By JOE HILL
It may seem the stuff of science-fiction, but it is becoming increasingly likely that activity in space could become the catalyst for the next major conflict. Space technology benefits us in countless ways: our phone signals, GPS, weather prediction – even sectors such as banking and finance have been revolutionised by satellite technology. This technology has positively impacted nearly every aspect of human life; it simultaneously presents a massive potential risk.
Ever since the Cold War, space has been a militarily-contested region. As warfare has become more logistically reliant on space, and more technologically complicated, the importance of space in the eyes of the world’s military leaders has increased dramatically. Modern militaries rely on space capabilities in every facet of war – ranging from large-scale decisions, such as national economic and defence policy, all the way down to a soldier attempting to orient themselves in the field. The US, in particular, has heavily embedded a reliance on space capabilities in its ability to wage war. If a conflict were to break out, the first place America’s enemies would target, perhaps preemptively, would be its satellites.
China has been particularly aggressive in pursuing the ability to stand toe-to-toe with the US in space. In 2007 it began anti-satellite missile tests, infamously shooting down one of its own weather satellites. The international community condemned China’s actions, as the exploding satellite created tens of thousands of pieces of debris, which could have unintentionally destroyed many other satellites. Part of the danger of conflict in space is the possibility of a small skirmish leading to massive damage, as a piece of debris the size of a coin has the ability to indiscriminately rip through civil, commercial or military satellites. This could bring many nations into a conflict. A misunderstanding or accident in space could be interpreted as an attack – it could also have major knock-on effects.
The possibilities of misunderstandings are greatly increased in space given the foggier borders, and the clandestine nature of every countries’ space operations. Other than missiles, China has also been at the forefront in developing ‘co-orbital’ weapons – micro-satellites that share the orbit of their target satellite and destroy them through physical contact at high velocities. In 2008, the PRC flew a BX-1 micro-satellite dangerously close to the International Space Station; the ISS aims to move if any satellite comes within 1,000 miles of its position – this micro-satellite came within 27 miles of it. Had physical contact been made, the results would have been disastrous, almost certainly resulting in the destruction of the Space Station and the deaths of the astronauts aboard. More recently, China has been developing missiles which are capable of reaching high-orbit targets. Satellites in this region tend to be the most militarily valuable – used for creating global coverage for communications as well as detailed surveillance of particular regions. Overall, China’s relentless strengthening of its space capabilities suggests that if a conflict were to break out in space, China would be ready.
Similarly, there is evidence that Russia has been covertly developing its ability to fight a conflict in space. This summer, both the US and UK accused Russia of testing what appeared to be anti-satellite weaponry. While there is no international agreement prohibiting the testing of weapons in space, the Outer Space Treaty 1967 states, perhaps idealistically, that space should be used for peaceful purposes. Outside of this treaty and the Partial Test Ban Treaty 1963, there is very little legislation that regulates state conduct in space. It may seem paradoxical, but both Russia and China have been the foremost proponents of legislation seeking to slow the militarisation of space – having submitted to the UN a proposal (the PAROS treaty) to ban the deployment of weapons in outer space. Sadly, this proposal has gained little support as it is generally acknowledged that neither Russia nor China would pay any heed to these regulations if they came into force, while countries which normally act in accordance with international law, such as the UK and US, would be constricted.
Rather than legislation, the EU has attempted to instate a Code of Conduct in space. This was intended to get states to agree to standards of behaviour that could help mitigate the risk of conflict in space and reinforce respect for other states’ assets and interests in space. Again, this faced opposition from Russia, China, Brazil, South African and Iran on the basis that the code could be used to limit their future capacities in space. In April of this year, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard announced they had successfully launched a military reconnaissance satellite, signalling that space is no longer the sole domain of the superpowers. The US hasn’t been unresponsive: in 2015, the Pentagon announced it had received funding to develop ‘offensive space control’. This emphasis on offensive capabilities demonstrates a shift in the US’ strategic priorities in space – it is no longer a case of defending against aggressive actors, now the focus is on being able to dominate space. The increased importance of space in the minds of US military leaders can further be evidenced by the creation of the ‘Space Force’. While this was largely a rebranding operation – the US Air Force has had a strong interest in space for decades – it sent a clear message to the world powers that the US intends to continue being the leader in space.
Unfortunately, it appears that the international community is coming to the conclusion that it is too difficult to establish enforceable norms of behaviour or regulations around weaponry in space. The increasing militarisation of space should be concerning to everyone, as small accidents or misunderstandings could spiral into disastrous all-out conflicts on Earth. All we can do at the moment is hope that no such accidents occur – but in these days of economic, political, and social turmoil, hope is in short supply.