War and Peace in Orbit

The announcement that the United States Space Force may conduct a military maneuver is concerning not only for America’s rivals but also for Earth and the United States’ strategic interests.

The U.S. Space Force has announced plans to hold a military exercise in space by the end of next year in cooperation with two private companies. Although this military exercise is not the first in space, it signifies the United States’ disregard for the only law that governs human behaviour in space.

Space Age: Born from War

The Space Age was born out of the dark times of World War II. Not only were the first rockets that took us to space developed during this period, but the advancement of space exploration was also primarily driven by the Cold War and political rivalries. Many futurists and humanists hoped that the space age, although emerging from the ashes of war, would mark a new beginning for a world beyond borders and petty human conflicts, like a phoenix reborn.

This hope, extending beyond the optimism of futurists and researchers, was also voiced by politicians. On October 10, 1967, member states of the United Nations made a significant effort to realize this dream by signing a treaty known as the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” commonly referred to as the “Outer Space Treaty.” To date, 114 countries have ratified this treaty, essentially the only law governing human activities in space, and 22 countries, including Iran, have signed but not yet ratified it. Major space-faring nations like the United States, Russia, and China have ratified this treaty.

Article IV of the treaty, drafted during the Cold War and the era of nuclear weapons fears, states explicitly that the signatories commit not to place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies and that the establishment of military bases, testing of any weapons, and military maneuvers in space or on celestial bodies should be prohibited.

Changing Times and Values

Over time, as tensions on Earth have increased and as governments and private entities have expanded their presence in space, the significant actors have often treated the contents of this treaty as more of a guideline than a binding law, boldly violating its terms. Both China and Russia, signatories of the document, have conducted anti-satellite tests, and the United States has tested various Earth-to-space and orbital weapons. Different countries, all signatories and ratifiers of the treaty, have activated their military space sectors. In the U.S., DARPA, affiliated with the Pentagon, was a pioneer in developing space technologies, including global positioning structures, which were later allowed for civilian use during Bill Clinton’s presidency; however, these activities were conducted without fanfare or as part of ostensibly peaceful operations, with countries trying not to declare their military intentions in space loudly.

Then Donald Trump became President.

During his tenure, the U.S. government openly and proudly established the Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. This development did not occur in a vacuum. Before this, the U.S. Senate passed legislation recognizing the right to defend and protect (including militarily) U.S. assets and resources extracted from celestial bodies and their locations, which formally contradicts the spirit and letter of the Outer Space Treaty.

U.S. Military Maneuvers in Space

The Space Force plans to conduct a military test with two private companies to prepare for potential threats and unusual behaviour by certain satellites. In this exercise, one satellite will act as a hypothetical enemy and be launched into orbit. In contrast, a second satellite, under the command of the Space Force, will attempt to identify and possibly intercept it. Although not the first of its kind, this test will officially sanction such military tests by a treaty signatory, effectively granting moral permission for other nations to conduct similar military tests openly.

Earth at Risk from Space Defense

However, the reality of orbital mechanics does not align well with conventional defence or military actions on Earth. Any targeted satellite leaves behind debris that remains in orbit for long periods, potentially endangering hundreds of other satellites. Larger pieces might uncontrollably re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and fall onto urban areas. The cloud of debris from a destroyed satellite becomes a wave that can endanger many more satellites, with each subsequent collision exponentially increasing the amount of hazardous orbital debris. Space debris is currently one of the most significant problems in space, particularly in Earth’s near orbit.

The potential fall of debris and subsequent collisions not only endanger the lives of astronauts but can also damage many active satellites in an uncontrolled process, with a significant chance of these particles colliding with “friendly” satellites. Such a scenario in space can put the Earth and the country’s assets conducting such an attack at risk. In essence, a defence that leads to the physical destruction—or the disabling of a satellite or spacecraft—is akin to playing Russian roulette, with uncertainty about whether the shooter will be the next victim.

The Need for New Laws

The military use of space is just one issue highlighting the weaknesses in the legal structure of space. Although the laws of the 1960s provide a suitable foundation, they seriously need updating to ensure compliance and to introduce guarantees for their observance. These laws should address the military presence of nations in space and recognize and discuss issues related to private ownership and the rights of active and inactive countries in this arena. Given Earth’s plethora of international laws, we face a chaotic situation. Imagine what will happen when these players enter the risky but lawless space domain.

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