In his 1904 article, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” Halford John Mackinder, the founding father of geopolitics and geostrategy, argued that in the 20th century, European squabbles over who commanded the most territory would command the “heartland” and dominate the world. Today, it can be said, without question, that “who commands outer space, commands the heartland,” and the world. But dominating outer space isn’t without its challenges.
On Dec. 20, 2019, to the misplaced domestic ridicule of its critics and foreign detractors, the Trump administration created a new branch of the armed forces, the US Space Force. On Apr. 15, 2020, Russia conducted a missile system test designed to destroy satellite systems orbiting the Earth, signaling its rival governments and adversaries that the country possesses highly mobile anti-satellite capabilities. China and India carried out similar tests in 2007 and 2019, respectively, which created hazardous debris fields in space, threatening functional spacecraft and — in the event of a direct hit — rendering operational satellite systems inoperable. China and India have announced their bold ambitions of conquering space and eventually landing on the Moon. The United States, on the other hand, signaled its intentions to explore deep space and colonize the Moon while the ever enterprising civilian sector dreams up space tourism.
Since taking the “giant leap for mankind” on Jul. 20, 1969, space was demarcated as America’s new geostrategic frontier with defensive and offensive use. The US’ innovative satellite signals architecture, which originated with its pioneering foray into the extraterrestrial realm, enabled the evolution of civilian and military technologies and gave rise to modern-day cyber and communication systems, which dramatically re-defined the joint domain operations of its armed forces. However, the United States recognized that maintaining its hegemonic superiority in military and civilian activities would require continuity of operations in the cyber domain, closely tethered to an unfettered control over orbital hardware in space.
The competition for dominance in space is fierce. But there is a lot to determine, such as the capacity to deal with space competition, legal boundaries for space activities, and the impact of space exploration on world order.
However, the United States’ near-monopoly on space exploration and its technological superpower status vis-a-vis its near-peer competitors and adversaries alike may be ending soon. In March 2021, China and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding intended to enhance cooperation on an international lunar research station designed as a complex of experimental research facilities on the surface and/or in the orbit of the moon by 2026. The same month, China and France reaffirmed their commitment to working on joint space exploration. China also actively supports the space ambitions of smaller states, such as Ecuador and Ethiopia, by routinely assisting them in launching satellites into orbit. At the same time, it tests hypersonic missiles designed to evade US nuclear defenses.
In addition to bilateral agreements, several inter-governmental mechanisms have emerged to enhance technology development, pool expertise, and harmonize regulations among space actors and authorities. The multinational space alliances include the African Space Agency, the Arab Space Coordination Group, the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, the European Space Agency, and the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency. Each bloc seeks to draw its sphere of influence and stake a claim to space leadership by developing advanced research capabilities and facilitating exploration, coordination, and cooperation in outer space.
In other words, the competition for dominance in space is on — and fierce. But there is a lot to determine, such as the capacity to deal with space competition, legal boundaries for space activities, and the impact of space exploration on world order.
US’ STRATEGIC SPACE GOALS
Industrial and cyber espionage have given the Chinese state-subsidized tech companies — and by extension, the Chinese state — an edge in technological innovation. Early access to silent-running submarines, satellite technology, and stealth air power, as well as heavy investment in digital technologies (with authoritarian intent), will allow China to write the rules of engagement in new theaters of war and block or erode US chances of strategic success in future confrontations on land, sea, air, and space. National security experts contend that the cyber-infrastructure required to maintain strategic advantages over the United States, its allies, and foes will require the United States to keep an unmitigated presence and unadulterated dominance in space. The US space command has been designed and projected to serve as a supporting war command enabling an all-domain infrastructure — including cyber — offering thus new tools and system engineering for the machine-to-machine and machine-to-human architecting and decision-making.
Increasingly, security analysts and government entities are focusing their attention on the conduct of sovereign states and non-state entities in space and contiguous cyberspace. The US Cyber-Command (USCYBERCOM), under the direction of the Secretary of Defense, is the world’s first cyberspace command — and its strategic mission is directed toward ensuring continued US primacy in cyberspace.
Another indicator of the evolving focus on extraterrestrial security is the newly established US Space Force with its mission to “protect US and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force.” The Space Force’s responsibilities include developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces. Among the Space Force’s weapons of choice is a transportable space electronic warfare system that reversibly denies adversary satellite communications. The offensive nature of the mission suggests that US interests will be increasingly defended in space and that those who rule this sphere of influence will indubitably define the rules of future engagement in this untested theater of war.
Traditional forms of kinetic warfare will thus undoubtedly give way to virtual — but no less lethal — algorithmic code wars supported by advanced hardware, software, artificial intelligence, and a dense web of satellite architecture capable of withstanding adversarial attacks. Data and policy interoperability among allies will constitute a significant value-added and allow for the battlefields of the future to be more unified and more maneuverable, thus giving the United States the strategic advantage and technological edge it seeks to prevail over enemy forces. National strategy and the locus of power will shift and become increasingly tethered to the speed of technological innovation with the decision-making command and control residing not only in the heavily guarded corridors of the Department of Defense but also in the cushy corporate boardrooms of Cisco or Google.
LAGGING IN SPACE
Despite the creation of Space Force, the United States — after years of backroom consultations and congressional preparatory work — is behind rather than leading in the strategic space domain.
In 2015, China established the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, joining together their electronic warfare, network (cyber) warfare, and space warfare forces and making significant strides in the prospective weaponization of space. The same year, the Russian Aerospace Forces came into existence with a mission to monitor space objects and identify potential threats, carry out spacecraft launches, control satellite systems, and maintain military and integrated satellite systems and other assets of control for several orbital tasks. Similarly, India’s recently established Defense Space Agency was tasked with protecting Indian interests and assets in outer space and formulating a space warfare strategy. France’s Joint Space Command (established in 2019), meanwhile, seeks to define guidelines for the use of space capabilities and help shape the country’s national space policy.
The United States is aware of China’s and Russia’s interest in developing offensive capabilities in lasers, rail-guns, and microwave weapons intended to neutralize critical US satellites and command-and-control systems. The Pentagon relies on a dense web of satellite infrastructure for communication, navigation, and intelligence gathering and recognizes that threats to its space operations from North Korea and Iran are also growing incrementally.
RULES OF SPACE ENGAGEMENT
Advancements in offensive weaponry systems and their future use in a new domain will require national security experts and policymakers to create a set of response mechanisms and clear operational and legal engagement rules. This is by no means an easy task, as the legal community will have to grapple with the fundamental questions of international law and apply them to the extraterrestrial environment.
The legal controversy will focus on specifying clear guidelines that establish, among others, whether laws of war apply to the extraterrestrial realm; what constitutes an attack or a provocation in space; what lines of demarcation should separate airspace from outer space to establish jurisdiction; and finally, what is the incontrovertible evidence required within the international community of states to assert a violation of sovereign territory or infringement upon (extra)territorial interests in space.
The Outer Space Treaty, enacted in 1962, is a leading document governing the use of outer space. The treaty specifies that the exploration and use of outer space should be the province of all mankind without national appropriation by claim of sovereignty and that states bear a duty of using the outer space for peaceful activities and are therefore cautioned against placing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit as well as avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.
A NEW DOMAIN OF WARFARE?
The new world order demands that countries focus on the emerging capabilities and conflicting international interests in space, scrutinize rogue regimes and revisionist entities commanding increasing capabilities in space, and develop technologies that will redefine warfare in the 21st century. Inter-state engagement in space will also require considerable attention from international legal scholars and policymakers mindful of the need to develop legal frameworks and enforcement mechanisms to redress gaps governing state conduct in outer space.
Cyber operations for offensive purposes already occupy a significant portion of US national security priorities. Current conduct in the digital sphere in the United States is regulated by the National Defense Authorization Act, Section 1642, passed by Congress in 2019. However, analogous international rules of engagement in cyberspace and international laws governing cyber-war are yet to be written.
The maintenance of the liberal international order will require the United States to reconcile two competing ideas: space as a “war-fighting domain” and space as a place for “peaceful and scientific” exploration, as mandated by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. It’s time for governments, lawyers, and scholars to deliver the appropriate guidance.
Joanna Rozpedowski is a political scientist and international law scholar based in Washington, DC. She teaches political theory at George Mason University, Schar School of Policy and Government, and her research focuses on international human rights and humanitarian law, geopolitics, and global security.