Last Friday, the European Union launched the first part of Galileo: A European answer to GPS that offers more accurate geo-positioning and strong emergency communication capabilities. The project is predicted to generate between $81-122 billion in indirect revenues, a demonstration of the huge societal and economic pay-offs that can be yielded from space technology.
This raises an ongoing security question – can vital space-based technologies be protected against possible sabotage or attack? Space security is certainly becoming a big issue, with recent Chinese missile tests raising the possibility of weapons systematically attacking assets in Earth’s orbit. However, the mutual benefits of space technology coupled with its vulnerability to be disrupted by debris lowers the chance of any "star wars," as it is difficult to damage another state’s assets without disrupting your own.
The quantity and sophistication of technology that utilizes space-borne information exchange is expanding, with conservative estimates claiming there will a 51% increase in space launches in the coming decade.
It has thus been realized for a long time that we are increasingly reliant — some say too reliant — on satellites, which can be vulnerable to attack. Various national and international entities have thus affirmed the need to secure space as one of the “global commons” — that is, an area of economic activity that is not owned by any one nation.
One of the threats feared is the so-called “weaponization” of space. This theory, as well as ground-to-space missiles for destroying satellites, tested by both China and the U.S. in recent years, predicts an expansion of space-borne weapons designed to take down valuable systems.
While perhaps fitting the logic of conventional weapons escalation, this theory ignores two key characteristics unique to space that make it an unlikely candidate for an arms race.
Firstly, unlike other global commons such as the sea and air, the majority of platforms in space are shared between global actors. Projects like Galileo are a classic example; the system will carry geo-positioning for Europe, but also emergency navigation services for international shipping, including for China and the U.S.
Given that such platforms are shared, it would be very difficult to track down a satellite whose destruction would benefit one nation alone. For example, everyone has something to lose if GPS goes down.
Secondly, space is an incredibly fragile environment. Space debris — from destroyed or merely malfunctioning satellites — make areas of Earth’s orbit unavailable for exploitation for decades at a time. China’s single missile test alone created the largest space debris cloud in recorded history.
A few more explosions of this kind and large areas of orbit will be too dangerous for satellites to enter. In short, you can’t destroy “enemy” satellites without destroying your own.
These factors would seem to indicate that the chances of violent conflict in space are low, as everyone stands to lose. However, this analysis does not consider so-called “soft kill” techniques — such as hacking into or jamming a satellite.
Such factors illustrate that whilst space is, for now, the most secure global commons, it may not stay this way. It is thus important for international actors to respect existing space neutrality treaties, to promote responsible space behavior, and to monitor potential spoilers carefully.
We all rely on space technology, so some vigilance is certainly required.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons