By Joseph Pelton and Ram Jakhu
Recently, the U.S. President Donald Trump informally instructed the country’s Department of Defense to ‘immediately begin the process’ of establishing a ‘Space Force’, which will be equal but separate from the other armed forces of the U.S. The main stated purpose of this decision is to ‘have American dominance in space’.
Nowadays, the U.S. armed services cover also space but with a stance which is overall defensive, and protective of the space environment for the benefits of all stakeholders. Moving such role to a specialized armed force is an internal organizational matter. However, the case is different if the creation of such force is a step beyond the legitimate interest to defend crucial national space assets.
The creation of U.S. Space Force could inevitably encourage other nations to join in and feel compelled to create parallel ‘Space Forces.’ Several armed space forces competing for ‘dominance’ in common environment could result in making space a conflict-ridden arena and a war-fighting domain. As such a row of dominoes fall there could be risky consequences for space enterprises operating communications and broadcasting satellites, including billions of dollars’ worth of new low earth orbit constellations now pending, remote sensing satellites, as well as new ventures yet to come such as solar energy satellites, on-orbit servicing vehicles, spaceplanes for hypersonic point-to-point transportation, not to mention space habitats on Moon and Mars. Trillions of dollars in new economic growth and governmental assets could find these future space activities at risk.
Here are the prospective problems and losses that might be expected to emerge from the creation of national space forces:
– There could be serious negative implications for the current legal order and stability to the international domain of outer space and the global commons it now represents. The current stability of outer space and its well-defined international legal status under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty–as being a part of the common heritage of humankind, just like Antarctica– could suddenly become unglued.
– There could be a series of threats to safety of space operation for astronauts, space tourists, commercial users and explorers in the future that venture into space. This could include the loss of opportunity for an international process to establish and maintain effective space traffic management which is currently of serious safety concern.
– There would be threats to international peace and security, national security of all space faring nations, a loss to the national security to the U.S. and its allies and significantly enhanced potential for militarization and weaponization of space. This would be both in the vital areas represented by the Earth’s orbital space and in Near-Space.
– There would be risks to the longer-term sustainability of space that include greater danger of orbital space debris and greater exposure to various other types of cosmic hazards.
Potential loss of integrity and stability for the current international legal order
The international legal framework for space activities is defined by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and its four subsidiary international agreements, which have been ratified by more than 100 countries, including the U.S., all space fairing nations, and most of the major user countries in the world. This rule-based legal order, in effect for more than a half century, has brought stability to the outer space domain. The Treaty delineates outer space a “global commons” to be explored and used by all countries, on equal basis, for peaceful purposes by taking into consideration the interests of all counties. It bans the deployment in outer space of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction and requires that the Moon and other celestial bodies must be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. It forbids the establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies. Creation of space forces by the U.S. and in turn other space faring nations could place at risk the current widely-agreed international legal regime that ensures the development of peaceful civil space activities providing considerable economic and social benefits to the whole of humanity.
Human Space Safety
Today cooperation in space and various enterprises such as the International Space Station creates a framework for Astronauts to work together as international partners on behalf of our planet Earth. The international Association of Space Explorers has been a force for peace and global cooperation and played a key role in creating the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) under the auspices of the U.N. General Assembly. Redefining space as a prospective military battleground would do harm to cooperative ventures in outer space such as the International Space Station and put at risk cooperative ventures to make space safer.
The current capabilities of the U.S. Air Force to provide space situational awareness (SSA) is truly well advanced and the new S-band radar system being deployed in the Pacific Ocean region will further advance these capabilities. The U.S. Air Force has also maintained significant awareness capabilities with regard to cosmic hazards such as coronal mass ejections, hazardous solar wind and radiation events, potentially hazardous asteroids, orbital space debris, ElectroMagnetic Pulse events triggered by nuclear explosions, and other cosmic hazards. There is no additional research or operational capability related to space safety or national defense that would be particularly achieved via the creation of a U.S. Space Force that is not currently possible through the current organizational integrity of the current Air Force. Even the attempt to define the upper limit of air space and the start of outer space–as a ‘Space Force’ implies—could trigger misunderstanding, disputes and international disagreements.
Sustainability of Space
Currently the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has established a Working Group on the Longer-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities (LTSOSA). On the working group, U.S. expertise is playing an important and distinguished role. This group in cooperation with the Inter-Agency Space Debris Committee (IADC), where NASA plays a key leadership role, have made significant progress addressing issues of potentially hazardous asteroids, solar threats and changes to the Earth’s magnetosphere, orbital space debris, space situational awareness, space traffic management, and other issues that might give rise to concerns about safe and sustained access to and use of outer space. Creation of a U.S. ‘Space Force’ and its involvement in international forums concerning the longer-term sustainability of space could potentially disrupt international cooperative agreements and impede progress to reach consensus on difficult issues.
Key Questions for the National Legislatures of Space Faring Nations of the World
Accordingly we pose the following questions of import to the legislatures and political leaders of all space faring nations that might consider creation of a national space force:
– Would the creation of a national space force serve to strengthen or potentially undermine national security, human space safety, and international cooperation, denuclearization and deweaponisation of space?
– Would the creation of a national space force support or undermine the current international legal framework for outer space that has served the world so well for the past half century?
– Would the creation of a national space force serve to aid or undercut the potential for space traffic management, space tourism, space mining, effective ways to address the problem of orbital space debris, and the objective of achieving the long-term sustainability of space?
Given the potential negative consequences of creating a “space force”, we advise caution with respect to any nation considering, openly or covertly, the formation of a ‘Space Force’ for global dominance purpose.