“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”
– Air Force General John Hyten, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, March 20th, 2018
By: Jason Geissler
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 travel far more seriously over the past few decades, which may have a large impact on the security of American satellites and future exploration. All of this begs the question: what is the U.S. government doing to protect American space assets?
In 2007, China destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a missile to take it out of commission, all without informing any other spacefaring nations. While Russia and the U.S. have similar missile capabilities as China, this event was seen by many in the American security sector as an opportunity to take a more serious look at the dangers of leaving U.S. space infrastructure undefended, a concern that has grown larger 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 consider the domain over which one of these countries may then have 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 parties. 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 statement that numerous oil fields and pipelines that are critical to U.S. energy security face credible threats from China and Russia, but the government is disinterested in building defenses and mobilizing soldiers due primarily to expenses. Surely Americans across the nation would demand their legislators to provide some modicum of protection for such important infrastructure, yet despite their similar importance, Americans seem far less interested in protecting American 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. Representatives Mike Rogers (R–AL) and Jim Cooper (D–TN) have led the charge since early last year, calling for the creation of the first-ever Space Corps in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). House Armed Services Committee leadership, including Chair Mac Thornberry (R–TX), supported the idea from its inception as a way to protect the myriad of U.S. assets orbiting Earth. Despite their efforts, the Space Corps provision was stripped from the final version of the NDAA during reconciliation as congressional negotiators opted for the more reserved option of a study of what military operations in space would entail for the U.S. and its adversaries, which is scheduled to be completed in June.
A theoretical roadblock to eventually creating a branch of the military for space 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 major spacefaring nations. 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 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 incomplete, 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, to modernize and solidify humanity’s vision for using outer space, much like maritime law has had to adapt as seafaring technologies have advanced. 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 making interactions between spacefaring nations more predictable. 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. If that is most effectively done by establishing a branch of the armed services dedicated to space, then that is what should be done.
Space exploration has, at different times, pitted superpowers in break-neck technological competitions as well as exemplary 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 colonization. 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. To ensure the U.S. does not lose its assets already in orbit and is able to continue accessing outer space, it is necessary to defend space infrastructure, even if it takes an entire Space Corps.