Russia in recent years, and the Space Force is one way to accomplish this. If approved by Congress, the Space Force would be established in 2020
China has begun building up both civilian and military space capacity in recent years, which could threaten US interests. In 2015, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was directed to take necessary steps to ensure victory “informatized local wars”. “informatized” in this case refers to the collecting and processing of information in near-real time to assist in military operations taking place on ground, sea, air, space and via cyber networks.
Much of the developments from the Chinese in space has been to achieve this goal and strengthen the Chinese position militarily. In 2007, china used an antisatellite weapon to destroy a decommissioned Chinese satellite in Low Earth Orbit. This technology has the capacity to destroy US communication and intelligence satellites. Additionally, it is believed that the PLA is developing laser weapons capable of damaging or destroying satellites, believed to be deployable by 2020.
While the Chinese government officially advocates for the peaceful, shared use of space by all states, their efforts to gain a tactical advantage in the realm suggest otherwise.
Like other major powers, Russia sees space as a war-fighting domain and essential to its security in future conflicts. However, unlike China, the Russian goals in space are more focused and not as far reaching in their scope. Russia has and continues to develop antisatellite devices and communication disruption technology. Russia sees space domination as a way to undermine US interests, especially because of a perceived weakness of US infrastructure in space and a reliance on space-based communication and military Russian space operations are deigned to prevent aggression from space-faring powers, as well as offer a way to control conflict and communications should conflict break out.
Russia sees itself as a natural leader in the realm and wants to ensure that this leadership role is not compromised by other nations like the United States. Russia is believed to be developing laser weapons capable of destroying satellites in orbit, and also is pursuing electronic space warfare as a deterrent from the West. Like the Chinese government, Russia supports treaties to limit the weaponization of space, despite their actions to advance their military agenda in the area.
Ultimately, though the end of the Cold War brought an end to the Space Race. Regional conflicts among power on Earth are beginning to extend pass our atmosphere. And with recent innovation and technology, it is important to keep our eyes on space for future competition.
Read about China’s plans for space here.
Read about France’s plans for space here.