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The Weaponization of Space and the Future of Star Wars

“Star Wars is here, and now.”

Frank A. Rose, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance with the Department of State, toured several panels and events throughout 2014 and 2015 trying to articulate the threats to outer space. During one such panel at the U.S. Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium, Rose stated:

“Space, a domain that no nation owns but on which all rely, is becoming increasingly congested from orbital debris, and contested from man-made threats – that may disrupt the space environment, upon which we all depend.”

 

Rose, and other American officials in particular, had become more concerned with outer space security following the anti-satellite weapons tests conducted by the Chinese government in 2007. In an attempt to destroy a defunct weather satellite, these tests created millions of pieces of space debris and were eventually deemed “the most prolific and severe fragmentation in the course of five decades of space operations.” The incident sparked international fear that not only was debris a real problem for assets in space from these tests, but also that anti-satellite devices (ASAT) were now a viable and accessible technology.

Since 2007 other nations, such as the United States and Russia, have successfully tested their own ASATs leading many security figures (such as former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper) to testify about the increasing insecurity of space in front of government officials. These concerns led the Obama administration in 2015 to budget an estimated $5 billion towards enhancing the U.S. military space program. The Canadian government also worked to modernize and enhance its space program since 2011, when it first appointed the Director General of Space in the Department of National Defence.

The Weaponization of space threatens its “peaceful” nature.

At the height of the Cold War in the late 1960s, the underlying principle that outer space was meant to be used only for peaceful purposes emerged. However, this notion has eroded in recent years thanks to the progressive dual-use of space technology for both the military and civilians, the testing of ground-based anti-satellite weapons, as well as the increasing risk of weaponization in space.

Despite the ‘peaceful purposes’ principle enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and other international space agreements, it’s difficult to deny that a relationship between the military and outer space has existed for decades. Many of the space technologies we use today, such as GPS and satellite phone communications, were first developed by the military and then adapted for civilian use. However, the “militarization” of space differs greatly from the “weaponization” in space, which many field experts argue is occurring today.

In my recent interview with Dr. Cassandra Steer – Arsenault Fellow at the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law – she emphasized that in order for states to battle adversaries they need to take out “their eyes and ears,” which now means attacking their space technologies. Not only ground installations, but also satellites orbiting space with weapons such as ASATs.

The firm Stratfor stated in a 2016 report, “…over the last decade (space) has become an area of intense competition for the world’s most capable militaries. And as these militaries develop and refine the associated technologies, ASAT capability will become cheaper and more accessible to smaller militaries.” The 2007 Chinese tests and the increasing threat of space debris in general however, have proven that exploding satellites in space essentially threatens every states’ interests, and thus their development can be seen more-or-less as deterrents.

 What does the future hold?

 In 2015, the risk-firm Stratfor released a forecast regarding outer space, noting three major developments in the years to come:

  1. The reliance on space-based systems, such as satellites, and the deterioration of existing regulations make the militarization of space inevitable.
  2. The U.S. reliance on electronic networking for military and intelligence operations a key vulnerability that countries such as China could exploit.
  3. Competition for resources in the solar system will inevitably lead to conflict and military posturing.

Stratfor continued to forecast, “Regulation and enforcement is not clear, but the trend is. As militaries around the globe expand their capabilities, so will they increase their reliance on space-based systems. Thus space will become increasingly militarized.”

Although ASATs today are primarily a deterrent, it is apparent that states such as the United States and China, are developing covert technologies in space necessary to defend against ASAT attacks, as well as other potential attacks in space. It is these covert technologies, whose purpose and capabilities are unclear – such as the American top-secret X37B space plane – which gravely threaten outer space security because they operate outside of the international regime. These covert technologies will continue to erode the decades of agreements, and “trust” built between states regarding this realm since the Cold War.

Although Rose repeated throughout 2014 and 2015 that “the United States does not want a conflict in outer space,” he also said “we will defend our space assets if attacked.” Military experts have begun calling the threat in this realm a “space Pearl Harbor” because it is largely an undefended target, but one that could break the back of whatever international stability is left in outer space, and initiate catastrophic conflict.

“Space is already being used in conflicts on earth,” Dr. Steer reiterated during our interview, “Ultimately, the next level of Star Wars – the more ‘futurist’ movie-like version of conflict in space – may not be very far off.”

For this very reason an important project is underway, with experts from around the world, to develop a Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Activities on Outer Space (MILAMOS). The hope is that this manual would help clarify the rules limiting military uses of space and future potential conflict.

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Victoria Heath
Victoria is the Content Coordinator for Entrepreneurship Programs at MaRS Discovery District. She holds a Master of Global Affairs degree from the University of Toronto, as well as a BA Honors degree from Virginia Tech in Political Science and History. Her primary focus of research is the Middle East - predominantly the Gulf region - which includes examining the intersections of media, business, security, and human rights from a gendered lens. She previously worked as the Publications Editor for the Mackenzie Institute.