Outer space has long been the stuff of militaristic dreams — a proverbial “high ground” that enables world dominance. Such visions have included a wide range of weapons, from nuclear weapons orbiting the Earth, to kinetic bombardment with tungsten poles, pellet clouds, high-energy lasers and anti-ballistic missile interceptors in space.
And yet outer space has, so far, largely escaped the armed conflict that plagues Earth. This is not because space is somehow immune to the drivers of weapons and war. Space has remained relatively peaceful largely through luck: warfighting in outer space is hard, and until recently has been viewed as contrary to state interests.
Space is hard; making effective space weapons is even more difficult. Most ideas for weapons have been neither technologically nor financially feasible. While the majority never moved past the conceptual stage, others — such as the airborne laser — were tested but proved impractical. A space-based missile interceptor — long part of an unattainable dream for impenetrable security — has been named a bad defensive idea.
Our world has also been lucky that states have refrained from violent activities in outer space out of perceived self-interest. Testing of nuclear weapons in space ceased almost as soon as it began, when tests such as Starfish Prime revealed the wide-reaching and indiscriminate effects of electromagnetic pulses and radiation on operational satellites. What followed was one of the few arms control provisions related to outer space, embedded in both the Partial Test Ban Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty (OST). The persistent creation of space debris caused by the use of kinetic force in outer space has also encouraged some restraint, with a growing number of states unilaterally declaring moratoriums on destructive tests of anti-satellite missiles.
But technology is making the impossible possible and our luck is running out. Space is becoming — if not exactly easy — far more accessible. An unprecedented acceleration in the development of space-related technologies, most of which have both helpful and harmful applications, is occurring alongside rising geopolitical competition and growing military ambitions for outer space. These factors combine to have significant effects on the proliferation of counterspace capabilities, which are well documented. Restraints against kinetic weapons tests have eroded; Russia conducted just such a test in 2021. Accusations that weapons have not only been tested but also possibly deployed in outer space are getting louder, as are assertions that traditionally benign capabilities such as robotic arms are de facto weapons.
At the same time, how outer space is valued is changing. At one time, space was believed to be too important for war; today, space is so important for war that it is increasingly a target of warfighting. The value that space now holds for the military can be seen in the creation of the US Space Force and the re-establishment of the US Space Command — developments that are mirrored around the world. Consider as well the persistent interference with satellite capabilities that have proven essential to warfighting in Ukraine. The fact is that a growing number of states are focused not only on maintaining operations in a degraded environment but also protecting and even defending space systems from harm. More and more often, such defence includes offensive capabilities.
A growing arms race, coupled with a general lack of transparency regarding capabilities and intentions in a poorly governed environment, is a recipe for conflict. Such conflict need not be violent to inflict tremendous harm. Jamming and cyberattacks are now rampant. Although in theory such actions are temporary and reversible, this kind of interference can quickly escalate to armed confrontation. The effects are not limited to outer space or military forces: because most satellite capabilities provide both military and civilian services, any harm to space systems is almost certain to inflict human costs on Earth.
There are not many rules and mechanisms to prevent such harm, despite many efforts to govern space. A diplomatic tug of war that pits a legal ban on weapons in space against voluntary measures to rein in anti-satellite capabilities has held such efforts hostage. An attempt to break through this stalemate by focusing on principles, rules and norms of responsible behaviour in outer space met the same fate earlier this year.
The principles of the OST offer a way through this impasse. While emphasis on “peaceful purposes” and “benefits for all” is accepted dogma, we’ve lost sight of their meaning in practice. Other values in the treaty worth emphasizing include environmental sustainability, cooperation, transparency, equality and respect for future generations. But these values need new, energetic voices at the table.
The maintenance of peace in outer space requires that we govern it properly. If it isn’t, we all lose.
This piece is a response to “Only Effective Space Governance Can Prevent Future Conflict” by Timiebi Aganaba.