Militarizing the Final Frontier: Arms Control in Space

Militarizing the Final Frontier: Arms Control in Space

. 5 min read

Space has long been considered the final frontier, an infinite expanse into which human science, ingenuity, and, perhaps colonies, might expand. However, it should not be forgotten that the frontier of old was a site of lawlessness and violence. A lack of governance combined with high stakes competition made frontier expansion violent. It appears that space is shaping up to be the same way.

On March 27, 2019, India’s Space Agency launched “Mission Shakti,” which demonstrated India’s capability to launch an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). India, while maintaining its desire for a multilateral framework on the control of space weapons, is acknowledging what it perceives as the inevitable reality of space: militarization..

Are There Benefits to Space Weapons?

Many argue the space arms race is not particularly something to worry about, but rather the natural and necessary evolution of warfare. For them, the only acceptable response to the militarization of space by actors they perceive as revisionist is to win the arms race. Those actors, chiefly China and Russia, can only be deterred through further militarization and space dominance. Arms control, which liberal states cannot circumvent as easily, simply gives illiberal states an advantage.

If it is the case that space militarization ought to be pursued, what particular military strategic benefit do space weapons provide? Space weapons provide the capability to strategically and precisely disable enemy intelligence systems. Specifically, ASATs could be potentially necessary to eliminate anti-access/area denial systems (A2/AD). A2/AD technology uses satellites to surveil entire areas and maintain strict control over who can enter. Coupled with missile defense, it can deny adversaries access to entire areas. China is developing A2/AD in the Western Pacific to protect its coasts. However, given the international disagreement on where China’s territory begins or ends, this could be a problem. For example, if the Chinese extend their A2/AD to Taiwan, it could cut off the entire area from Western military access. The ability to remove satellite capability could potentially be a vital tool in 21st century warfare.

What Are the Costs?

Space is home to a significant amount of critical infrastructure, mainly in the form of satellites, which a space arms race would threaten to destroy. These satellites are the backbone of modern society, doing everything from holding up the global economy and allowing instantaneous global communication to helping people navigate with Google Maps and coordinating military responses. Banks, insurance companies, the stock market, etc. all form a coherent system connected through satellites. The Global Positioning System, coordinated by satellite technology, is necessary for effective ocean navigation, cellular communication, banking, credit card usage, etc.

Navigation and communication obviously also affect militaries around the globe. But, a military-specific boon that space infrastructure provides are early warning systems. These satellites inform states whether they are under attack from enemy missiles; possessing the ability to destroy this detection capability significantly damages the stability of the status quo. Countries are much more likely to misperceive actions or respond rashly in a world where they cannot effectively establish whether they are being attacked or whether an escalation threshold has been breached.

Furthermore,  neither of these problems actually require a war to occur. They can simply be the result of a few unfortunate coincidences. ASAT testing increases the amount of space debris, which speeds along with enough power to destroy satellites—even something as miniscule like a paint chip can wreak significant amounts of damage. The explosions caused by testing these weapons contribute to the space trash problem, which is a threat to both infrastructure and security.

What Are the Obstacles To Arms Control?

Two aspects make international regulation on space weapons uniquely difficult to manage. First, the term “space weapons” itself is functionally meaningless. There might be a few images that come to mind, like the “rods from god” or India and China’s Kinetic ASAT. However, the term can refer to almost anything. Technology in space is typically “dual-use,” meaning that it could almost always potentially be weaponized. In fact, all satellites could become crude ASATs simply by ramming them into other countries’ satellites. It’s expensive to send armor into space and satellites are typically extremely vulnerable. This presents an unfortunate problem for the verification portion of any arms control negotiation. How could the world verify whether or not a country possesses a space weapon when almost anything could be a space weapon?

Second, no party would be certain of the motivations of another, nor would it be easy to establish attribution for a potential attack. It is incredibly difficult to determine whether a satellite was attacked or whether its deactivation is actually the cause of a malfunction or a rogue piece of debris. Therefore, a state could easily misinterpret an accidental failure as an aggressive action. The reverse is also true: intentional attacks could be masked through the guise of “accidental damage.”

Is Arms Control Possible?

The United States has taken the stance that the increased militarization of space is a political necessity since it believes other powers will continue to build space weapons. The United States cast one of the few “no” votes on the UN resolution for “prevention of an arms race in outer space.” However, other major international players strongly disagreed.

The European Union has proposed a non-binding Code of Conduct that broadly calls for increasing safety and stability in space, asking countries to adopt policies that are aimed toward this goal. Part of this code clashes with the United States’ goal of increasing space-based dominance and thus the U.S. has not come on board.

Furthermore, China and Russia have proposed their own rival treaty to prevent the placement of weapons in outer space. Other nations such as Japan, Australia, and South Africa have also backed such a call. The prevention of an arms race in space is necessary, they say, to affirm the rule of law and uphold the Outer Space Treaty.

Is arms control even possible, then? Despite the problems that traditional arms control faces in space, unique proposals have been forwarded to potentially overcome those issues.

One potential proposal is the ASAT test-ban. Rather than banning weapons no treaty could define, this proposal argues that the act of blowing up any object in space ought to be banned. Instead of banning the possession of ASAT technology, the treaty would ban testing any ASAT technology, which resolves the problem of verification. For other arms control treaties, it was possible for a state to cheat and secretly develop weapons away from the eyes of inspectors. The ASAT test-ban, however, seems impossible to “cheat.” How would a nation hide a test that must occur in the sky? However, such a proposal may not have the political capital necessary for implementation. China, in particular, seems to have rejected moves that focus on limited ground to earth space weapons. They are acting in increasing realist terms, mirroring U.S. preferences in space and rejecting the merits of a test ban as infeasible.

However, if it is the case that multilateral norms-building is difficult, there is still an option for unilateral first steps. The U.S. could potentially declare norms and redlines for behavior in space unilaterally and attempt to clarify any mistaken signals sent in the status quo.

To start forward on effective arms control in a new area with new challenges, the first steps must be small. Whether it is a successful multilateral negotiation or initial unilateral action, the stakes are clear. If war seeks to travel to space, we must make sure peace follows.