Any use of weapons in space could drastically increase the space debris environment and degrade some orbits for all users. (credit: AGI)
by Takuya Wakimoto
Developing and deploying weapons in space will ultimately hamper US national interests. President Trump’s recent endeavor to create a “space force” that would oversee the US military’s space activities does not mean that the United States will weaponize space. Rather, whether the United States will deploy weapons in space in the future or maintain outer space as a weapon-free zone is yet to be known. Nevertheless, if the US government leans towards dispatching weapons in space, this decision will only endanger existing US space systems, threaten stability in space, and demean American national prestige.
In general, “space weaponization” should be distinguished from “space militarization.” Space militarization is often used to depict the reality that space systems are utilized as a means to achieve military objectives. These systems have been used mainly for strategic planning, such as information garnered from reconnaissance, surveillance, and telecommunication satellites. But today, in addition to assisting military strategic planning, it also contributes towards real-time combat as well. Space weaponization, by contrast, often refers to more aggressive and offensive use of space systems for military purposes (i.e., force application): space-based weapons will be used to destroy targets either in orbit or on the ground.
So why does the United States need to think about this?
Debates on whether or not the United States should weaponize space often focus on the fact that the United States is the most space-dependent country, leveraging space systems to achieve domestic, economic, diplomatic, and national security objectives. For example, from a military standpoint, space systems became an indispensable tool for enhancing the power of terrestrial US military operations, especially since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Yet this level of dependency is not a primary concern. The fundamental problem is the fact that space assets are vulnerable to both kinetic and non-kinetic attacks. Thus, the United States ought to protect these fragile but expensive assets from external threats. Accordingly, possessing a capability to destroy an adversary’s spacecraft or deter its intent in space always becomes part of the strategic planning agenda.
The question, then, is will space-based weapons protect US space assets? They will not. Instead, they would put US space assets at greater risk due to increased debris.
What will happen if a US space-based weapon attacked an adversary’s satellite? In the short run, the US military will achieve its objectives. However, in the long run, debris from that adversary’s satellite will risk US space assets. If this was a one-time event, then a debris risk would not be profound. But if this type of military operation continued, it will drastically increase the amount of debris. Because debris travels at high speeds in orbit, even a small piece can severely damage or destroy satellites. Given that no countries have a perfect debris tracking system, or both technically and economically feasible debris removal systems, the United States will only hamper its national space policy goals (such as to achieve sustainability, stability, and free access to space) by their own action. Using kinetic weapons in space is a suicidal operation.
Could space-based weapons be justified if the US pledges not to use them? Even such a passive stance will degrade the US national image, despite it being legitimate. International laws do not prohibit countries from deploying conventional weapons in space. Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty prohibits countries from placing in orbit or installing on celestial bodies or stations in outer space “any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.” Thus, deploying space-based conventional weapons are not inconsistent with the principle of the treaty. However, once the US military weaponizes space, the United States risks a dishonorable national image as a country perpetuating warfare. Some perceive the United States as a bellicose country, which has perpetuated violence that is prevalent abroad. Obtaining such a brutal national image is an obstacle to implement both domestic and foreign policy. So why not avoid it?
So, what will US gain from developing and deploying space-based weapons? The consequence of attacking space objects in space will impact the United States the most. Even a symbolic deployment of space weapons will result in lowering international prestige of the country.
Therefore, rather than risking both tangible and intangible national strengths, the United States should promote and challenge itself, and all spacefaring actors, to realize a safe, sustainable, and secure outer space that benefits the entire world. This can be done by addressing national space policies that encourage weapons-free space; by cooperating with countries to build international legal regimes, through soft-law approaches like codes of conduct, that will limit weaponization of space; and perhaps by criticizing any space actors who attempt to deploy weapons in space.