Space Wars: Do we really need to be militarizing space?

By Bryce Farabaugh, Policy Intern

The militarization of space has been a controversial subject for decades, so it was more than a little surprising when, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 16, Defense Secretary nominee and current Secretary of the Army Mark Esper stated his belief that the United States “need[s] to fully develop the domain of space as a warfighting domain.”

The first major international agreement governing “nonarmament” in space was signed on January 27, 1967. Popularly known as “the Outer Space Treaty,” the agreement restricts space activities in two major ways. First, signatories vowed “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.” Additionally, the treaty proclaims “the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes…the establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden.”

Prohibiting both nuclear weapon and military activity in space made sense given the concerns at the time. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a space race, and each country viewed the other with suspicion when it came to any activity in the domain. Placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on a “celestial body” threatened to disrupt strategic stability by upending the launch, detection and response times that had been previously established based on terrestrial weapons platforms.

The limitations of the Outer Space Treaty are clearly evident, however, when considering how far technology has advanced in the 52 years since its ratification: as reliance on satellite communications increases, a state can gain an upper hand in a conflict simply by disrupting, disabling, or destroying an adversary’s satellite network. Further, researchers from CSIS outline four categories of counterspace weapons in their “Space Threat Assessment 2019” report that would not fall neatly into the confines of the Outer Space Treaty.

Many of these counterspace weapons are already a reality: in March 2019, India became the fourth country (after the United States, Russia, and China) to test an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. As technology advances, we can expect to see countries increasingly seeking to challenge American military primacy in every domain, including space. The question is whether anyone would benefit from space becoming a war zone.

Adding to the challenges facing us, space may not even be the final frontier. Late last year, Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly signed SECNAV Instruction 2400.3, designating the electromagnetic spectrum as a warfighting domain on par with sea, land, air, space and cyber.

While policymakers including Esper consider the potential militarization of new domains, they should also prioritize the confidence-building measures, transparency efforts and arms control agreements that can help us avoid future conflicts in increasingly diverse dimensions of human activity.


(Image: ASAT Weapons Conception)