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Space: The final frontier, where no war has been fought before. In the past few years, both states and firms have shown a renewed interest for space exploration. New ambitious missions were launched for scientific and commercial purposes, with some aiming even at landing a manned mission on Mars. But will space also become the final frontier of warfare?
When examining the use of space for war-related activities, an important distinction must be made between the militarization and the weaponization of space.
The term “militarization” refers to the use of space for military purposes; be it reconnaissance, targeting, communication, direct attack or anything else. In this sense, space was militarized decades ago. The armed forces of advanced countries, as the United States and its competitors like Russia and China, have deployed satellites in orbit to perform such tasks and support their combat operations on Earth.
On its part, the term “weaponization” has a more specific meaning: it indicates the deployment of weapons in space, and sometimes also that of weapons capable of striking space-based assets. Space could soon be weaponized, and in some sense it already is. But to understand the scope of this trend, it is first necessary to consider the legal framework of space use.
Due to its nature, space is part of the global commons. It is therefore a domain that anyone can freely access and exploit for various activities. This conception underlies the legal framework on the use of space, and this is why there have been efforts to prevent its militarization and most of all its weaponization. However, important juridical vacuums persist, and they leave room for exploiting space for military purposes.
The most important treaty in this sense is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which a total of 107 countries have adhered; including the US, Russia and China. Its aim is to regulate activity in space and in particular to avoid an arms race. It states that “The exploration and use of outer space […] shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries”, that space “shall be free for exploration and use by all States”, and establishes that it “is not subject to national appropriation”. But its most important provision appears in Article IV, which reads: “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner”. It also establishes the peaceful use of the Moon and other celestial bodies.
The treaty therefore explicitly forbids the deployment of weapons of mass destruction (or WMDs) in space. But in spite of the will to promote the peaceful use of this domain, there is no clear prohibition on the placement of non-WMD weapons in space. In this sense, an important provision concerning Anti-Ballistic Missiles system (or ABMs) existed in the 1972 ABM Treaty between the US and the USSR (later Russia). The treaty banned the deployment of similar systems in space, but when Washington abandoned the Treaty in 2002 the prohibition became practically void.
Another important concept is the one of non-interference, which is included in several treaties and prevents states from conducting actions that may hinder the verification of compliance with the norms on the use of outer space.
Then, there are a number of Resolutions of the UN General Assembly that call for avoiding the military use of space and for ensuring that only peaceful activities take place there; but for their very nature they are not binding. Still, it may be argued that the existing juridical body and the expressed desires of states to grant that space remains a domain to be used only for peaceful purposes are already sufficient to create a consuetudinary and possibly binding norm against the weaponization of space; but this remains subject to interpretation and, most importantly, the behaviour of states in recent years is going in the opposite direction, thus weakening the solidity and even the existence of this norm.
The exact definition of “space weapon” is not clear-cut and it can include a wide array of systems, most of whom remain theoretical or experimental concepts. In general, they can be divided into two broad categories: space-based and Earth-based assets.
Regarding the first, these are all kind of weapons deployed in orbit or on a celestial body, but the latter are more complicated to operate and would be a clear contravention to the Outer Space Treaty. So, satellites would be the most likely option. They could use jamming equipment to interfere with other satellites or use destructive weaponry, which can be either direct-energy weapons like lasers or kinetic-energy systems. It may even be possible to use “suicide satellites” designed to crash themselves against other satellites. Of all these, the most probable are satellites equipped with jammers, as other solutions would be technically more challenging to build and operate. Still, such satellites could affect the nuclear equilibrium: if the satellites used to detect the launch of ballistic missiles could effectively be jammed, then the immediate retaliation capabilities upon which nuclear deterrence is based could be undermined. So, similar jamming satellites would be a contravention to the non-interference norms meant to ensure the verifiability in nuclear matters.
But in theory satellites could also be used to strike targets on Earth. This can be done with lasers, or via kinetic bombardment. The latter refers to the use of satellites to launch projectiles on the planet’s surface: even without any kind of warhead, the sheer speed at which they would hit the target would be sufficient to cause damages comparable to those of a tactical nuclear bomb. As such, they could be considered a form of WMD and be therefore illegal.
Lasers could also be used to destroy targets in in the atmosphere, notably ballistic missiles. Since the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, Russia has firmly opposed America’s ABM initiatives also out of concern that space-based systems could be deployed.
Then, there are Earth-based systems. The most important ones are anti-satellite systems, or ASAT. Various solutions are possible. A first and most common kind are missiles, fired either from the ground or from airplanes. The former type could also include ABM systems, since they could also be used for targeting satellites, and this has caused concern. Then there can be ASAT lasers, that have been tested by both the US and Russia. In addition, Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) could be considered as space-related weapons as well. These are essentially ballistic missiles capable of travelling at speed of five times that of sound or more, and for their characteristics they blur the distinction between the air and space domains.
The actual deployment of most of these systems remain to be seen, as they imply considerable technical difficulties and high costs. But there is one exception: ASAT missiles. These are already a reality, as various powers have successfully tested them; and this is why space can be considered already weaponized to some extent.
In spite of calls for the peaceful use of outer space, in practice this domain is already militarized and is central for the national security of many countries, first of all the US; which has deployed numerous satellites in space that are employed for intelligence gathering, targeting and navigation (via the GPS) and communications. Space is therefore vital for the ability of the US armed forces to operate effectively, and the Pentagon is fully aware of that; but so are America’s competitors.
In spite of their military power, Russia and China still cannot compete with the US on an equal basis in military terms. Therefore, they are adopting an indirect approach which aims at America’s weak spot: the satellites, which are essential for US military operations. This is why they, but the US as well, are so engaged in developing ASAT weapons. The first successful test of a Chinese ASAT missile dates back to 2007. This test has been largely considered as signal to the US, who in turn experimented a similar weapon shortly after. On its part, Russia tested its Nudol system several times, and there have been speculations that a missile spotted on a MiG-31 fighter in September this year could be an ASAT weapon.
Another driver in Russia’s and China’s quest for ASAT weapons is America’s Conventional Prompt Global Strike initiative, or CPGS. The aim of this program, that was revived since 2008 to counter the Anti-Access / Area Denial strategies of Moscow and Beijing, is to enable the US military to strike a target located anywhere in the world with conventional weapons in no more than one hour. Various systems have been proposed to satisfy the CPGS’ requirements, including some that are linked with space: among them, the most important are hypersonic missiles, as they require satellites for targeting and guidance. Russia and China started developing ASAT weapons also to counter this threat. But satellites could also be used as early-warning systems to detect incoming hypersonic missiles: considering that all three powers are testing such vectors, it is clear why they all invest so much in deploying satellites and in being able to take down those of their adversaries.
This also explain the calls from Moscow and Beijing for a treaty to ban space weapons, known as PAROS; an acronym for Prevention on an Arms Race in Outer Space. By now, Washington has constantly declined to adhere to this project; but the actual goodwill of Russia and China is debated, with some suggesting that their offers are not driven by the actual desire to avoid a space arms race, but by the willingness to conduct it on their own terms. Here, the distinction between “weaponizing” space and “deploying weapons in space” is important: Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov talked about forbidding the latter, which would make space-based systems illegal but would allow ASAT weapons like those that Russia and China are developing.
Beside ASAT systems, there are also other activities that the three powers are conducting in space which may have a military connotation. In cooperation with SpaceX, the US Air Force has already performed several missions using the X-37B space plane, which was used to carry classified payloads in orbit. This raised rumours that a new weapon could be involved, but it is uncertain and some analysts reject this hypothesis. Again, earlier this year, the strange behaviour of a Russian satellite created concerns among some US officials that it could be a space weapon, possibly an ASAT system. Similar worries exist over Chinese activities in space. All this may indicate that space weaponization is moving to its definitive form, namely that of having proper weapons into space.
Finally, while the US, Russia and China are surely the main actors in the weaponization of space, they are not the only ones. Beside them, Japan, India and Israel are testing ASAT or ABM systems as well. Along with Germany, Italy and France, they also have their own reconnaissance satellites. In addition, North Korea has recently launched a satellite, and Iran is working on ASAT systems.
As seen, space is already militarized, and new systems developed by major powers are leading to its weaponization. It is to be expected that this trend will continue, and it is practically certain that in case of conflict space will turn into a battleground, with space assets being targeted and possibly becoming attack vectors themselves. Space is the final frontier, also for warfare.