Is Space Warfare's Final Frontier?

Space News

Is Space Warfare's Final Frontier?

It’s one thing to prepare for the eventuality of warfare in space. It’s another to assert that space warfare is inevitable. Many have predicted this since the launch of Sputnik, and all have been proven wrong—so far. The task before us isn’t just to acquire capabilities to fight, if necessary, but also to prevent warfare from occurring. Success involves deterrence as well as reassurance in the form of diplomatic engagement.

There are two generic kinds of failure in the arms control and threat reduction business: failure despite trying, and failure by not trying. Neither one is comforting, but the latter is particularly galling. The dangerous military competition in space now unfolding reflects both kinds of failure. None of us really know how fast and how far this competition is unfolding because major powers advertise very little. The only point of clarity at present is that there are few diplomatic instruments and no diplomacy among major powers to serve as even a slight counterweight to the military competition now underway.

It’s extremely hard to negotiate limits on dangerous military technologies. When success occurs, it’s due to their exorbitant costs and the relative ease of their nullification. When adversaries perceive common interests to constrain dangerous military technologies, they can focus on preventing tests that are verifiable by national technical means (NTM). Controls on the production of weapon systems incorporating dangerous military technologies are also possible, as was demonstrated in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, where production monitoring was accomplished by a combination of on-site inspections and sensors located at and above production facilities. Controls on deployments of military systems incorporating dangerous technologies can also be monitored by cooperative measures and NTM. This is how Washington and Moscow managed to slow down and then downsize their strategic nuclear competition.

All of this was very hard to do. It’s harder to control dangerous military technologies applicable to space warfare, where these methods have yet to be applied. A long-range missile that carries a nuclear warhead doesn’t have military applications beyond the obvious. Because nuclear warfare stands apart from other types of warfare, states willing to place constraints on such capabilities, whether for reasons of cost, signaling, or threat reduction, can find the means to do so. In contrast, a laser beam could be used as a space weapon, or it could be used for monitoring or satellite station keeping. To prohibit a technology on the basis of one application would be to prohibit it for other essential uses. The same problem applies to the delivery vehicles that could be used for space warfare. An airplane that could be used to launch an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon could be used to ferry cargo or strike the planners of the next 9/11 attacks.

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Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Space News on July 24, 2017.