The numbers of countries and companies active in outer space have greatly expanded in recent decades, complicating this particular geostrategic domain. New “rules of the road” for space are called for. In this regard, the United States is well-placed to press other space-faring countries toward best practices and transparency to the benefit of all.
By Joan Johnson-Freese*
The convergence of multiple, complex strands of recent activity regarding the use of space and the protection of space assets is resulting in a space environment very different from the past. Formerly, the space environment was largely dominated by a very few countries.
All countries, however, were assured access through the 1967 Outer Space Treaty
ratified by 109 countries and signed by another 23, militarised but
deliberately not overtly weaponised, and anxiously awaiting the
development of a true commercial space sector rather than one fully
dependent on government contracts.
Proliferation of “NewSpace” Players
Today, a number of formerly nascent space programmes have matured,
there is increasingly bellicose talk – and policies – regarding the
overt weaponisation of space, and so-called “NewSpace” companies are
bringing the commercial space sector to life. All of these strands are
made complex by the dual-use nature of the vast majority of space
technology and the increasing characterisation of the global
geostrategic environment being generally dominated by Great Power
technology is of value to both military and civilian interests, and when
it is military technology it is difficult to tell whether for offensive
or defensive purposes. Earth-focused satellites can be used for tasks
ranging from maximising crop rotations to weapons targeting. In the
United States (US), Atlas, Delta and Titan rockets used to launch
civilian payloads were originally developed as missiles. The same is
true for China’s Long March launcher family.
military space systems, the ground-based US missile defence system is
considered defensive by the US, but seen as having offensive
anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities by some other countries – and was
demonstrated to have such capabilities through Operation Burnt Frost
in 2008 when a modified missile defence system was used to shoot down a
defunct US satellite. All this means that it is difficult to discern
the intended use of the space technology being developed or deployed by
The Great Power Competition in Space
The uncertainty generated by dual-use technology has always been an issue but is now exacerbated within the atmosphere of Great Power Competition
that pervades Washington and other capitals. With Washington, Beijing
and Moscow all professing their own versions of America First/China
First/Russia First, GPC is rapidly shaping the global environment as one
of dominated by zero-sum competitions.
speaking, issues that were once perceived as challenges are increasingly
considered threats. Protecting space assets is one such challenge cum
threat. While the acronym DIME is still used to describe tools of
national power – Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic – the
“M” is often the default tool for addressing perceived space threats.
the threat perceived by the US military is the resurgent nature of the
Russian military space programme, and the maturing of other space
programmes, especially China’s programme.
China, seeing the advantages space assets afforded the US during the
1990-91 Gulf War, has been intent on not allowing the US to get so far
ahead technologically that it could not breach the gap.
China’s space programme today includes an expanding space science
programme, a human spaceflight programme that will likely soon reach for
the Moon, and a robust military space programme which tested a ground-based ASAT
in 2007 by destroying one of their own defunct satellites in a
high-altitude orbit. That test garnered China a great deal of criticism
due to the amount of dangerous space debris created, debris that other
satellites have since had to dodge.
China has not conducted any more impact tests, but instead tests ASAT
capabilities through more politically acceptable, non-impact missile
defence tests. China really set Washington on edge in 2013 when it
launched what it called a science mission to an altitude previously
reachable only by the US, and subsequently considered a “sanctuary
orbit” by the US where it could place its high value assets, thereby
potentially putting those assets at risk.
After China: India and Other Players in Space
Since 2013 the US has taken a more bullish attitude toward space
security. In the past the US went to great efforts to avoid the overt
weaponisation of space, using such Orwellian terminology as “offensive
counterspace” to describe capabilities with the potential to be used as
weapons. Now, however, the military openly professes to wanting the deployment of space weapons in the near term.
That rhetoric, not unexpectedly, quickly resulted in countries wanting
to keep-up-with-the-Joneses, evidenced by India’s ASAT test in 2019.
remembered the sting of being dubbed a nuclear “have not” in the 1968
Non-Proliferation Treaty. It was determined not to be left on the
outside again should those who had already tested ASATs again decide it
was in their interests to keep others from doing so.
criticism of India was tamped down by rationalising that they had been
responsible about not creating dangerous debris. When the debris later
proved more than originally thought, and the idea of ASAT proliferation
sank in, even top Pentagon officials suggested that perhaps more “D” and less “M” was in order. The US has got itself into a position of “do as I say, not as I do”.
Add to all
of this NewSpace companies in the US and elsewhere seeking to
economically develop space in ways ranging from bringing down launch
costs, to tourism, to space mining, and there are more actors, more
activity and more challenges to US “dominating” space than ever before.
Congested, Contested and Competitive
Pentagon describes the space environment as Congested, Contested and
Competitive and that raises the question of how economic development
will be affected by this new environment.
The Pentagon has also suggested that President Donald Trump’s directed creation of a Space Force is to protect US economic interests in space.
But it is
not clear that businesses requested such protection and whether they see
the overt weaponisation of space as good or bad for them. One thing is
clear though, all activity – public or private, civil or military – is
dependent upon the sustainability of the space environment.
space “rules of the road” called for after India’s ASAT test will get
even a fraction of the attention (people and funding) that the creation
of Space Command, a Space Development Agency and the Space Force has.
Even a small fraction would be a quantum leap forward. The US position
in space is still such that, with commitment, it could lead other
spacefaring countries toward best practices and transparency to benefit
*Joan Johnson-Freese is a Professor and the Charles F. Bolden, Jr. Chair of Science, Space & Technology at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. She writes extensively on space security, military education, and gender and security and contributed this to RSIS Commentary. The views expressed are those of the author alone and not those of the US government, the US Navy or the Naval War College.
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