Protecting humans on Earth from war in space

Jessica West Featured, Space Security

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 4 Winter 2020

More states are preparing for war in outer space. The result could be accelerated, intensified conflict; environmental destruction; and nuclear winter. Even if we avoid the ultimate catastrophe, the consequences of war in space are serious. The destruction of space systems would harm every human on Earth. We must start working to protect civilians on Earth from such a fate.

Our reliance on space systems

A space system is an assembly of one or more satellites and a ground station that uses communications links to collect and exchange data. There are now more than 3,000 satellites in orbit, with the number growing almost every week.

These systems form a meta-capability that enables almost all essential services on Earth. Consider cell phone connectivity, air traffic control, disaster warnings, agricultural production, electronic banking, shipping, power grids. The Internet.

But most systems that support civilian functions are multiuse and also enable warfighting capabilities—on Earth and in space. Some states operate only a few satellites, which must meet military, government, and civilian needs. Commercial satellite operators often sell their services to a variety of customers, including militaries. And some military satellites are essential to civilian life.

The United States Global Positioning System (GPS)—one of several global satellite navigation systems—is a case in point. GPS is the central nervous system of the U.S. military. It provides precision timing, navigation, and targeting capabilities to military units and weapons systems. But GPS also communicates with individual wayfinding and fitness apps, and supports global travel, financial systems, civil communications, and power grids.
Civilian GPS signals are already a target of hostile forces, even during peacetime. For example, Russia has been accused of deliberately interfering with GPS signals in Finland and Norway, threatening the safety of passengers and crew on local airlines. Such interference, while targeted and temporary, is still dangerous. A greater use of force against critical military systems could be devastating.

A crowded battlefield

The outer-space environment challenges any attempt to target only military targets. The portions nearest to Earth are crowded with military, civilian, and commercial satellites. There is no separate military zone.

Outer space is fragile and unprotected. Anything that is sent into space stays there. And when those objects break apart, the clouds of bits of debris that they create also stay there. These bits can then collide with other objects in space, creating a cascade of damage that not only harms other satellites, but makes surrounding orbits unusable.

While accidental collisions can and have occurred, the intentional destruction of objects is a key source of contamination. China’s anti-
satellite test in 2008 created the largest debris field to date. And all the pieces are still up there in space.

The benefits of space under threat

A conflict in outer space would almost certainly disable essential civilian services that rely on satellites.

Earth observation satellites monitor and track weather patterns. Their ability to detect wildfires and monitor hurricanes and cyclones makes them indispensable for disaster early warning. They are also essential for disaster response. This need is recognized by the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, which provides satellite data to help manage disasters.

Satellite-enabled communications meet the daily needs of billions of users on Earth and are even more critical during a disaster, when other ways of communicating are lost. Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals such as GPS are critical in establishing the precise location of those in need. The Crisis Connectivity Charter is designed to make satellite-based communications more readily available during disasters to those providing humanitarian aid and to affected communities.

Project Ploughshares is currently leading a project to advance the development of norms in space.

As well, the command and control of nuclear weapons are tied to military assets in space. Damaging those assets could trigger an accidental nuclear strike or provoke a deliberate one.

Pursuing arms control in space

Arms control in outer space is a contentious international topic. Russia and China fear that the United States will develop space-based missile defences that might strike at Earth. They want a space weapons ban—although it is not clear what constitutes a weapon.

Many Western states fear that initiatives that either ban or pledge no-first-use of space weapons are open to abuse. And they don’t trust Russia, which they believe already possesses a weapons capability in space that is directed at other satellites.

Meanwhile, a number of states are developing Earth-based anti-satellite weapons.

In response to all of this, the United Kingdom is championing a new initiative to reduce threats to space and the risk of armed conflict in space, by focusing on norms of responsible behaviour.

With no measures gaining consensus, civilians remain vulnerable.

A protective mesh

With no major agreement in sight, the international community, including civil society, must prepare to protect civilians through a combination of laws, norms, and practical measures.

Efforts are under way to develop appropriate legal manuals. Notable are the McGill Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) and the Woomera Manual on the international law of military space operations.

Project Ploughshares is currently leading a project to advance the development of norms in space, working with experts from around the world to identify existing safety and sustainability measures that can be used to inform security practices and reduce the risk of escalating conflict. Included for consideration are the civilian dimensions of conflict in space.

Going forward, the international community must begin work to restrict military activities that inflict indiscriminate harm both on Earth and in space, such as the intentional creation of space debris. We must develop protections for critical civilian infrastructure. And because we know that protection so often fails, we must also think about how to make our ability to use outer space more resilient.

To learn more, visit our updated Space Security Index website. Detailed accounts on outer space at this year’s United Nations First Committee meeting by Jessica West are available in Reaching Critical Will’s First Committee Monitor.

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