We can’t ignore the militarization of space

March 26, 2024

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2024

For decades, the mantra of space security has been that space is “militarized but not weaponized.” A core objective of our work at Project Ploughshares has been to prevent the weaponization of space; the United Nations refers to the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). But preserving a distinction between militarization and weaponization has failed us by normalizing the militarization of space in ways that encourage weaponization and other harmful activities.

Military origins

It might be true, as some say, that “space has always been militarized.” But much of this activity has been camouflaged. In my work, I have explored how militarization has been normalized as “peaceful use,” meaning that space objects are not used aggressively in space. And indeed, there have been peaceful benefits from military space programs, running the gamut from verification of arms control agreements to civilian uses of global space-based positioning, navigation, and timing services, which now underpin daily activities on Earth.  So, perhaps the problem really is with the weaponization and not militarization of outer space.

But both processes exist in the same web of violence. The military origin story of human space activities is detailed in Bleddyn Bowen’s book, Original Sin, which traces the pursuit of space technology to “enhance the killing capability of the state.” This aim spurred the development of weapons capabilities, both in space and targeting space, with testing beginning in 1958.

Militarization involves actively preparing for war. This process is becoming more pronounced in outer space. The United States is often singled out in this regard, but it is far from alone.

So far, we have managed to avoid blatant weaponization and warfighting in outer space, both because making effective space weapons is hard to do and because, for a time, military dependence on space by dominant actors created a disincentive for destructive actions. But times are changing.

The space security dilemma

The 1991 Persian Gulf War has been dubbed “the first space war” because of the pivotal role that the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and other space systems played in navigating, communicating, and guiding American forces and weapons. It showcased the power of leveraging space systems to achieve miliary objectives and activities on Earth, and spurred the global development of such systems. But it also raised fears about dependence on such vulnerable systems. A decade later, a report by the U.S. Space Commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld depicted space capabilities as the soft underbelly of American power and raised fears of a space “Pearl Harbor.”

We are now in an era in which the most advanced military doctrine emphasizes the ability to use outer space at all times, while denying that ability to others. Weapons and other capabilities that inflict harm on space systems are essential to this effort. Each year, my colleagues at Secure World Foundation and the Center for Security and International Studies produce detailed reports tracking the widening scope and proliferation of such capabilities.

Space militarization goes mainstream

Militarization involves actively preparing for war. This process is becoming more pronounced in outer space. The United States is often singled out in this regard, but it is far from alone.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists Satellite Database, approximately 30 states, from all regions of the world, operate military satellites today. The latest Space Report by the Space Foundation pegs global military spending in 2023 at $54 billion (U.S.) – a whopping $10 billion more than in 2022. These figures are likely low, given incomplete information on China.

While most of today’s operational satellites are commercial, most commercial operators depend on government contracts, particularly those involving national armed forces. Over time, the private sector has gone from building military hardware and providing ad hoc services such as communications to providing capabilities that fully integrate with routine, daily military operations. These additional services include Earth observation, space situational awareness, space transport, and emerging and on-orbit logistics and servicing.

The war in Ukraine is revealing the scope of third-party purchases of satellite data on the warfighting efforts of both sides. We can see that the value of space-derived data is continuing to grow in an emerging era of warfighting powered by artificial intelligence. Commercial operators are now fully in the crosshairs of competing militaries, and a core focus of competing deterrence and defence efforts.

Although, in theory, no one wants war in space, many states are preparing for it. At least 12 – Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States – have military units and commands dedicated to protecting and defending their assets in outer space. Their defence capabilities include those intended to deny potential adversaries the use of space, which Theresa Hitchens has referred to as “offensive by any other name.”

Space is also embedded in many military alliances and cooperation arrangements, including the recently expanded Combined Space Operations Center led by the United States,  NORAD, NATO, Five Eyes, the European Union, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Australia, India, Japan, United States) and AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States). China and Russia are also pursuing a closer military relationship in space, and there are both security and space dimensions to China’s Belt-and-Road infrastructure initiative.

The old distinction between passive and aggressive uses of space is increasingly blurred. For example, the United States, Russia, and China are engaged in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game of close approaches and quick escapes, using highly manoeuvrable satellites supposedly designed for inspections. Both China and the United States operate space planes that carry unknown cargo. So-called Russian doll satellites have released subsatellites and other objects in orbit. And sleeper objects believed defunct have come back to life.

Other advanced capabilities, such as removing defunct objects from orbit and grappling with another satellite for refueling or servicing needs, are being pursued by both military and civilian operators. All could be used for harmful purposes.

Now this process of militarization is expanding beyond Earth orbit. Although the Outer Space Treaty specifically sought to demilitarize the Moon, military interest in the Moon and the surrounding area is intensifying. While exploration activities, such as the Artemis program, are civilian, key infrastructure processes, including situational awareness, communications, and navigation and timing, which will support space activities on and around the Moon, have military leads. And talk of the need to protect civilian and commercial lunar activities is growing.

A course correction

It’s time to call attention to the escalating militarization of space. The intention is not to demonize states or deny their legitimate national security interests in outer space. It must be acknowledged that there will be military use of space. But the current trajectory is headed for a military confrontation that risks disaster for everyone.

In the absence of multilateral commitments to ban weapons in outer space, short-term efforts to de-escalate and de-centre the militarization of space and the arms racing that it leads to should include:

The pursuit of norms of behaviour that prevent and mitigate misperceptions and misunderstandings that can escalate to armed conflict, and help to differentiate peaceful/non-aggressive uses of outer space from harmful ones;

The adoption of unilateral arms control measures, such as the moratorium on destructive tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons, which will not only prevent unnecessary contamination of the space environment but diminish one source of the brewing arms race;

Decoupling, where possible, military from civilian and commercial capabilities and activities to mitigate growing perceptions of threats and to prevent unnecessary harm from potential military actions against dual-use systems;

Promoting non-military activities and capabilities in space to facilitate cooperative governance and share the benefits of outer space more widely, including on the Moon;

The integration of discussions on outer space security with other arms control, strategic stability, and demilitarization discussions.

We need to de-emphasize outer space as a military and warfighting domain. The focus of military policies and objectives that relate to outer space should shift from defending and warfighting to de-escalation and preventing armed conflict.

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