On August 29th, 2019, President Donald Trump reestablished the United States Space Command, a potential precursor to the creation of a United States Space Force. While details remain scarce regarding its associated policies, this hypothetical space warfare service branch would coordinate the military’s role in what the President has deemed “the next war-fighting domain.” But the public and policymakers should be cautious about how far “warfighting” and weaponization extend into space. Although the concept of a Space Force has been the subject of ridicule, potential missteps in this arena by the United States or its allies could unnecessarily precipitate an arms race and renew global conflict.
While debate remains around the exact nature and timing of outer space-related threats, advocates for Space Force cite concerns surrounding American reliance on satellite technology. Military satellites serve a vital role in reconnaissance, early warning systems, communications, and, perhaps most crucially, navigation. The U.S. Navy and Air Force rely heavily on the latter on everything from guiding aircraft carriers to fighter jets. As such, the initial focus for the proposed Space Force would be training and equipping US personnel to counter anti-satellite technology. There is speculation that rival states, such as Russia and China, could use this new weaponry to disrupt infrastructure and gain an advantage in contested regions, particularly the Arabian Sea and the South China Sea. But finding ways to defend against anti-satellite technology raises questions about deploying weapons in outer space.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both hypothesized that the first nation to successfully place an object in orbit would gain the metaphorical and literal high ground in the event of nuclear conflict. Despite the incredible speed of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBMs), it would still take around 41 minutes for a Russian ICBM to reach the eastern coast of the United States. In comparison, a nuclear weapon launched from an orbital weapons platform could hit a target within several minutes. If an array of six platforms were set at the same altitude as the International Space Station, there would always be one station that could fire on enemy territory at any given time, with a 15-minute gap between each shot. Furthermore, missiles fired from space would require less rocket propulsion and, if combined with stealth technology, render early warning and detection systems useless. Altogether, it would remove the hindrances regarding current nuclear weaponry and enable the use of a “first strike” strategy without the risk of mutual destruction.
Despite this potential, the weaponization of space has stalled due to legal and financial restrictions. The implications of orbital weaponry were addressed by the United Nations in one of the first treaties on international space law known as the “Outer Space Treaty”. Signed by the U.S., the U.S.S.R, and China, this framework barred all parties from placing weapons of mass destruction in Earth’s orbit, on the Moon, on any celestial body, or from stationing them in outer space. This also included the prohibition of almost all military activities in space, including weapons testing, military maneuvers, or the establishment of military bases. Second, the cost of putting objects into orbit remains extremely expensive, averaging between $9,000 and $43,000 per pound. Even given the potential strategic advantages, this price tag is seen as outrageous in comparison to the cost-effectiveness of current earth-based missiles.
However, the treaty does have a key caveat: its restrictions only apply to nuclear weapons. As such, some nations have explored the idea of a “kinetic orbital strike.” This system would have a satellite fire a non-explosive projectile towards the planet’s surface, generating destructive force from the kinetic energy of the projectile impacting at near terminal velocity. In 2003, the Air Force described a hypothetical “Project Thor” weapon system, a satellite-controlled set of tungsten rods that would have global strike capability and impact speeds of Mach 10.
The geopolitical impact of such a program would immense. If any nation were to begin such a program, it would leave the international community with two options: accelerate their own efforts to implement such a weapon or to go to war with the offending nation before their program reaches completion. This would be most pertinent to China, Russia, and the United States. While there has already been speculation of a new Cold War between these powers, the immediate threat of a space weapon could push any side into a preemptive conflict.
While neither the administration nor Congress has given indications as to how far it’s willing to equip a Space Force, it should be cautious to not break what’s currently an unspoken agreement.
Featured Image Source: U.S. Space Command.