Defense & Security Diplomacy & International Relations Science

America Should Prepare for a Space War

A war in outer space sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel, but its prospects are becoming increasingly real.

A war in outer space sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel, but its prospects are becoming increasingly real. America’s rivals, including Russia and China, have continued to expand their infrastructure of potentially offensive space weapons; meanwhile, more countries are launching technology into space. Attacks on space technology can result in interruptions in military communication and the inability of a country’s citizens to carry out their daily activities. Preparing for war will therefore enable America to have strategies of deterrence against potential rivals, cement its position as a superpower, and remain competitive when searching for new space resources. To remain a formidable force in space, America needs to strengthen its investment in space, build up its defense infrastructure, and train its military to intercept threats quickly.  

Space technology has grown more crucial for numerous countries. At the time of the Cold War, only the United States and the Soviet Union had traversed space, but that number has quickly expanded. As of April 2020, there are more than 2,500 operational satellites from various countries orbiting the earth providing internet access, GPS signals, weather information, and more. These functions are important for undergoing daily activities such as business trading or making agricultural decisions. 

Satellites also serve a military purpose. During the First Gulf War in 1991, the United States used GPS and satellite technology to navigate and communicate with their troops more effectively, even in ‘windswept desert battlefields’. America’s military strategy during the 2001 Afghanistan and Iraqi invasion was partially driven by space infrastructure, such as satellite-guided bombs. During wartime, the destruction of this technology may prevent intelligence agencies from receiving and transmitting important information regarding enemy movements, and military communications regarding decisive actions can become interrupted. A missile attack on satellites, for example, can result in technological blackouts within entire small nations. The importance of space technology on everyday life and military strategies makes it all the more necessary for America to keep its infrastructure intact. 

“We are now approaching a point where ‘Star Wars’ is not just a movie,” Steve Isakowitz, CEO of the Aerospace Corp, commented to Politico. “Supremacy in space has enabled us to have the world’s greatest war-fighting capability. More and more every day, literally, we become more dependent on it. And our adversaries know that.”

Despite this, America’s investment in space has been on the decline and may render it more vulnerable to its rivals. In 2011, the government reduced its funding of NASA’s space programs to only 0.5% of the federal budget. On several occasions over the past decade, the United States’ astronauts haven’t been able to travel to space on their own and would have to ride in the Soyuz capsule manned by the Russians. In comparison, China now has the second-highest number of satellites in orbit and has also developed plenty of space weaponry which can, in turn, threaten America’s space infrastructure. Pentagon’s latest report highlights how China has continued developing weapons such as anti-satellite missiles, space robots, ground-based lasers, and more. China’s recent development of its own GPS has also heightened concerns that the country can ‘disable the US satellite navigation system’ to gain an edge during a conflict. Russia and China are ‘years ahead’ when it comes to the ability to destroy satellites that countries depend on. 

“China and Russia have weaponized (space),” Dr. Mark T. Esper, former secretary of defense, tweeted. China created the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force in 2015, both of which organize the country’s space force. While the countries have not mentioned explicitly that these weapons will be used against others, that they exist at all is a matter of concern. America needs to prepare for the possibility that the weapons may be used against the country or its allies – or that they can act as political leverage. 

Preparing for a space war by building up America’s defensive and offensive capabilities can therefore act as a deterrence and prevent any escalation of conflict in the first place. The knowledge that the U.S. can retaliate against any space attack on the country or its allies will ensure that U.S. rivals will think twice before causing provocations. In this way, the United States will be able to maintain its dominance in space and can continue to facilitate global order. 

Another reason that the United States can stand to gain when scaling up its space infrastructure is that it will enhance the country’s ability to remain competitive in a fight for space resources. Telecommunications, transport, energy, manufacturing, and agriculture are some of the sectors that can benefit from space. Weather forecasts are possible due to satellites, and these will in turn inform agricultural decisions. Cultivating and mining resources found in space is also a possibility for the future. For instance, the moon has an abundance of helium-3, which can potentially provide ‘safer nuclear energy’, and asteroids contain precious metals that can be used for ‘in-space manufacturing’. By developing its space technology, the United States can ensure that it will have access to resources that can contribute to the competitiveness of its economy.

American presidents have reacted to the space threat differently. Former President Obama’s response was to fund private companies, such as SpaceX, and provide them with contracts to increase their investment in space. This resulted in 7.2 billion USD of federal investment channeled to 67 technology companies, some of which have been able to shuttle astronauts to space themselves. Former President Trump launched a space force, a branch that now commits solely to responding to threats stemming from space. This space force, Dr. Mark T Esper declared, would ‘protect and defend American assets and interests in space’. Current President Biden has expressed his ‘full support’ for this program while also showing interest in continuing partnerships with privately-owned space companies to achieve the goal of building up infrastructure. While these strategies may bolster America’s ability to respond to threats, federal investment still needs to increase in order to maintain these programs in the long run.

Would attempting to militarize America’s space campaign jeopardize the current state of international cooperation in space? Some may argue that America’s attempt to militarize its space program would accelerate the potential for war. Strengthening its defenses could potentially result in Russia and China having greater justifications to expand their space weaponry. However, while increasing investment in space infrastructure may cause unease, not doing so will leave America a vulnerable superpower.

Another counter-argument to America’s need to prepare for war is the existence of space treaties. The overarching narrative is that there needs to be international space cooperation, set in stone by The Artemis Accords declaration of the need for a safe environment for ‘all of humanity to enjoy’. The main premise here is that coexistence is the most beneficial position for everyone involved and that this will enable all countries to continue enjoying the benefits of their space technology. This may not always spell out in reality. The existing space treaties are outdated (the Moon Agreement, as the most recent one, was adopted in 1984) and none of them has included private companies in the agreements. International treaties also do not have enough power to rein in countries from building space weapons. This is especially true when countries like China, Russia, and North Korea do not have the pressure of setting an example to their allies or adhering to space traditions, whereas the United States has always positioned itself as a leader who will maintain peace and stability. This results in an easier pathway for U.S. rivals to bear arms.

All in all, the United States is falling behind its rivals in today’s space race, and this may spell out potential disaster. The country is leaving itself vulnerable to attacks on its space technology that can interrupt economic activities, military communications, and the operation of weapons. Taking the steps to prepare for war will allow the United States to deter attempts by rivals to destroy its infrastructure, in order to remain competitive against other great powers, and also to have an economic edge in a possible fight for space resources. 

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By Jennifer Chance

Jennifer Chance is a Senior Editor at Journal on World Affairs at UCLA and is currently studying Economics and Politics & International Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has a passion for journalism within the context of human rights and international affairs.

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