The Chinese anti-satellite (A-Sat
) test in January
has produced countless calls for ways and means to strengthen and achieve “
.” The advocates for space security range from the well-intentioned through to the disingenuous, but all have one thing in common: the state of affairs they wish to bring about can not exist so long as insecurity reigns on
Earth. In other words, space security is a chimera.
Space security, as generally defined by its advocates, is a state of affairs where civil, commercial and even military satellites are allowed to operate in the space environment unimpeded by intentional interference and harm by others. Few argue that this is not a worthy ambition, but the problem is that the term “space security” implies that it can be considered in isolation from security on Earth, when in fact security problems in space are merely a reflection of often intractable security problems between countries. Furthermore, the means proposed to achieve space security – arms control treaties and a strengthened legal regime in space – are unable to bring about true security in space or on Earth because they are incapable of resolving the underlying political problems that cause insecurity in the first place. In light of this, the term “space security” is misleading, to say the least.
For the unwary, thinking about space tends to promote
a nasty habit of distorting otherwise sound judgment. Space as a place exists in stark contrast to space as realized in the imaginations of politicians, policymakers, academics, artists and the wider public.
Space is often
either trivialized in the political and popular imagination, or it is imbued with redeeming moral powers and virtues that
belie the reality of its harsh, radioactive environment.
from a grand strategic perspective, it is no different from the land, sea, air and cyberspace.
Space for many minds is a place where the grubbier and nastier side of the human condition can either be redeemed or barred. This is a fallacy. Many space security advocates fail to understand that our entry into space will be accompanied by the entirety of the human condition – the good and the bad. The notion that human nature stops at, or can be banned from, low Earth orbit and beyond is worse than nave, it is delusional. Moreover, the notion that human nature can be redeemed by our entry into space has no basis in logic whatsoever.
Given that more and more countries now use and rely on satellites for everything from commerce and governance to vital national security functions, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that space as an environment will be exempt from the vagaries of war. If a country relies on satellites for the effective use and projection of military force terrestrially, on what basis is it realistically possible that the very satellites that enhance and support military force can be exempt from the actions of an enemy? If countries, and indeed others, are deriving such economic, diplomatic and military power from their exploitation of satellites, why should space – the one environment where life, as far as we know, does not exist – be removed as a theater of action, while the land, sea and air environments – where we know for certain that life does exist – are not?
Too many advocates of so-called
claim that space as an environment can be made exempt
from the vagaries of war, and thus the satellites that operate there, enhancing and enabling power on Earth, can be provided with a sanctuary. This fantasy is achieved through arms control treaties and the strengthening of the legal regime that already exists in space based on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, whereby weapons of various types – many of which do not even exist – are banned.
As the largest and most reliant space power in the world, the United States is exhorted by most space security advocates to restrain from, and abandon, any weapons program that might feasibly threaten satellites in orbit. Given the dual-use nature of most satellite systems, even U.S. civil satellite programs have been condemned because of the possibility that they might be used in a space weapons mode.
For example, NASA’s DART (Demonstration for Autonomous Rendezvous Technology) satellite program was criticized because its autonomous rendezvous capability could be applied as an A-Sat function. Yet similar civil programs in other countries escape criticism though they too could be used in an A-Sat role. Amazingly, many advocates of space security fail to realize that the double standard they apply to even innocuous U.S. space systems comes across as disingenuous at best.
More importantly, the call for arms control agreements and strengthened legal regimes in space as a means of achieving space security misses the point. Neither can achieve what it is they set out to do
because insecurity in space is nothing more than a reflection of the insecurity between states that is endemic on Earth. Any arms control treaty or legal regime that seeks to ban space weapons (leaving aside the non-trivial definitional problems of space weapons) does nothing to address the fundamental problem that causes a country to research, develop
and even deploy space weapons in the first place. Any weapon deployment by a country in any strategic environment is the direct result of insecurity felt by that country in relation to another country, group of countries
non-state actors. This insecurity is fundamentally a political problem that ultimately
only can be resolved through political means.
The only way in which security in space truly can be achieved is by working to promote security between states on Earth. This requires patience and a deeper understanding of affairs of state, as well as a recognition that many security problems may be intractable in our lifetime.
States who have no quarrel with each other will not fear each other’s military power, much as Australia and Germany do not fear each other’s military power. Similarly, security between states on Earth will automatically bring about security in space, and space weapons, however defined, will be a moot point.
As a concept, space security is a misdiagnosis of a much deeper political problem on Earth. Winston Churchill once wrote that, “It is the greatest possible mistake to mix up disarmament with peace. When you have peace you will have disarmament.” Similarly, treaties and legal regimes that purport to ban or limit certain technologies will not bring about space security, and as a result, advocates of space security should reconsider many of their core assumptions.
John B. Sheldon is a visiting professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and program director for space security at the U.K.-based Centre for Defence and International Security Studies.
The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect the views of Air University, U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.