April 24, 2019

U.S. Space Force and the militarisation of Earth orbital space

Yesterday, the Policy Exchange (a leading U.K. think-tank) held the inaugural event of its Space Policy Unit, in Westminster, London. The keynote speaker was the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force, Hon. Heather Wilson. (https://policyexchange.org.uk/pxevents/space-power-in-the-21st-century/)

On 19 February this year, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4 regarding the establishment of a "U.S. Space Force". On 19 April last, the U.S. Acting Defence Secretary stated to the Senate Armed Services Committee that this new military department would "build on and accelerate the advantage the U.S. Air Force has given the American military in space".

Yesterday, Secretary Wilson referred to Earth orbital space as a "contested domain" and described the potential for interference with U.S. space assets, including by Russia and China. It is notable that emphasis was placed on deterrence, fighting back, and the proliferation of U.S. military assets in orbit in order to protect U.S. interests in space.

The testing, demonstration, deployment and use of military assets in orbital space may give rise to the risk of damage to interests ranging far beyond those engaged in the actual (or potential) orbital hostilities.  The expansion of the orbital debris population by demonstrations of anti-satellite systems, illustrates one aspect of that risk.

 In the pursuit of legitimate defence of national interests, it seems we may stray far from the ideals of "co-operation and mutual assistance", consultation and the "due regard to the corresponding interests of all other states" (adopted in the Outer Space Treaty 1967, albeit concerned with the peaceful uses of outer space).

Continued development of military activity in orbital space appears inevitable and nations will act to protect their interests.  That raises questions concerning the behaviour between, variously: technologically dominant space fairing nations and their military allies or other non-combative nations; or state military powers and private / commercial space ventures (from any nation); or those engaged in potential /actual space hostilities.  

There has been learned commentary on the need for internationally accepted "norms of behaviour".  But how can meaningful and internationally applicable "norms" be established?  Is there an effective forum for the debate and agreement of such "norms"? Some will say the answer to that last question is "no"; in which case there is perhaps a need for the creation of an international treaty organisation.

There is much to be considered and in this writer's view the Policy Exchange's launch of its Space Policy Unit is to be welcomed.