Why the chances of conflict in outer space are going up

Jessica West Featured, Ploughshares Monitor, Space Security

U.S. President Trump’s desire to create a Space Force—a new military branch focused solely on outer space operations—has drawn public attention to the prospects of warfare in a domain that has been used only for peaceful and passive purposes. Despite the provocative name, the proposed mission would in many ways be mundane: the command and control of spacecraft rather than space troops. Nonetheless, it is indicative of an unprecedented emphasis on warfighting in space, described by Vice-President Pence as a response to “rising security threats our nation faces in space today and into the future.” In other words, the proposed Space Force is an expiring canary that signals an increasingly dangerous and antagonistic coal mine in outer space.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 4 Winter 2018 by Jessica West

The growing risk of military confrontation in space is detailed in the latest Space Security Index 2018 (SSI 2018) report published by Project Ploughshares, in cooperation with international civil-society and academic partners. At the official release of the report at the United Nations in October, Theresa Hitchens, of the Center for International & Security Studies at the University of Maryland and a long-time advisor to the SSI, depicted an emerging arms race in the wake of growing geopolitical tensions, pursuit of dual-use technology for weapons purposes, and the lack of serious dialogue among the United States, Russia, and China. The result could be a new era of warfare that imperils the collective benefits to humanity that outer space now provides.

A weapons revival

Spacecraft are essential for warfighting and other national security capabilities on Earth, but are themselves vulnerable and difficult to protect, making them an appealing target. This is not new. Jamming and interference with satellite signals are rampant. But despite a number of early, dubious efforts to develop antisatellite weapons (ASATs) or to base weapons in space, particularly during the Cold War, interference with spacecraft has consistently stopped short of direct, physical harm. Today, however, there is a clear revival of capabilities to harm satellites.

The most common development is to modify defensive antiballistic missile (ABM) systems, which are intended to detect, tract, and home in on passing missiles, to target satellites in outer space. China conducted a dramatic demonstration in 2007, intercepting one of its own spacecraft and creating a dangerous cloud of debris. The United States followed suit in 2008, albeit with greater transparency and safety measures in place, in what was described as a one-time modification to its Aegis missile defence system.

Although testing of such systems has not been as spectacular since then, and therefore not as public, it continues. China has since used this same system to conduct additional, experimental missile launches into space, although without intercepting targets. China is also believed to have demonstrated the capabilities of two additional missile launch systems, one of which fired into the high orbits of the most sensitive communications and early-warning satellites in 2013. The United States has pressed forward with improvements to its exoatmospheric kill-vehicles, including an upgraded Standard Missile 3 Block 2A, which, if modified again for use against space objects, would have better targeting and higher altitude capabilities.

Russia, too, is developing a variety of missile systems capable of threatening objects in outer space. In recent years, it has demonstrated the next-generation A-235 ABM system that defends Moscow and conducted multiple flight tests of the new Nudol ground-launched, direct-ascent intercept system that is thought to be focused on ASAT missions. Russian military officials have also suggested that an ASAT missile has been designed for use on the new supersonic MiG-31 BM interceptor aircraft, possibly reviving a Soviet-era ASAT program.

This revival of dedicated ASAT capabilities is ominous. So, too, is the growing ability to harm satellites from outer space. Mounting tensions arise from the mysterious and potentially dangerous movements in orbit of spacecraft, including Russia’s self-described “space apparatus inspector.” Such a capability could be linked to the development of a space-based ASAT system. The United States also deploys manoeuvring satellites for space-based surveillance and inspection and has repeatedly launched its own mysterious spaceplane.

Much of this activity is ambiguously dual-use rather than inherently aggressive. To the best of our knowledge, no dedicated weapons systems have been launched into orbit. But alarm bells are ringing and accusations are rife.

More obviously aggressive is the drive to revive plans for space-based interceptors as a boost-phase component to the U.S. ABM system, as set out in the National Defense Authorization Act adopted in July 2018. The Act mandates the design of “kinetic interceptors” like the missiles already used for ABMs, and the investigation of options for the eventual use of high-powered lasers. This space-based missile defence layer would require the placement of many hundreds of interceptors in orbit. As the Union of Concerned Scientists reports, the interceptors could target a full range of spacecraft. Most significantly, such a deployment of a conventional weapons system in outer space would end a longstanding taboo and destroy the final vestige of the principle of using outer space only for peaceful purposes.

Such intensifying efforts to deploy ASAT and space-based weapons systems are reminiscent of the worst impulses of the Cold War. But there is a difference. Military escalations then gave way to diplomatic efforts to preserve outer space for peaceful uses and restrict interference with strategic spacecraft, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and self-imposed moratoriums on ASAT tests. One by one, these restraints have fallen by the wayside. In her Global Assessment in SSI 2018, Dr. Raji Rajagopalan observes that “early steps toward weaponization have been taken, and the major powers have not made any feasible and realistic efforts to curb them.” Instead, these military developments have reinforced a diplomatic standoff anchored in mutual recriminations.


The core security and disarmament bodies of the United Nations (UN) are mandated to address the lack of specific constraints on the deployment of conventional weapons and use of force in outer space. Like outer space itself, this diplomatic realm is littered with debris—in this case, the debris of failed agreements, including a draft arms control treaty by Russia and China, and proposed rules of responsible behaviour spearheaded by European states. Still, diplomacy has continued to limp along, clinging to the common goal to prevent an arms race in outer space (PAROS).

While consensus for PAROS has long been fragile, it was shattered at the meeting of the UN First Committee on International Security and Disarmament this autumn. In its place stands an assertion by the United States that outer space has been “transformed into a warfighting domain” and mutual accusations by the United States, Russia, and their allies related to various weapons programs.

This confrontation is significant. Previous hard-won modes of diplomatic cooperation have been sacrificed. For the first time since 2008, the United States and Israel voted against the resolution “Prevention of an arms race in outer space” that urges work on this topic at the Conference on Disarmament. Both states, with Cameroon and Palau, also cast negative votes on the resolution “Transparency and confidence-building measures [TCBMs] in outer space” that is linked to implementation of the basic trust-building activities that are being further developed at the UN Disarmament Commission. This resolution is in many ways an initiative of the United States, which had co-sponsored it with Russia and China since 2012.

The U.S. government claimed that these negative votes “in no way detract” from longstanding American support for voluntary TCBMs, but denounced references to previous arms control proposals. Such a declaration illustrates the hardened U.S. position against any legal constraints. On the other side, Russia declared itself the “most firm and consistent proponent of preventing an arms race in outer space”; the United States characterized such a posture a “hollow and hypocritical façade” that should not be supported by other countries.

This diplomatic standoff, operating concurrently with escalating military tensions, is hobbling other efforts at cooperation, including a new initiative led by Russia and China to identify possible measures for a legal instrument on PAROS. Although many Western states have concerns about this approach to arms control, there is nonetheless widespread participation in the process as a way to inform and expand the options under discussion, and the initiative was well endorsed in statements at the UN. Ultimately, however, 49 states, most from the West, abstained from voting on the resolution that welcomed this work, while Israel, Ukraine, and the United States opposed it. Despite strong support for TCBMs and references by EU states to a possible resurrection of a voluntary code of conduct, there is little evidence of alternative leadership and consensus-building. Instead, hostility combined with dithering and acquiescence bring into question the very goal of diplomatic work: to preserve peaceful uses and avoid the weaponization of space.

A global necessity

Space security is global security. Every facet of terrestrial security—military, humanitarian, socioeconomic, and environmental—depends on our ability to access and use services from outer space. Warfare in outer space threatens these uses and users and could pollute the environment beyond repair with space debris. Further, the geostrategic tensions and mistrust that underpin the dynamics of arms escalation can also inhibit necessary efforts to make outer space safer that involve the use of dual-use technologies, such as debris removal, satellite servicing, and asteroid mitigation. All these require regulation, transparency, and cooperation. Other activities that are best undertaken cooperatively include deep-space exploration and the search for resources.
Space has long had passive military functions. But as a domain reserved for all humanity, it must be preserved from weaponization and warfare. There is still time. What is required is inspired leadership, not from big powers intent on confrontation, but from the rest of us. Otherwise, we may soon find that outer space has been remade into a different place, far from both the ideal and the practical. Once created, that new place may be impossible to alter.

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