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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Turner

Space War - Unconscionable, but needing more thought

The first priority of any Government is to protect its people and their way of life (values, ethics, customs and economic system). Whilst most thinking has focussed on Earth war, the effects in Space would be far more diffuse, devastating, and long-lasting. So, as Space is an increasingly intrinsic part of our everyday lives, adversaries have targeted it. The consequences of a war in Space are so extreme that the very act is unconscionable, but the risks are rising and so more must be done to prevent it.

Gratefully, peace in Space has been sustained through the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty protocols preventing ‘national appropriation’ and ensuring that ‘space shall be free for exploration’; but perhaps not for much longer. Recent intentional launches to prevent exploitation of key orbits, deliberate interference with sensitive satellites, conscious positioning to deny solar power gain, kinetic projectile demonstrations and deliberate destruction of satellites creating vast debris fields suggest that these protocols are being ignored or challenged. This gloomy spiral points towards an increasing contest in Space where war is now more than plausible.

Hitherto, Earth conflict has often been conducted over narrow timeframes, in 2 dimensions, in small parts of the Globe, and between armies not with the population. Putin started with this approach, but Ukraine was so resilient that his emphasis shifted to attacking its people and their water, power, food, and fuel. If this were to fail, at the risk of humiliation at home, he may look to nuclear weapons to test the West’s resolve and seek to ‘win’ at any cost, but worse would be to move the contest into orbit instead. Although the effects of a nuclear exchange are abhorrent, those from a destructive Space exchange reach further and would represent a simultaneous horizontal (geographic) and vertical escalation (new targets, weapons) of war as The Economist recently put it[1].

Doctrine suggests that Space war involves acts that impose reversible or permanent effects to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy anything in or to do with Space. The degree to which satellites serve dual-uses (military and civil functions) means that stark civil impacts would follow almost any event. Interruption of surveillance, communication or GPS satellites would disrupt financial services, basic transactions, hospital facilities, traffic lights, etc. Reversible effects can be switched on or off, last any length of time and, given the internationalised system in which we now exist, would likely affect continents, not States. More permanent damage might force the refuelling or repair of satellites if at all possible, in orbit. Some satellites may be unrecoverable, at great cost to their owners and customers, but the worst permanent effects would stem from satellite destruction. The resultant debris clouds would generate secondary collisions leading to even more debris (the Kessler effect) and disrupt Space services causing extensive damage, incalculable cost and loss of life. As we have seen in Ukraine, controlling escalation in war is hard, so any aggression that strays into Space is likely to spiral quickly into a highly destructive war with impacts at new orders of magnitude, Worldwide and probably for decades.

So, more must be done.

The UK lead at the UN Security Council on codifying Space Norms needs to be accelerated. A Space ‘Green Cross Code’ is long overdue, and its absence has legitimised nefarious activity. Without a code, there is a risk that Space governance will mimic social media where the big players codified it for themselves with others playing catch up. In Space, malign States are already doing as they wish, imposing risk to our National Interests, and will continue to do so until an event that is so devastating forces a Global rethink. Instead, we should act before irreparable damage is done and develop an orbital Geneva Convention, however patchily adopted.

We should also contemplate a stronger legal instrument to remove Space escalation from hostile playbooks. Although extremely difficult to negotiate and unlikely to be ratified by key states, codification of a UN ‘Space Warfare Treaty’, like the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the 1993 Chemical Warfare Convention, now seems apposite. This would bring greater transparency, perhaps limit malign acts and protect Space for the purposes envisaged in 1968.

In addition, and to drive this and other policies, it is now time for a supra-national body to convene ideas, lead debate, synchronise activity and enable States to set the terms; this is a pressing priority. The UK could lead in proposing to the UN General Assembly and its Security Council that an ‘International Space Organisation’, mirroring the International Civil Aviation Organisation, is created, governed by the United Nations and populated by all States to ‘…coordinate the principles and techniques, and foster the planning and development of Space activity to ensure safe and orderly growth…’.

Securing these changes would be aided by greater public understanding of what Space does for us, how we depend on it and what we would do if it was disrupted in some way. Impacts of this have been computed and monetised by the insurance industry; Governments should apply the same scrutiny. More States need to view Space as critical national infrastructure and more effort is required to help protect it. Larger States are busy, but those that cannot act independently should form Alliances and collaborate on ground segments, orbiting assets, ground-links and new capabilities through international projects like those in the ESA. Everyone can contribute to safe Space in some way, but collective action brings greater stability, and it is a clever way for all to have a (bigger) voice whilst enhancing protection.

Effective deterrence (imposition of cost and denial of benefit) requires credible capability and the political will to act, but in an era darkened by Space warfare, better tools are required. An example is better Space Situational Awareness to offer longer warnings of malign activity and provide an irrefutable snail-trail of responsibility (liability) for Space vandals. Alternatively, the 17,000 more satellites by 2030 and increasing debris means we need better tools to predict and avoid collisions. The inherent Rendezvous, Proximity Operations and Docking capabilities of In-Orbit Servicing & Manufacturing satellites could bolster deterrence and enable other defensive activities, these need to be developed too. Whatever the plans, if we are to avoid a war in Space or recover from it quickly, we must get ahead of the need, put Dual-Use at the centre of all technologies and build/launch/deploy new capabilities.

If we advance principles, protocols, partnerships, and capabilities, Space will be a safer place and our way of life on Earth will be calculably more resilient. Space may be the ultimate high ground in warfare, but it’s very conduct in orbit is unconscionable, so more must be done to prevent and help recover from it.

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