Orbital warfare, or the deliberate targeting of a nation’s satellites as a strategy of wartime disruption, is every general’s worst nightmare. Every major chain of military logistics is inextricably tied to the vast global satellite constellation, from tactical communications to the locations of nuclear submarines; any attack on a nation’s satellite capabilities would be crippling to both its armed forces and its civilian population. It would be easy to write off such an attack as unthinkable, if every major world power weren’t already thinking about it.
The global race to weaponize space has been conducted quietly, though it is unlikely to end that way. The concept of space warfare, specifically denoting strikes emanating from or aimed at satellite installations, started in the Cold War but never truly went out of vogue after its end. The United States has since taken full advantage of a slippery legal treatment, intelligence gaps, and the lack of extant enforcement mechanisms to create what is now widely considered to be the world’s most formidable satellite armada. However, while the United States currently leads the pack in deploying advanced weaponry systems in space, they are far from alone in their efforts. American space militarization efforts have only served to galvanize Russian and Chinese space agencies, who themselves have launched a record number of sophisticated satellites into orbit in recent years. This trajectory of space warfare and weapons build-up can only be described as reckless, and policymakers have failed to adequately inform the voting public of the potentially dire consequences. According to Air Force General John Hyten, head of the U.S. Space Command, a single chained orbital strike could send a country “back to the Industrial Age,” with the likelihood of such an attack increasing with each new military space installation.
It is difficult to overstate the consequences of a first strike in space warfare. Military experts sometimes refer to a “space Pearl Harbor” scenario, wherein a series of American military communications satellites would be taken out in quick succession, effectively neutralizing navigation, surveillance, and the ability to communicate with ground troops. The United States would lose its technological edge, with the consequences for civilian installations being just as severe. Every platform from street-side ATMs to mobile navigation systems currently relies on satellite communication. Mobile networks would go dark, banking systems would implode, and infrastructure would simply grind to a halt.
Unfortunately, orbital assault is also exceptionally hard to prevent. Due to the nature of the technology, no second-strike capability exists if the first strike is effective enough. Space warfare is also unregulated by binding agreements or legal regimes, being addressed in only two international treaties (both largely vague). Even if regulation existed, it is almost impossible to tell if a satellite is weaponized: many satellites are now “dual-use” installations, meaning that they function as surveillance or communication drones but may contain hidden strike capabilities. As earth’s atmosphere becomes increasingly studded with ordnance, it is important to recognize that there is no real defense mechanism to contend with attacks against or from satellites. No laws exist governing the use of such weapons and the only thing preventing their deployment is a global gentleman’s agreement. The only solution is not to weaponize in the first place.
Such a solution is understandably difficult to implement. Currently, there is no direct diplomatic route to the demilitarization of space. In an attempt to make the satellite gap irrelevant, Russia and China have pushed for the introduction of a Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty and submitted draft resolutions to the United Nations. As it stands, however, such a treaty is highly unlikely to be considered by Congress. Given that the United States is both the cause and primary beneficiary of a continued race to weaponize space, it has no interest in nullifying its significant advantages in space warfare. The onus, then, is on the American voting public to put an end to the reckless militarization. A grassroots push for domestic legislation as well as ratification of international prohibition would go a long way towards shedding a light on one of the Pentagon’s riskier endeavours. The strategic value of space weaponization is far outweighed by outer space’s economic and technological value as a global commons.
Matthew Finkel is a senior at Wesleyan University double-majoring in Government and Western Hemisphere Regional Studies. His research focuses on political risk analysis, bilateral trade relationships, and evolving energy dynamics in Europe and Latin America. He recently served as a Foreign Affairs Intern with the US Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.