On Monday, U.S. President Trump was due to sign Space Policy Directive-3 on space traffic management. This was exciting to those of us who work on space governance, if not to many others.
Then Trump announced that he would create a Space Force – a new branch of the U.S. military – and pointed to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford to lead it. The announcement was suddenly a little frightening. Fears of weapons in space quickly replaced the news that better management of global space traffic could make space safer. People from around the world raised the alarm on social media.
We should all be very concerned about the potential deployment and use of weapons in outer space. But that’s not what Monday’s announcement was supposed to be about. It was to be every bit as dry as the announcement of a new space traffic management directive. Now space stakeholders in and out of government are scrambling to interpret what Mr. Trump may have in mind for a Space Force.
If created by legislation within the U.S. Congress, the Space Force would be a sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces, responsible for funding, programs, and personnel related to space—which are now managed largely (90%) by the U.S. Air Force. Its creation is thus mostly a bureaucratic exercise. As my colleague Brian Weeden at Secure World Foundation has noted, it would involve “everything as mundane as new uniforms all the way through to new doctrine, and probably tens of thousands of new people.”
President Trump clearly linked this initiative to American dominance in space, but a Space Force does not automatically imply that weapons or confrontational warfighting will move to space. As I mentioned, the U.S. Air Force Space Command is currently engaged in many of the objectives that will be assigned to this new branch of the military. Moreover, China’s People’s Liberation Army already has Strategic Support Forces that conduct combined space, cyber, and electronic warfare missions. Russia has its Aerospace Forces. And, as far as we know, there are no weapons orbiting in outer space.
Clearly, military tensions are rising in outer space. The U.S. emphasis on space dominance, China’s focus on information superiority, and Russia’s renewed interest in anti-satellite weapons all raise red flags.
Further, the potential exists for a layered system of anti-ballistic missile defence that could involve the deployment of interceptors in outer space. Direct, kinetic warfare in the fragile environment of outer space could render parts of outer space unusable and disrupt communications and many other systems on Earth. From there an escalation that included the use of strategic nuclear weapons is not impossible.
The growing focus on dominance rather than leadership is also cause for concern. Outer space presents us with many challenges and opportunities – from debris mitigation and space situational awareness to exploration of the Moon and Mars and the harnessing of data for socioeconomic development. All require international cooperation—leaders coming together to find a global solution.
This week I am witnessing global leadership in action at the UNISPACE+50 symposium taking place in Vienna. Here, the international community is attempting to find ways to extend the benefits of the peaceful uses of outer space to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The United States has been a global leader in outer space since the First Space Age. The Directive signed by President Trump to enhance the role of the United States in global space traffic management shows welcome leadership.
But Trump’s focus on dominance is worrying and reflects a growing normalization of the notion of space as a warfighting domain. And there is no room for complacency.
Currently no international law, no bilateral agreements, no national policies prohibit the use of conventional weapons in outer space. Only weapons of mass destruction, and all weapons on the Moon and other celestial bodies are banned. While there is broad international support in principle for the PAROS (Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space) agenda, the development of concrete policy to prevent a weaponized space domain has been painstakingly slow.
Clearly, work must be done at the international level to prevent an arms race in outer space. Unfortunately, the Conference on Disarmament—the main negotiating forum for PAROS—has been deadlocked for more than three decades.
The sky is not falling, either literally or figuratively, but we should be concerned. If not by the creation of a Space Force per se, then by the global inability and even unwillingness to prevent warfare in a domain in which it would be so devastating.