In a declaration issued Dec. 4 after the London meeting of the North Atlantic Council, member countries officially agreed to treat space as “an operational domain for NATO, recognizing its importance in keeping us safe and tackling security challenges, while upholding international law.”

The statement from NATO is the latest sign of what security experts believe is an ominous march to war over the control of outer space.

“One of the big trends, and a worrisome trend, is the fact that other countries are following the U.S. lead in terms of creating space forces as part of their military establishment,” said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow for global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Policy statements and efforts by nations to build up their space capabilities are reminiscent of how the nuclear arms race started, Patrick said Dec. 4 during a CFR podcast.

At this point, it appears to be too late for the United States or any other country to dial things back. “Realists would say, ‘if it’s not going to be us, it’s going to be somebody else,’” Patrick said.

The French government this year announced that, like the United States, it will create a space force. China and Russia, meanwhile, are developing military space doctrines and technologies that could be turned into space weapons. “I would not be too surprised to see the Indians follow suit,” said Patrick. “It sort of reminds me of the early nuclear age, where there’s a pell-mell desire to sort of create one’s own capabilities.”

As more countries join the space race and seek to exploit the economic opportunities in space, players will be competing for limited real estate, and crowding can lead to conflict. But so far the world hasn’t developed rules to solve space disputes or to manage the proliferation of space junk, which Patrick also considers a big problem.

He cited the 750,000 pieces of space debris larger than a pea but smaller than a softball that are currently being tracked. A satellite in the path of such debris is at risk of catastrophic damage. “And so the question is, how do we deal with all this space junk? Because if there’s too much of an accumulation of space junk, it could render this outer space domain almost unusable.”

There are no modern sets of rules to address both the military and economic implications of the use of outer space. “The granddaddy of all the treaties when it comes to how to regulate outer space is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is getting pretty long in the tooth,” Patrick said.

The treaty was designed to deal with Cold War concerns. It prevents countries from placing nuclear launch sites on the moon. But the people who created it were not thinking about space junk, or the possibility that private companies would one day be launching thousands of satellites.

Charlie Bolden, the former NASA administrator and retired Marine Corps major general, believes that President Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” dictum applies to space, too. “I’m not sure that we have a way yet to verify that hostile nations are going to comply with the convention,” he said during the CFR podcast. “But people in the national security apparatus have got to become much better negotiators and consensus builders than they’ve ever been before.”

Deterrence is going to be important to prevent war from reaching the cosmos, said Bolden. The U.S. posture could be: “I’ve got everything in my arsenal to just wipe you out. But I don’t want to do that. And I don’t want to make this domain unusable for everybody. So don’t make me do that. Let’s reach some agreement.”

“Space is so essential to our daily lives, and to our security, that it seems like we have no choice but to do whatever is necessary to protect it,” said Bolden. “But the rush to protect something can itself lead to conflict.”

The thing about space is that there is a very low margin of error, said Bolden. “Whatever damage we do could circle the Earth for centuries.”

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the August 19, 2019 issue.

Sandra Erwin

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...