A Space Crisis Like Nothing We’ve Ever Seen

The Trump Administration notched a rhetorical win at the end of July. The US Space Force announced that weeks earlier a Russian satellite had fired a projectile across the atmosphere. Senior officials declared that it vindicated their claims Russia and China “turned space into a warfighting domain” and added heft to the argument that America “must overmatch our strategic competitors” by spending large.

The echoes of Cold War nuclear rivalry were hard to ignore. But while the test marks a new era of more overt space weaponization, experts warn the Cold War analogy, with its action-reaction dynamic, is the wrong way to understand the emerging crisis and is leading US officials astray just as they must act most intelligently.

The crucial difference is that America’s space competitors lack the reactive quality which dominated the Cold War nuclear arms race. At that point, a focus on reacting to the advances of one’s rival drove the construction of more than 30,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. This reactivity is less significant in space weaponization. Gregory Kulacki, from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, explained that, “The one thing it’s important to keep in mind about China’s approach to space policy is that it’s not reactive. It’s proactive… they have a clear vision of where they’re going.”

That proactive vision is driven by the uncomfortable fact that militaries around the world are singularly dependent on satellites to function, but lack ways to protect them. According to Laura Grego, also at the UCS’ Global Security Program, “There is no way for the US to be a global force without [satellites]. The problem is they’re incredibly valuable but also very vulnerable. You have this tension that something you rely on is difficult to defend.”

Given the deep vulnerability of space infrastructure, and the proactive vision of militarized space which both China and Russia have, the US is not going to be able to deter further space weaponry development through technological “overmatch.”

Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy academic at the University of Leicester, echoed the sentiment. Space powers “have more reasons to go after anti-satellite technology because it’s a more target-rich environment for them. [They] really have no interest in developing anti-satellite capacity in the absence of having so many targets. If you build a weapon and then I build a weapon, and so on, there’s no point building those weapons if there’s not enough to shoot. Now all those sides have stuff to shoot.”

Recognizing that vulnerability and opportunity, China and Russia have been pursuing anti-satellite technologies since the Cold War. According to Bowen, “the emergence of a lot of their military space technology is the fruits of decades of investment. China has been investing in high technology space sector for civilian and military purposes since the mid-80s.”

Not only are the major space powers more proactive in their quest for space-weapon capability, but they are less able to even identify a precise threat to react to. Almost all space-based infrastructure has multiple uses, both civilian and military. Bowen pointed to infrared sensors, which can be used to “detect missile launches, but they can also detect forest fires and other heat-emitters.” As a result, “trying to determine one overarching motive for space investments is difficult. It’s easier for anti-satellite systems, because they’re designed for pretty much one purpose, but other space technology is useful in so many other ways. There’s always an overriding motive to build these systems despite the acute crisis of the day.” Accordingly, per Bowen, “the [nuclear arms race] analogy would disguise more than it reveals… military space is so ubiquitous and such a massive effort that it’s difficult to pin it down to an action-reaction dynamic.”

This has profound implications for the strategic approach which space policy analysts at the Pentagon ought to be taking. Given the deep vulnerability of space infrastructure, and the proactive vision of militarized space which both China and Russia have, the US is not going to be able to deter further space weaponry development through technological “overmatch.”

Instead it requires genuine diplomatic engagement of a sort we haven’t yet seen. “You’ll frequently hear about Russia and China testing anti-satellite weapons and capability, and always neglecting the context that the US has had this capability for decades,” observed Grego. “Not only that, but it hasn’t been willing to discuss limits on them… I can’t predict what the outcome of a robust arms-control negotiation would look like, but we haven’t even tried. Russia and China have advanced this treaty that they think is really good. The US has said, we’re not interested. But they’ve never said, this is what we’d like to see.”

Given its differences with the Cold War, it is difficult to predict how this modern space crisis will develop. But in the context of proactive vision, the inability to assess the behavior of adversaries, and the catastrophic potential of these technologies, the pursuit of diplomatic resolution is more urgent than ever.

Pete McKenzie (@PeterTMcKenzie) is a freelance journalist based in Wellington, New Zealand. He has written for a number of international (including The Guardian and Defense One) and domestic outlets, where he often writes about proliferation, defense and security issues. He co-hosts ‘The Un-Diplomatic Podcast’ with Dr. Van Jackson.