Space Doesn’t Need to be the Next Battlefield
The United States developed nuclear-tipped anti-satellite ‘space weapons’ in 1959, two years after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Over sixty years later, Russia tested a direct-ascent kinetic anti-satellite missile in November 2021. The test created about 1,500 pieces of orbital debris, endangering everyone onboard the International Space Station.
So space weapons, once critical to Cold War debates, are back on the table in the era of renewed great power competition. Technologies are advancing and the private sector is playing a critical role. State primacy in space may be at stake. Space zealots argue that the United States should seize this moment to weaponize space.
Can the United States usher in a new global space age without deploying or developing space weapons? The answer is it must. Space weapons create harmful debris, limit access to space, and disincentivize private innovation. They undermine our strategic interests. Instead, the United States should focus on building defenses for commercial systems, strengthening deterrence, and employing alternate means of compelling peaceful behavior in space.
It is true that space has been a militarized domain since the first human spaceflight. It would be naive to argue that a space sanctuary is possible. At the same time, space is an undeniable part of the global commons. The contested nature of space and its growing importance to all security and economic activity necessitates a strong U.S. policy response.
Step one should be strengthening our satellite defenses. Large corporate players design their assets for short-term mission fulfillment. They launch mega-constellations anticipating some systems to fail and cannot afford the hardening costs for systems with limited shelf lives. None of the Starlink satellites deployed in the Ukraine conflict are hardened against ASAT systems. The U.S. must address this vulnerability and regulate commercial actors involved in military space. It must require that they build defenses against radiation, cyberattacks, and directed-energy lasers.
Completion of step one leads to success in step two: increasing deterrence. Commercial space actors such as SpaceX can increase deterrence simply by hardening their satellites against radiation or kinetic effect. Hardening satellites is fiscally viable and less costly than deploying retaliatory space weapons whose deterrent potential is probably limited.
Space defense is easier, cheaper, and better for safeguarding U.S. interests than space offense. It deters adversaries, imposes costs on attacks, and mitigates the problem of debris. Currently, all state assets in space are at greater risk from debris and space junk than adversary attacks.
There is no guarantee that Moscow or Beijing will follow the same playbook or practice restraint in space. If not, the United States can take step three. The international space community praises the United States for being open about its cataloging of debris-tracking in space. These catalogs, known as conjunction assessments, publish open-source data that inform countries of debris that might put their assets in harm’s way. Withholding this data from states that put debris-creating missions in space is one way to compel good behavior. Without the critical tracking data that the U.S. provides, states cannot carry out space activities safely or effectively.
The new global space age is here; an arms race need not accompany it. The United States must lead by example to set norms for acceptable behavior in military space by deploying space capabilities that focus on defense and deterrence. The United States should model responsible and restrained use of space and has the leverage to persuade others to follow this example. The peaceful uses of a new global space age will benefit all humankind.