Militaries have viewed space as a potential asset since the U.S. and the Soviet Union first began the space race. But as more countries send their technology into Earth’s orbit, the proliferation of aerospace capabilities yields a new crop of security risks.
“It is absolutely inevitable that we will see conflict move into space,” space war expert Michael Schmitt told the Guardian on Sunday. Schmitt, a professor of public international law at the University of Exeter, is part of an international consortium of law, military, and space experts who have developed the Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations, a legal framework to deal with space conflict.
Space combat is not just risky for the countries that are directly involved. If a combatant force were to blow up an enemy satellite, debris from the violence could easily collide with other satellites or make orbits unnavigable, limiting everyone’s access to space. According to NASA, space debris creates serious risks but is often too difficult to track. The modern world relies so much on these satellites already that the onslaught of space debris puts everyone’s way of life at risk, in an extremely randomized fashion.
“There is a rule in humanitarian law that says that when conducting a military operation you must choose the method that produces the least collateral damage,” Schmitt said. “So blowing up satellites must be operations of last resort – at least I hope so.”
In February, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein spoke at the Air Force Association’s 34th annual Air Warfare Symposium and Technology Exposition in Orlando, Florida, where he asked that the Pentagon do more to ramp up space-ready security forces.
“I believe we’re going to be fighting from space in a matter of years,” Goldfein said. “And we are the service that must lead joint warfighting in this new contested domain. This is what the nation demands.” U.S. President Donald Trump has been vocal about military involvement in aerospace technology, most of which already falls under the responsibility of the Air Force. Goldfein stated that his branch of the military handles 90 percent of the country’s space operations but wants more funding.
Meanwhile, military involvement in the space race is thought to be well underway outside of the U.S. as well. In 2007, China successfully launched a missile to destroy one of its own satellites, creating an estimated 150,000 pieces of space debris. And in March, Defense Intelligence Agency director Lieutenant General Robert P. Ashley Jr. testified before the U.S. Senate and said that Russia and China were developing weapons for use in a space war.
With militaries rushing to prepare for space battles, international policy experts now must rush to clarify the law. Without regulation of how space combat is prevented, how attacks are engaged, or how repair efforts in the aftermath are supported, space could start to look like the Wild West.