Compared to other global commons utilized by nation-states, space has yet to witness any formal, bilateral military belligerence. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, but is silent on the deployment of conventional weapons.
Space weapons are not simply weapons deployed in space. They are designed to carry out a variety of tasks, from interfering with another actor’s communication abilities to disrupting ground-to-air, anti-satellite missiles. This article utilizes Peter Kamocsai’s definition: a space weapon is “[a]ny land-, sea- or air-based weapon able to damage space systems, such as satellites, their ground stations and communication receivers…[that are] intended to attack space or ground targets.”
The United States is one of many countries that deploy satellites in space to promote their commercial, military, and scientific interests. Increasingly, the United States relies on satellite communication to conduct military operations, which perpetuate its role as a global hegemon. The United States exploits space to maintain its influence, and as long as this practice continues, rival actors may attempt to disrupt its capabilities by developing space weapons.
The international community’s previous attempts to create binding treaties that restrict the behavior of space-faring actors have largely missed the mark. Without the consent of all space-faring actors, a binding treaty against the use of weapons in space will be counter-productive. The United States would be foolish to step back and allow another country to threaten its space assets. Therefore, the only way to safeguard U.S. space assets is to readily employ a range of space weapons that, at a moment’s notice, can deny, disrupt, or destroy another actor’s space capabilities.
After World War II, the United States played a very influential role in reshaping the global economy. As the emerging global hegemon, the United States was able to create new rules for the realm of international relations, and those who wanted to enjoy the benefits had to do so under the terms the United States laid out. Similarly, the United States now has the opportunity to cement its place as the world leader in space. As technology allows more nation-states to utilize Earth’s orbit, U.S. leadership will be crucial to maintaining the peace and settling space-related disputes in the absence of a formal and overarching governing body. If the United States does not take the necessary steps to become the undisputed leader in space, it risks the possibility of another actor taking the lead and setting ‘the rules.’
Scholars argue that if the United States openly deploys space weapons, it might spark an arms race. While possible, an arms race of space weaponry does not necessarily impact the security of U.S. assets in space. Realistically, many nation-states either cannot afford to stockpile space weapons or do not possess the technical ability to do so. Because of the relative costs and risks associated with space weaponry, actors looking to disrupt U.S. capabilities in orbit may resort to asymmetrical tactics designed to disrupt the functionality of U.S. space assets from the ground. To guarantee the safety of its space assets, the United States must continue to invest in cutting-edge technologies to disrupt asymmetric threats from the ground. Efforts to do so will make it marginally more difficult and expensive for other space-faring actors to take action against the United States in space.
Still, in space warfare it may be difficult for nation-states to understand their fellow actors’ motives for acquiring space weapons. If a nation-state arms itself and its neighbors are unable to confirm that it has done so for non-offensive purposes, these neighbors might feel that their national security is in jeopardy. For example, a space-faring actor could develop a missile with the dual-purpose of defending its own assets in space or pre-emptively disrupting a rival’s. In any case, the United States can and should communicate to other space-faring actors. The United States must be clear that it is acquiring weapons for defensive reasons To do so, the United States should amend its space strategy to include language concerning the deployment of weapons in space for the purposes of defending its own national security interests.
Domestically, it may be difficult to persuade the public of the need to invest in space, especially when investment elsewhere could have a larger, short-term impact. Others may think that the deployment of space weapons is unnecessary or a waste of U.S. resources. At this stage, it will be difficult to refute criticism, as no other nation has yet threatened or destroyed U.S. assets in space. Still, the fact remains that the United States relies on satellites for communication, predicting weather patterns, intelligence gathering and more. Efforts to disrupt the functionality of existing orbital satellites will certainly impact the lives of ordinary citizens.
The need for action in the short term is made clear by recent events. In 2007, China, unrestricted and undeterred by the international community, launched a kinetic kill missile intended to destroy one of its own weather satellites. The missile created an unnecessary amount of space debris that continues to threaten the viability of U.S. space assets. As technology allows more nation-states to access Earth’s orbit, the risk of other actors targeting or inadvertently damaging U.S. space assets increases. If left undeterred, other actors such as Iran, North Korea and Venezuela could one day develop the capabilities necessary to threaten U.S. national security interests in space. The best way for the United States to prepare for this inevitability is to responsibly allow for the deployment of space weapons.
The unipolar system today is one of the most peaceful the world has known. The United States has played a major role in mitigating conflict and promoting peace around the globe. Sooner rather than later, the international system will require responsible leadership in space. If air and sea are to serve as precedents, one should conclude that the deployment of space weapons is inevitable. The United States should take advantage of the current power vacuum and become the leading power to promote peaceful and responsible exploitation of Earth’s orbit. U.S. policymakers should not think twice about the use of space weapons if doing so means that outer space is kept safe from full-scale warfare.
Wade Meyerhoffer is a second-year International Affairs candidate with concentrations in U.S. foreign policy and security studies. He is currently interning for the Department of Defense’s Logistics Agency.