Will space militarisation lead to space weaponization?
In this Voices piece, our three student contributors analyse the development of growing tensions surrounding the lack of space governance. They predict that this new geostrategic frontier is only a step away from escalating from militarisation into weaponization.
Ventures into space have made headlines in the past year as aerospace companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have been giving billionaires a taste of space tourism. However, space has also been of concern to politicians as states compete over unclaimed resources. Space has also become invaluable as a geostrategic asset, as was shown by the establishment of the U.S. Space Force as a branch of the Armed Forces in 2019. Indeed, not only has space started to become commercialised, but it has a long history of militarisation. This Voices has sought to provide insight into whether there is a risk for this militarisation to turn into weaponization, and whether the world might witness a hot war over space.
As it stands, there are very few frameworks of international governance and legal instruments that can regulate outer-space activity. The UN has a Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) which is considered as the most important forum for issues of space governance. COPUOS has been responsible for publishing five treaties in the 20th century that have addressed matters such as debris mitigation and sharing of remote sensing data. However, the 1984 Moon Treaty, which established that celestial bodies should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, has not been ratified by the US, Russia or China, and thus lacks relevance in international law. Furthermore, barely any progress has been made since the Cold War spirit of the 1980s. This Voices piece thus argues that the lack of transparency and political will could see the emergence of space as an active domain for military conflict.
Octave will explore the importance and uses of space as a geostrategic asset and argues that it is more likely that a space-related conflict will happen on Earth. Poomthawat will examine the role of the commercial space industry in creating ambiguous dual-use technology that can be used for both peaceful and military aims. Finally, Jack will focus on the consequence of these tensions on US-China relations. He uses the concept of the security dilemma to predict an ever-increasing risk of full-scale space weaponization.
1. Why has space become an increasingly important strategic asset?
By Octave Marti-Canesi, 2nd Year International History
Space as a strategic asset is a relatively old concept. Indeed, the first space rockets were developed during WWII geopolitical competition, as Nazi Germany scientists envisioned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to attack the Allies. The development of space technologies later intensified during the Cold War. Although space activities had slowed after the Cold War, Great Power space competition is resurging: “20-year high” space-activity levels were recorded in 2020, with the US, China, the EU and Russia leading the race.
Space is crucial for virtually all modern activities. Satellites assure instant communications - like texts, emails or secured military communications – and activities involving GPS-tracked air and maritime transport, border control, and financial transactions. Satellite imagery also facilitates data collection, allowing to quantify Russian military build-up for instance. Momentum has also been growing around space exploration. According to the UN’s Outer Space Treaty’s Article 1, benevolent scientific research frames exploration missions. Three Mars exploration missions were successfully conducted in 2021, while further Mars and Moon missions are scheduled for 2022.
However, the exploitation of space resources could soon motivate exploration. Indeed, uranium has been found on the Moon, and other valuable resources could soon be discovered. Although exorbitant space travel costs make resource exploitation currently unthinkable, initiatives – and tensions - are multiplying. The US-led Artemis Program seeks to establish a permanent base on the Moon, to extend “long-term economic and scientific activity” and American “geo-strategic and economic sphere” to the Moon, as well as to prepare for Mars missions. Rivaling Washington, Beijing and Moscow have announced their own joint moon base program in 2021.
Are space wars likely? Legally, the Outer Space Treaty forbids deploying nuclear and mass destruction weapons in space. Beyond law, technical, scientific and economic reasons make space-to-Earth and space-to-space attacks hardly credible scenarios. Washington, Beijing and Moscow bombing each other’s Moon base is thus very unlikely. However, three other scenarios are possible. First, Earth-to-space weapons – such as ICBMs – can reach satellites. In an operation Washington called “reckless”, Russia destroyed a Soviet-era satellite in November 2021. Despite debris-related concerns, similar operations could be used in wartime to destabilise enemies. More subtly, “soft-kill” weapons – including cyberattacks, jamming and lasers - aim at disabling a satellite’s functionality rather than destroying it. These are not prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty, are cheaper and easier to deploy, and their origins are harder to trace and prove. Finally, space-related conflict on Earth remains the most likely scenario. Indeed, as many historians trace the origins of WWI to colonial competition over ‘virgin’ lands’ assets, growing tensions regarding extraterrestrial resources and settlement could lead to an escalation on Earth.
2. What role does the growth of commercial space industry play in the growing geopolitical tensions?
By Poomthawat Wachirapornpruet, MSc International Relations
Commercial interests have always been one of the major driving forces behind political tensions. As actors seek to maximize their own profits, scramble over limited resources is inevitable. This is especially true in the areas where the question of governance remains unanswered. Space is one such place.
International lawyers often describe space as a “common heritage of mankind” – a tricky word. If ill-governed, the tragedy of the commons is what one ends up with. We witnessed this several times in history: the rivers, the seas, to name a few. One may argue that space is somehow different since there are some principles in place: no sovereignty, free access and use, avoiding harms, equitable profit. However, as the actual legal processes are largely ad hoc, the domain remains a largely unregulated, laissez-faire environment.
Contestation in space may seem subtle today as the focus is still limited to its utility in terrestrial affairs such as navigation, communications, and intelligence. However, the so-called “space-for-space” businesses has started materializing thanks to increasingly sustainable access to space through private ventures such as SpaceX. Firms like Made in Space have pioneered orbital manufacturing industry by 3D-printing spacecraft components. Together, they opened the door to non-Earthbound demand and supply. However, without instrument to ensure proper share of “commons”, actors are expected to secure profits on their own, for example, by controlling orbital positions. This alone may intensify political tensions, especially amongst competing space powers such as the US, Russia, China, India, and Japan.
Although countries may not fight for space supremacy any time soon, some have considered deploying "counterspace” equipment – those that disrupt adversary’s space assets to ‘protect’ one’s own – just for the worst-case scenario. This creates another problem: having more objects with such mission means higher risk of accidental escalation. The dual-use nature of space technologies only exacerbates this by complicating the identification of ‘weapons’. As even civilian probes are perfectly capable of anti-satellite warfare, there would be no difference between militarization and weaponization when militaries start using similar assets. Since intentions are hard to discern, incidents involving the use of these ‘weapons’ would not play out well internationally. The desire to protect commercial interest could backfire and result in political tension instead.
In short, advancement in commercial space operations could lead to conflict of interests, so states would then naturally rely on their military as there is no legal instrument to address dispute. The ambiguity between militarization and weaponization may also further fuel the political tension. Ultimately, only the political will to establish space governance mechanism could avert this situation.
3. How will the space race affect US-China relations?
By Jack Love, 2nd Year International Relations
Sino-American relations will be stressed as a result of the current space race. In order to establish itself as a superpower, China is venturing into the norm of spacefaring capability. To be clear, the norm of superpowers being spacefaring countries originates from the norm of nuclear capability. The technologies involved in constructing the delivery methods for nuclear warheads, in the form of ballistic missiles, are very similar to those needed to reach orbit. A domestic space program is an opportunity to demonstrate these technologies to the world without testing the weapons themselves, which would be a violation of international law. As such, to establish its ballistic missile capabilities, China invests in its space program.
The threat that this investment represents to the US’s security can be interpreted through the security dilemma. The security dilemma suggests that increasing capabilities for one state adds to the insecurity of others. For this reason, as China increases its spacefaring capabilities, it increases American insecurity in space. This issue is only exacerbated by demonstrations of China’s military capabilities in space, such as its 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) test, which littered low earth orbit with thousands of pieces of debris. These debris travel at nearly eight kilometres per second and can easily destroy any asset in space. For this reason, not only does the ASAT test signal to the United States that China has military space capabilities, further adding to its insecurity in space, but the effects of the test also jeopardize American space assets.
America’s response to the ASAT test demonstrates the consequences of the security dilemma posed by the space race. The United States condemned China’s ASAT test, yet carried out its own test in 2008, further filling low Earth orbit with debris. The security dilemma describes a downward spiral where two countries continuously accumulate military capabilities in response to each other, even though they would be more secure and would not have expended the same amount of resources through allowing each other to reach relatively equal capabilities. This is because while there is incentive to cooperate, and not expend large amounts on resources on space militarization, there is greater incentive to defect and gain an advantage over one another. Because of this, it is logical to predict that the current trend towards greater militarization and competition in space will continue. This could come in the form of more developed human spaceflight programs, with the potential for multiple space stations and a renewed race to land on the moon or the increased deployment of military assets in space.
In this way, as this space race continues, Sino-American relations will become more and more tense, as each competes to militarize space more and more. From there, the jump from militarization to weaponization is small, and a potential natural consequence of the security dilemma.