Space will be weaponized by the early 2020s, but there is a silver lining. Rather than arguing endlessly whether weapons can be defined and prohibited in space, China, Russia, the United States, and other countries can now resign themselves to the emerging reality — and unite to keep peace in a weaponized space.
In mid-June, the international community will gather in Vienna to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and “consider the future course of global space cooperation for the benefit of humankind.” As space weapons are likely just several years away, the community must move quickly to chart a course to a space arms control treaty, which is essential to maintaining a peaceful and beneficial outer space.
By the early 2020s, China will have deployed spacecraft to remove space debris and provide on-orbit services such as refueling and repairing satellites. The U.S., European Union and Russia will do the same. Such spacecraft will be equipped to sidle up to, say, an ailing early warning satellite, and grab it with a robotic arm to service it. But the very same spacecraft can grab our satellites and destroy them. Since these dual-use spacecraft will soon be needed, they cannot be banned. In other words, de facto weapons will soon be unavoidable and irreversibly placed in space. We must learn and plan now how to live with that.
Some may argue that this is actually nothing new — that even a garden-variety satellite can be commanded to smash into another one, and so why the fuss? But anti-satellite weapons improvised from ordinary spacecraft could destroy at best a few of our satellites before our defenses were activated to limit further damage. The aggressor would be deterred from mounting such an attack in the first place, because the benefit of destroying a few satellites would be too small and, in any case, cancelled by the damage from our retaliation. Moreover, the aggressor would be affected by the space debris the attack would create.
But the development of spacecraft capable of unmanned rendezvous-and-proximity operations, or RPOs, will mark a quantum leap in the proficiency of orbiting anti-satellite weapons. A Chinese spacecraft that has been bustling around snagging debris or providing tune-ups can be readily diverted to stay arbitrarily close to one of our critical satellites. There is currently no space arms control agreement or even a transparency and confidence-building measure to prohibit tailgating or stalking. An adversary could set up multiple space stalkers and, at a time of its choosing, move in and destroy multiple critical satellites nearly simultaneously, far faster than we could activate our defenses. And that number will only grow as increasingly sophisticated RPO spacecraft enter service.
If a conflict loomed, the situation could present the impossible choice of accepting the loss of satellite capabilities crucial to U.S. military effectiveness, or destroying the space stalkers preemptively and being seen as the aggressor who took the first shot and started a potentially vastly deadly war, in space and on Earth, that both sides had tried hard to avoid.
Traditional approaches to space arms control, such as the “[do] not place any weapons in outer space” agreement proposed in 2014 by Russia and China, have produced no such agreement in a half-century of effort. It is time to switch to a new and promising approach.
Although these dual-use spacecraft cannot be banned outright, they can still be controlled by prohibiting them from stalking beyond an agreed-number of another country’s satellites. This hybrid approach also provides a comprehensive list of verifiable and enforceable provisions to control both space weapons that can and cannot be banned outright. These provisions are designed to be acceptable by countries of a wide range of ideologies so long as they have a common goal of “global space cooperation for the benefit of humankind.” I explore these ideas more deeply in “Space Arms Control: A Hybrid Approach,” newly published in Strategic Studies Quarterly.