At this rate, some say that an armed conflict in space is all but certain to occur. That tensions are heating up is evident from Russia’s anti-satellite test in November, its first debris-creating test since the Cold War. Here at Space Channel, we’ve been wondering, how would a war in space actually happen? In an earlier segment, we explored why space battles would look completely different than conflicts on land. But battles are strategic, and wars are political. So to answer our question, we have to turn to politics.
The two obvious contenders in a future conflict are the United States and China. The U.S. has openly declared itself to be in a long-term strategic competition with its adversary, prompting many to call this the second Cold War. Such comparisons, however, aren’t very useful. The U.S. is far more interdependent economically, socially, and geopolitically with China than it ever was with the Soviet Union, and the space domain has since transformed dramatically.
In the 20th century, space was tightly linked to nuclear security. Soviet and American satellites surveilled each other’s missile launch facilities to provide early warning in case of an attack, so disabling one would have been considered a potential precursor to nuclear war. That threat remains, but nerves are less sensitive. Before 1990, the U.S. and the Soviet Union launched over 90% of all satellites, and over 70% of those were military. today, space is populated by over 70 governments, hundreds of companies and thousands of satellites performing a range of functions military, civil and commercial.
Rather than the big, fat, juicy targets of the last space age, Satellites today are smaller, less vital and more numerous, spread out over a diversity of orbits. As a result, effectively knocking out a nation’s space capabilities is much harder, and an attack on any single satellite is less likely to warrant an escalatory, much less nuclear, response.
There is one key insight you need to understand the growing competition in orbit. Space is fundamentally an extension of what happens back on Earth. To even talk about a “war in space” doesn’t even make much sense, because any extraterrestrial conflict would only be one part of a larger terrestrial war. As Doctor Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy and warfare expert, told us, “Space warfare is not an alternative to warfare between nuclear-powered states. It is a part of it.”
In fact, an attack on one country’s satellite might not even provoke retaliation against the other’s satellites; responses could come from land, air and sea as well. This is the context in which we have to interpret events like Russia’s anti-satellite test that otherwise seem nonsensical. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s space program stagnated while the United States’ barreled forward, establishing an American-led global economy that is dependent on satellites. Now, the U.S. is far more reliant on space than any other country. Hence, it has far more to lose from orbital debris, anti-satellite strikes and other threats to its assets.
The U.S. projects its military power across the planet, with troops stationed in most countries. Russia and China, by contrast, are relatively regional powers. Their foreign policy flashpoints line their borders, from Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to Taiwan, Hong Kong and India. To put the asymmetry into perspective, the U.S. manages roughly 800 military bases around the world, Russia has around 20 and China has just one. It turns out that maintaining a global empire requires a lot of long-range communications and surveillance, and satellites are perfect for just that.
It isn’t surprising, then, that with American warships prowling through the Taiwan Strait and bombers skirting alongside the Russian border, the two smaller powers are seeking to deter the United States by threatening it in a domain where it is both supreme and vulnerable: space.
The resulting debris can be long-lasting and detrimental, but in the heat of war, that may be worth the cost to disable an enemy’s satellites. Throughout the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union blasted apart their own satellites in manners that would be considered irresponsible today. In 1962, the U.S. even detonated a nuclear bomb in space, lighting up the night sky, producing an artificial aurora and destroying several satellites. One account in the Hilo Tribune-Herald wrote, “It looked as though the heavens had belched forth a new sun that flared briefly, but long enough to set the sky on fire.”
So how can we keep the peace in space? The short answer is: keep the peace on Earth. In the meantime, arms control treaties might help, but enforcing them is tricky because anti-satellite capabilities tend to be dual-use, acting as a missile defense system at one moment and a deadly space weapon at another. A more militaristic solution — to dominate the space domain — isn’t much more helpful. A nation can’t secure dominance in space the same way it might on land or at sea because orbiting satellites don’t conquer geographical territory the way tanks and ships do. Actually dominating the enemy would mean knocking out their space systems, a strategy that is incompatible with a peaceful approach to the domain.
The fact is: unless we want to see a global war between nuclear-armed powers, space is going to remain open to a diversity of actors. If they are to coexist peacefully, they may have to compromise on Earthly politics and use space as an avenue for cooperation. As China becomes more dependent on space through its burgeoning private industry, planned Moonbase and Tiangong space station, finding common ground in orbit may become easier. There is certainly the potential, and even the necessity, to work together on climate change, scientific research and debris mitigation.