Outer space warfare and metaphor drag

Tasneem Jamal Space Security

Outdated metaphors, laws, treaties and norms hamper efforts to deal with the realities of space security

John Siebert

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 2 Summer 2015

Our topic today is the inadequacy of current space governance instruments—laws, treaties, norms, institutions. It isn’t simply that we have inadequate international legal instruments developed in the 1960s and 1970s, which technological advances and proliferation have now outpaced.

The problem is that thinking about outer space is afflicted by metaphor drag. This has left us ill-equipped to even consider the appropriate response to the physics of outer space for space governance conversations that will yield appropriate and widely agreed results.

Metaphor drag
Metaphor drag is the application of old ways of perceiving and measuring to new circumstances. Consider the measure of mechanical power. We still use the term “horse power.” Adopted in the 18th century by Scottish engineer James Watt, horse power compared the work output of a steam engine with the output of draft horses. There are mechanical, electrical, boiler, and hydraulic measurements of horse power. Few of us have intimate knowledge of horses or the power they can exert, and yet the metaphor is still popularly used for automobile engines.

A metaphor can be a drag not only because it refers to previous technology, but also because it can be a drag on coming to grips with new realities and discontinuities with the previous technology and its operating environment. This is the case with how we think and talk about outer space.

Outer space metaphors and analogies
Consider some of the metaphors commonly used about outer space. It’s the Wild West or ungoverned territory where rogues can act without discipline or accountability. Donald Rumsfeld, in a report written prior to his last U.S. government appointment as Secretary of Defense, referred to the vulnerabilities of outer space assets as the United States opening itself to a “space Pearl Harbor.”

By analogy, rather than metaphor, outer space as a domain is compared to the Antarctic. No single nation owns it, but all can use it or visit it for agreed scientific and other purposes. Access to outer space also is compared to travel on the high seas. Again, no single nation owns the high seas but we agree, by and large, to follow certain rules of the road–another example of metaphor drag since clearly there are no roads in the sea or in outer space—or, more accurately, navigational and operational guidelines to maintain safety and extend humanitarian assistance to those in peril.

In current official U.S. documents—mimicked in the 2014 Canadian space policy—outer space is described as congested, contested, and competitive. The first is an example of metaphor drag. Congested like a road with a traffic jam or like my lungs with a serious flu or pneumonia. Contested and competitive are states of mind or states of play between terrestrial human beings, rather than metaphors per se. All of these are projections of terrestrial military, economic, or political dynamics to outer space.

The physics of outer space is its primary governance mechanism
The difficulty is that these metaphors and analogies are inadequate when applied to outer space, for the simple reason that outer space is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the domains of earth, sea, and air. The most important factor affecting outer space governance is the physics of space itself.

Space is a uniquely harsh environment that threatens human beings and assets with the effects of naturally occurring phenomena such as space weather—radiation, corrosive space particles, the impact of occasional solar flares—and 60+ years of on-orbit human-sourced debris that can effectively destroy a billion-dollar satellite in a collision with a $1.25 wingnut.

Human space travel is dependent every second on mechanical assistance to breathe and therefore live, but we also now know that prolonged stays in zero-gravity are highly detrimental to human health, entailing loss of muscle mass and bone density.

All of this means that it is both very costly and highly risky to get humans or human-sourced assets into orbit.

Civil and commercial versus military
The now proven benefits of space assets for civil and commercial terrestrial activity are considerable; therefore, the risks are worth the rewards for human space endeavours. A governance regime—norms, laws, mediating institutions—promoting collaboration and dispute resolution in the realms of civil and commercial space should be relatively simple to define and to make function. In fact, this regime is largely in place, with ongoing maintenance required for more complex conflict resolution.

But facing off against the civil and commercial space sectors are leading and regional national militaries tasked with defending the physical or existential security of nation states. They reserve the right to engage in shooting at and destroying the space assets of their adversaries in the event of war. In the absence of war they reserve the right to impede any normative or legal development that will restrict their ability to develop the means to engage in war in space.

The logic of terrestrial military imperatives is incompatible with outer space security—that is, with the integrity and use of, and access to, outer space as a global commons, as stated aspirationally in the Outer Space Treaty. The civil and commercial use of outer space by all nations and by private space actors is fundamentally at odds with the reservation of the militaries of these same nations to use space as a shooting gallery if required.

It’s the debris, stupid
Successful retail politics sometimes is reduced to the most minute of phrases such as, “It’s the economy, stupid!” or “Where’s the beef?” for U.S. examples; in Canada we might remember “Zap you’re frozen!” or “You had an option, sir.” In space everything can be summed up as: “It’s the debris, stupid.”

Since the dawn of the space age in the 1950s, the perils of space debris have increased to the point that high-value orbits are threatened by space junk. In 2015 we are on the threshold of self-replicating debris events as multiple high-velocity impacts in outer space produce cascading debris clouds. Depending on its orbit, space debris can take a few days to be pulled into the earth’s atmosphere and burn up, or tens of thousands of years to clear from orbits.

Armed conflict in outer space
In 2007 Phil Baines, who worked in the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (Chemical, Biological, Conventional) Division of what is now Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD), made an enlightening presentation at the European Union Conference on Security in Space in Berlin that focused on the contribution of arms control to space security. Calling his talk “A chivalrous code of conduct for outer space security,” Baines walked through the inherent vulnerability of space assets due to the physics of outer space.

To date armed conflict has only occurred on the land, on the sea, and in the air. Destroyed armoured vehicles, sunk naval vessels, and downed aircraft do not necessarily pose hazards to subsequent navigation of their operational media, since you can clean up the terrestrial environment after even the most destructive conflict. The same cannot be said for outer space, due to the behaviour of space debris and the space environment.

It is not possible to adequately armour space assets for protection, due to the high relative velocities of impacts, even for small objects. Conducting war in outer space based on physical-effects weapons would create such a density of debris that it would deny one’s own military, others’ militaries, and all other space users the continued use of outer space. Multiple kinetic wars in outer space could imprison humanity on the Earth with a gauntlet of orbital shrapnel.

Baines calls any victory in a space shooting war a pyrrhic victory if it renders space unusable for current and future generations. You could also call it space-icide, the killing of the domain.

As an aside, we should not be surprised that large-power militaries contemplate and are prepared to engage in this conduct, since these are the same militaries that contemplate and are prepared to engage in nuclear weapons exchanges that, even in a limited form, would likely end the human project and effectively destroy Earth’s biosphere, ending non-human life as we know it as well.

The chivalrous code of conduct
Baines accepts that the dependence of large-power militaries on space assets for a variety of warfighting capabilities makes space assets obvious and necessary targets. The trick is to attack military space assets without rendering space inaccessible or unusable. He proposed a chivalrous code of conduct for outer space security that essentially asks all capable militaries to voluntarily foreswear making space a shooting gallery and instead focus on:

  1. Attacking the terrestrial links of space assets. All satellites must be launched and commanded from the Earth. All information collected or communicated by satellites is exploited on the Earth. As a result, warfighting can target launch and command facilities, as well as end-user terminals using physical-effects weapons from land-, sea-, and air-based platforms.
  2. Using only temporary, reversible, and localized effects on space assets. All satellites depend on critical electromagnetic links and are connected to information networks. Satellite links or information flows can be disrupted using electronic or information warfare means that do not physically destroy the on-orbit satellite. These means of attack are temporary, reversible, and localized and do not cause space debris.

In addition to these offensive war-making strategies, militaries could consider defensive means that would make kinetic attacks less successful and therefore less likely to be attempted. To make military space assets less vulnerable to successful kinetic or electronic attacks you can deploy constellations of small satellites, because a network of dispersed targets is more difficult to destroy. Also, by being able to respond rapidly by re-launching replacements for destroyed satellites, or hardening them against nuclear weapons effects, you can discourage opponents from attacking in the first place.

Baines’s chivalrous code of conduct for space security is, in itself, an example of metaphor drag that recalls knights on horses battling according to accepted rules—with all the limitations and possibilities of gaining agreement by all relevant space powers—that would put limits on their behaviour in space to avoid catastrophic debris creation. It would require states to agree to never under any circumstance:

  1. Place in orbit around the Earth any weapon or any objects carrying weapons, or station weapons in outer space in any other manner (where “weapon” means any device, specially designed or modified, to injure or kill a person, or damage or destroy an object, by the projection or occlusion of mass or energy);
  2. Test or use any weapon against an artificial satellite (where “test” means flight test or field test in a manner observable by the national or multilateral technical means available to a Signatory State); and
  3. Test or use any artificial satellite itself as a weapon

A whole lot of trust is required for every nation capable of engaging in outer space warfare to decline from its use.

The Space Security Index
In 2003 experts concerned about the potential impact of space warfare on the civil and commercial sectors attempted to reorient outer space metaphors and analogies through creation of the Space Security Index. They were deeply concerned that the outer space metaphors and analogies being used—Wild West, Antarctic, high seas, space Pearl Harbor—were caught in the drag of terrestrial military metaphors.

The Space Security Index puts out an annual publication using a definition of space security that prioritizes the preservation of outer space as a domain or environment free of debilitating debris. The SSI reports annually on developments in space security from a definition of outer space that attempts to reorient space governance around the secure and sustainable access to, and use of, space by all and freedom from space-based threats.

The metaphors best suited to this definition of outer space governance are commons, connections, and zone of collaboration, in distinct contrast to congested, contested, and competitive.

The SSI provides civil and commercial space actors with a framework for countering military rationale for preparation or engagement in outer space warfare. The SSI provides the metaphors, the vocabulary, the data, and the public policy direction that would provide a basis for militaries to support proposals such as Baines’s chivalrous code to prevent space-icide.

Project Ploughshares has been the managing partner for the international research consortium that has produced the SSI since 2003.

This is an edited version of a presentation made at the 34th International Space Development Conference in Toronto, Ontario, May 20-24, 2015.


Spread the Word