Fifty years after astronauts first walked on the Moon, space wars have gone from Hollywood fantasy to looming threat. Not content with possessing enough nuclear weapons to wipe out all life on Earth many times over, major powers are rapidly militarizing space. Given the world’s increasing reliance on space-based assets, the risks are enormous.
As with the Cold War-era space race between the US and the Soviet Union, the new global space race has an important symbolic dimension. Given the lunar landing’s role in establishing US dominance in space, the Moon is a natural starting point for many of the countries jostling for position there.
China in January became the first country to land an uncrewed robotic spacecraft on the far side of the Moon.
India — which in 2014 became the first Asian country to reach Mars, three years after China’s own failed attempt to leave Earth’s orbit — on Monday launched an uncrewed mission to the Moon’s unchartered south pole, a week after the first planned launch was called off at the last minute due to a helium fuel leak.
Japan and even smaller countries such as South Korea and Israel are also pursuing lunar missions.
However, the US will not surrender its position easily. US President Donald Trump’s administration has vowed to “return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years.”
As US Vice President Mike Pence put it: “Just as the US was the first nation to reach the Moon in the 20th century,” it will be the first “to return astronauts to the Moon in the 21st century.”
This escalating space race is not just about bragging rights. Countries are also making rapid progress on developing their military space capabilities. Some, like systems that can shoot down incoming ballistic missiles, are defensive, but others, such as anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons that can target space assets, are offensive.
The ability to take advantage of such systems, while denying them to adversaries, is becoming central to military strategies. That is why Trump directed the US Department of Defense to establish the US Space Force, an independent military branch that would undertake space-related missions and operations.
The US hopes that such a force can protect its “margin of dominance” in space, a margin which, as Patrick Shanahan said before he resigned last month as acting US secretary of defense, is “quickly shrinking” as newer powers become adept at militarizing commercial space technologies. Those powers include ones first developed as part of civilian prestige projects, such as Russia and China.
China, which established an independent space force in 2016, is aiming for global leadership in space. Both China and Russia have demonstrated offensive space capabilities in the form of “experimental” satellites that can potentially aid military operations.
According to a US Air Force report, the purpose of these countries’ orbiting offensive capabilities is to hold US space assets hostage in the event of conflict.
This highlights the tremendous vulnerability of these assets, and not just those belonging to the US. The existing space infrastructure comprises at least 1,880 satellites owned or operated by 45 countries.
These assets support a wide range of activities, including telecommunications, navigation, financial-transaction authentication, connectivity, remote sensing, and weather forecasting. From a security perspective, they facilitate intelligence, surveillance, early warning, arms-control verification, and missile guidance, for example.
There is one more key player in this intensifying space race: India. In March, the country used a ballistic-missile interceptor to destroy one of its own satellites orbiting at nearly 30,000kph, making it the fourth power — after the US, Russia and China — to shoot down an object in space.
The test employed some of the same technologies that the US used to shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile in a test conducted just a couple of days before.
Unlike China’s 2007 demonstration of its ASAT capabilities — which left more than 3,000 pieces of debris in orbit — the Indian test faced no international criticism, largely because it was intended to blunt China’s edge in space-war capabilities.
General John Hyten, head of US Strategic Command, defended India’s test, saying that Indians are “concerned about threats to their nation from space and thus feel they have to have a capability to defend themselves in space.”
This sounds a lot like the justification used to build today’s enormous nuclear arsenals, and everyone knows where that logic leads. As with nuclear deterrence, countries continue to upgrade their offensive space capabilities, until “mutually assured destruction” becomes their best hope of protecting themselves and their assets.
Before that happens, international norms and laws must be strengthened. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans space-based weapons of mass destruction, but not other types of weapons or ASAT tests.
A new treaty is needed to outlaw all use of force in space, with clearly delineated — and reliably enforced — consequences for breaches. Likewise, norms for responsible behavior in space must be established to deter ASAT weapons testing or other actions that endanger space assets.
It is easy to get caught up in the escalating strategic competition and conflict on Earth. Safeguarding, for example, freedom of maritime navigation in places such as the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea is vitally important, but guaranteeing the freedom to navigate the stars has become no less essential to global peace and security.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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