Space Race 2.0

NATO has recently proposed space as an extended domain of warfare in addition to those of land, air, sea, and cyberspace. China also seems to be ramping up its space infrastructure to expand its civil and military space projects.

Background

The original space-race refers to the competition between Russia and the USA in outdoing each other to make greater headways in the field of space exploration, during the Cold War. In 1957, Russia surprised the world by announcing its maiden satellite launch of the artificial Sputnik 1. This was followed by three more successful space missions within two years, which made Russia a global leader in space exploration.

To counter this, the US established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which was responsible for aerospace research and the civilian space program. Russia continued to dominate the space race and was responsible for significant milestone achievements in spaceflight, including the first living being in space, the first man in space, and the first woman in space. But the US.had an economic advantage and was able to outspend Russia in research and technology eventually. Through collaboration, its NATO allies caught up in terms of space infrastructure.

NATO, as an organization, does not have space capabilities of its own. Its imprint in space is calculated as a summation of individual members’ capabilities. NATO currently owns 63 per cent of the satellites in space, but the only members with advanced space capabilities are France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K. China is looking to play catch-up by expanding its civil and military space programs with improved satellite capabilities. China currently has more than 120 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites in orbit, a number that surpassed only by the U.S.

Analysis

According to four senior diplomats, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is deliberating on including space as a domain of warfare. This comes at a time when China and the U.S. are butting heads in the South China Sea. Perhaps NATO’s decision was inspired by President Trump announcing the establishment of a “Space Force” within the American military apparatus. This force would consolidate the efforts of the various space-related security organizations to increase efficiency, cut costs, and improve coordination.

The formal decision is likely to be taken by NATO at a summit scheduled in London. Donald Trump, who will also be in attendance at the summit, has been rather vocal about his scepticism regarding the relevance and power of the NATO. It is possible that NATO is trying to establish that it recognizes the challenges of  global security in the modern era, and is willing to adapt in order to overcome them.

NATO actually has the unique opportunity to use its joint military capabilities to enhance deterrence in space. But for this to happen, it needs to develop a cohesive space strategy so that all of its members are on the same page in the event of legitimate armed conflict.

The significance of satellites in today’s world goes far beyond defence technology. We are dependent on modern-day satellites for civilian navigation, weather forecasting, improved internet communication, and radio /television transmittance.

Several businesses depend on these satellites for information, and a compromise in space security apparatus can result in billions of dollars in damage in the event of a hack. The sheer economic impact of compromised satellite systems should be reason enough for governments to be concerned about the security of their assets in space.

Although we are yet to witness war in space, in the case of modern conventional warfare, a country’s space-based assets are vulnerable to being damaged or destroyed by adversaries. There is strategic importance to military assets in space which supports forces on the ground. 

In 2007, China demonstrated that it was possible to strike down a low earth orbit satellite with a ground-launched missile. Since then, the US and Russia have also tested out and developed anti-satellite missile technology capable of disrupting critical communication systems. In this geo-political climate, it would be dangerous to allow any one country to monopolize space militarization.

Counterpoint

It is also possible that what we are witnessing is not a space race, but rather an increased global zeal for space exploration resulting from massive developments in space technology. There are several scientific and economic benefits to exploring space and the need to keep space assets secure is just a natural tangential requirement of the process. For there to be an actual space-race between NATO and China, they should be engaged in a game of one-upmanship. This does not seem to be the case. In this case, NATO has recognized a strategic opportunity and has decided to act upon it.

Assessment

It is our assessment that even though there is no military conflict between NATO and China, tensions are certainly high, and it would be wise for military leaders to cover all their bases when it comes to security strategy – including the issue of space.

We feel that a space-race between the two power blocs is inevitable because of how strategically important space is for defence. We predict that early-stage space-warfare would be in the form of cyber-attacks on space assets, which would be conducted remotely from the earth. We believe that a contemporary space race would involve NATO and China competing for offensive space weaponry as well as deterrence capabilities – much like the situation with the US and Russia during the Cold War. The only difference this time is that China has a strong economy and a robust manufacturing sector supporting the development of its space infrastructure. Simply outspending China might not cut it this time.

We think that space security will follow the deterrence model of nuclear warfare because of the sheer potential for damage and the uncertainty of outcomes. The unpredictability of space also makes it difficult to evaluate the negative impact of space-warfare on earth. Further, the environmental implications of space debris need to be explored further before kinetic space-warfare can become a reality.

We also feel that space exploration is a double-edged sword. Discoveries and developments that have peaceful objectives can also have military use-cases. For example, the technology that enables satellites to get close to each other could be useful in information sharing and repair assistance, but can also be used for malicious interference operations. NATO and China perhaps recognize this, which is why they are expanding their understanding of warfare to include space as a strategic dimension. 

We believe that the privatization of space adds a problematic dimension to a potential space race. Companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Airbus have been able to commercialize the market for space exploration. Space travel is slowly becoming a reality, and the military implications for civilians in space are manifold.

 

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