By Luke Mandel; Photo by the Department of Defense
Arms control presents a challenge here on Earth, but that challenge will be insurmountable in space. Heather Williams suggests that nations ultimately pursue arms control measures only when it is in their interests. Following this assumption, states may be able to 1 agree on prohibitions or reductions in weapons that are highly destructive towards civilian populations and are not effective weapons of war. This applies to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Cluster munitions and landmines also have similar effects on civilian populations, which is why many states agree to the principle that such weapons should either not exist or be scaled back. However, these latter two weapons can be effective in war and may resemble the approach taken to the proliferation of new weapons in space.
Chemical weapons inflict severe harm on a localized area, but in modern warfare are not ideal for achieving large-scale strategic objectives. Biological weapons run the risk of harming one’s own forces or population, and are also non-discriminate between civilian and military targets. Both types of weapons draw the ire of the international community, resulting in strategic incentives to refrain from their development or use. Nuclear weapons have devastating effects on any nearby civilian populations. These doomsday weapons serve as a deterrent rather than a useful weapon of war given the risk of mutually-assured destruction. While comprehensive disarmament has proven difficult, certain regulations on their proliferation have been successful. As long as a nuclear-armed nation can still mount an effective deterrence, reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles is possible.
Unfortunately, weapons like cluster munitions and landmines can inflict significant harm on civilian populations, but are much more effective in conflict. Cluster munitions can be effective against military as well as civilian targets, but unlike nuclear weapons, do not come with the drawback of mutually-assured destruction. Land mines, or improvised explosive devices, were used to great effect against the United States in Afghanistan. While these weapons are often discussed as targets of arms control, even countries that agree to the notion in principle have a strong incentive to cheat because of their effectiveness in conflict.
In space, the considerations on Earth do not apply. Short of astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts, there are no people in space yet. The main consideration at the moment are satellites. Satellites are vital to ground-based civilian and military operations alike, and yet are left completely defenseless. The United States, China, and Russia have all demonstrated the capability to shoot down satellites using ground-based missiles. Unfortunately such tests have created large debris fields which pose a risk to other satellites in orbit, and especially the International Space Station. Additionally, there is a fear that such a debris field could cause a cascade reaction which destroys more and more satellites until space becomes inaccessible. This would have dire consequences for modern society, eliminating technologies such as GPS, satellite communications, and satellite imaging. It would also make research of space and other celestial bodies difficult, if not impossible.
These seem like risks that countries would want to avoid at the cost of their military capabilities. However, the incentive to cheat is strong in any potential arms control treaty regarding targeting of satellites. Imagine a scenario where the United States and China were in a conventional war. China knows that US forces rely heavily on GPS and satellite imagery for operations such as troop movement and missile targeting. This is a major advantage for the US, and it can be taken away by a limited number of strikes against defenseless satellites, without which the US ability to operate in the Pacific theater will be significantly eroded. For China, the choice seems clear. It seems that even if countries agree to refrain from shooting satellites down, they will continue to maintain the capability to do so.
There are other applications for the militarization of space. A constellation of orbital weapons platforms, such as the proposal for the Rods of God, would have the capability to strike anywhere on Earth in the fraction of the time it would take an ICBM. Early warning systems and second strike capabilities may become obsolete. This seems like an especially appealing option for the United States. While conventional ground, air, and naval forces may still play a
role, the US would be able to threaten a country at any time with very little cost, as opposed to moving a carrier strike group off their coast. Costly military bases and even nuclear weapons might become obsolete as nations become able to reign down mass-destruction at any moment. The speed that space offers extends to troop and equipment movements as well. With the development of a fully-reusable space transport system like SpaceX’s starship, troops and equipment could be moved anywhere on Earth in under an hour. It may even be strategic to leave military equipment in orbit to be landed at a moment’s notice.
There is currently arms control when it comes to putting weapons in space with the 1967 Outer space Treaty, but this will ultimately fail. The treaty bans the placement of nuclear or any other kind of weapons of mass destruction in space, but it has not had a true test yet because the capabilities for such orbital weapons have not yet been created or simply not pursued. The potential cost savings, combined with the strategic benefits of placing weapons in orbit will prove to be in the interests of any nation that has the capabilities to do so. Once one power has such capabilities, every other power will feel vulnerable and an arms race will ensue. Even if a new attempt at arms control arises, the military benefits such systems yield will dwarf the potential costs to civilians. Space-based weapons of the future may also be more accurate, resulting in more targeted attacks that protect civilians.
Looking even further into the future, arms control will fail on other celestial bodies. Once mining the moon and asteroids becomes feasible, nations and corporations alike will feel the need to protect their investments, leading to the proliferation of weapons in space. The Outer Space Treaty will simply not be relevant when there is so much money on the line. Additionally, the logic that applies to anti-satellite weapons or weapons in orbit may not apply here. The primary purpose of weaponizing in orbit is to control the situation on the ground. Arms control may actually be easier in orbit than it will be on other celestial bodies because actors will have less to lose and much more to gain than they do here on Earth.
The technologies needed to weaponize space are either already here or on the verge of being possible. There will undoubtedly be renewed efforts to enforce arms control, but nations will not see it in their interests to comply with such measures. Look no further than the newly christened Space Force to see that powerful actors see space as the next frontier of war, and that they intend to weaponize it.