After decades of research and hundreds of missions there are currently around 2,000 active satellites in space. But with Elon Musk’s SpaceX having recently launched 60 of what it hopes to be up to 12,000 satellites and Amazon planning to launch more than 3,000 of its own, the cosmos is due to get a lot more crowded and potentially a lot more dangerous.
It is into this arena that China, Russia, France, India and a number of other nations are looking to expand their national defence programmes. But one government stands above all others at the moment in looking to “dominate” this frontier. The US and Donald Trump.
In announcing the creation of one of his pet projects – the Space Force – last year, Trump said: “It is not enough to have an American presence in space, we must have American dominance in space.”
In February this year the president added that his administration “has recognised space as a war fighting domain – there will be nobody that come close to matching us”.
For Alexandra Stickings, a research fellow for space policy and security at the the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank, this mix of rhetoric and the current picture in space is “terrifying”.
“There are millions of pieces of debris alongside the thousands of satellites up there, that we have trouble tracking … That is going to get more and more difficult when you have thousands of new satellites and a number of new operators involved.”
Charles Miller, a space policy adviser during both the Barack Obama and Trump administrations, and who was part of the Trump transition team for Nasa, believes that more urgent discussions are needed over the idea of the creation of a sci-fi-sounding Space Force being “inevitable”.
“It is the next level of national security ... The greatest risk for a third world war right now is allowing us to be so open to having our national security disrupted by having a country such as China or Russia destroy our satellites.”
For Trump the vision is simple – the US must counter the threat from Beijing and Moscow as part of his “America first” doctrine, but not unusually for the Trump administration, the bombast clouds what is a complex picture both on the ground and in space.
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Space is seen by officials in governments around the world as important in so many areas – from communications to experimental science and the tracking of military assets – and space policy experts have repeatedly made clear important international conversations need to be had about how a balance will be struck between nations.
The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa) is integral to laying out a framework for the peaceful use of space, but there is also the military element. Nato is expected to declare space a war-fighting domain later this year, which will have implications for Article 5, the mutual defence clause among other issues.
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Article IV of the international 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids member states from placing nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, on celestial bodies or stations in outer space. Military bases, installations and fortifications, weapons testing and conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies are also forbidden. But the legality of other military uses in space is still a question without a definitive answer and that is a gap Trump’s Space Force, or anything similar by other nations could exploit.
Stickings says it is about keeping a “particularly fine balance” especially between the big three nations of the US, China and Russia.
“US allies are quite dependent on them for their space capabilities, for example the UK and a lot of Europe don’t have a lot of sovereign capability – so in that sense, they are dependent on how the US is protecting its own satellites and what it’s doing to counter threats,” she says. This is part of what makes the Space Force so important.
“But there is a flip side to that as well,” according to Stickings. “If you are dependent on another country and that country starts to use provocative rhetoric, is that putting you more at risk? So there is a sense of other countries needing to up their their own game.” France has already announced the creation of its own space force as part of its national defence programme and the UK is assessing its capabilities too.
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The type of rhetorical brinkmanship Trump has partaken in with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programmes, and the risk of mistakes that brings, is also true in space.
“One of the things about space is that attribution is very difficult,” says Ms Stickings. “If your satellite stops working was it solar energy? A piece of debris that hit it? A meteorite? Or was it an actual attack?
“By putting it at that war footing, you have the worry that people will jump to conclusions there will be a miscalculation when nobody was actually at fault – so there are a lot of conversations around the question of ‘what do we mean by a hostile attack and how do we prove hostile intent?’.
“And if you are using the idea of war, it makes those conversations a lot more important and potentially fraught,” she adds.
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Trump and his administration also face difficulties in congress. With a conversation that is still so hypothetical, there is often friction, despite the need to act fairly swiftly.
There are competing visions as to what to tackle first and whether separate departments are needed – whether the military elements in space are just there to support the armed forces or are a different entity.
“It all requires technology that we don’t actually have right now,” says Russ Rumbaugh of the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit, independent group that houses the only federally funded research and development centre in the US committed to space.
“That means that conversation is always a little bit clouded as we are not talking about any near-term view,” says Rumbaugh, who is systems director for the corporation’s Centre for Space Policy and Strategy.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have different views on what the Space Force should be and cost, with estimates ranging from $3bn to $5bn. There is also the added complication of the new Space Development Agency (SDA), created in March this year.
According to Miller, who was on the Trump-Nasa transition team, it is there to help “rapid innovation and development”.
“The current air force space programmes are slow and bureaucratic and take a decade to create a new system – and that is a recipe for failure,” he says.
In the SDA’s first call for ideas ideas from contractors, released on 1 July, it said its mission is to “rapidly develop and deploy a threat-driven, next-generation space architecture to counter near-peer efforts to contest or deny our space-based systems”. But congress is not convinced.
The chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee recently denied a Pentagon request to allocate $15m to the SDA, citing confusion over its position and the resignation of the agency’s first director Fred Kennedy in June, less than fourth months after the SDA was created.
“The committee is concerned about the turmoil surrounding the Space Development Agency and uncertainty about programme plans and leadership, shortly after its establishment in March 2019,” a letter denying the money said.
There is speculation that there was infighting over the direction of the SDA, which was exasperated by the recent departure of the acting US secretary of defence, Patrick Shanahan, who had been a big champion of the SDA amid some pushback from other officials that the agency would just be duplicating the work of the armed forces.
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“It is a real problem in having this churn in leadership”, says Miller, adding that it stops the agency being able to move forward effectively.
Stckings also sees an issue with the way the issues of space infrastructure is dealt with politically. “One of the problems is that the understanding of space is still worryingly low,” she says. “The number of policy makers that can understand the importance of space is very limited.
“I think people are starting to see that they need to get involved now … that we need to protect those orbits and the sustainability of those orbits because if not we risk losing everything that we have up there.”
Rumbaugh says that all sides in the US and nations around the world need to make sure the conversations are clear. “We are living through a very important time and these questions are not going away.”
Stickings says the US and the world “can’t afford to wait” but that the difficult questions need to be asked and decisions need to be thought through carefully to ensure the correct ones are being made.
“We need to do it now,” she says. “But if you don’t get how you are organising your military operations right, you are going to have a problem as space enables so much of the military.”