July 25, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
The Air Force Space Command recently released its vision for fighting wars in space. This new approach, dubbed the “Space Enterprise Vision,” calls for increased resilience and enhanced systems. It also calls for the development of “counterspace” and offensive weapons, a more worrying prospect.
Space is no longer the exclusive domain of great power militaries. The private space industry has finally taken off. The American and global economy depend more on satellites than ever before. That’s why weapons in space could do real damage the economy. Use of such weapons would produce debris that could render entire sections of the space environment unusable. Without deeper coordination between the U.S. government and private firms space, the space economy could be damaged by military-focused policies with wide-reaching ramifications.
The growth of the space economy is an incredible success story. New companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Orbital ATK are revolutionizing space launch services. Last year, the Space Foundation reported that the space economy grew 9% to $330 billion in 2014. Global navigation systems drove an 18% growth in revenue for service providers, and more than 3 billion mobile devices worldwide depend on information provided by satellites. Air travel, maritime transit, rapid communications, and even remote aid workers rely on access to space assets. The smooth operation of the Internet itself depends on extremely precise orbiting atomic clocks. A war in space could bring this entire economic infrastructure down, and it’s a growing risk.
U.S. military power projection and deterrence relies on satellites for reconnaissance, communication, and coordination. As such, it takes threats to those systems very seriously. Military tensions in outer space have become an increasingly stark. American use of satellites for military operations and intelligence gathering has given rival powers a strategic vulnerability to exploit. Russia and China have openly discussed targeting U.S. satellites in hypothetical conflicts. Consequently the Department of Defense (DOD) has been working on strengthening its capabilities in space and thinking about how to actively manage a conflict there.
It is good that the U.S. military is paying more attention to the risks it faces in space, but its tunnel-vision is concerning. The Space Enterprise Vision seems aimed at developing military supremacy in space, but fails to take into account the secondary effects of conflicts in space. The use of weapons in space could directly or indirectly damage or destroy civilian or neutral satellites. The use of cyber attacks to disable enemy satellites could lead to escalation. A rival power might find it easier to counter American military action, either in space or on Earth, by degrading non-military U.S. space assets. The United States’ response would involve complex decisions about attribution, publicity, and estimated counter-responses. If the United States does respond, a military objective might be met, but important private space systems could be damaged or destroyed.
Even as the military develops its policies, other international risks are increasing. Theresa Hitchens, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, argues that the state of diplomacy over space is floundering. This failure is largely because major players fail to understand each others’ competing concerns. This lack of understanding might cause “crisis escalation.” The United States government doesn’t even agree with itself. For example, there is internal disagreement over whether a cyber attack on a U.S. satellite should be considered an act of war.
The United States government should not just focus on the military dynamic of outer space. Military policy about outer space poses wider questions for the American—and global—economy. If policy is too vague, the willingness of private actors to work in outer space could be undermined. This would not only hurt economic growth, but would also disrupt private actors’ ability to provide vital services to the U.S. government. There are indirect effects as well. An industry so intertwined with the American economy and its technological edge is an incredibly important national security concern in itself. America’s economy drives its influence abroad, as well as its ability to fund its national security needs. If that wider economy is threatened, the United States’ security is threatened by extension.
On the commercial side, businesses that rely on satellites—or are working to set up launch, orbit, and exploration capabilities—should pay closer attention to developments in the U.S. military’s space policy initiatives. As important stakeholders in peace and stability in space, their voices need to be heard. Military conflict in outer space will affect them as much as it does national security. Without an ear to the ground, space entrepreneurs may find their dreams of the sky dashed by growing military posturing in space.
Joshua Hampson is a research associate at the Niskanen Center.