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Preventing Conflicts in Space


Published April 20, 2022

The great-power competition among the United States, Russia, and China means there is a growing concern that not only could a future conflict spread to space but, given our reliance on space-based defenses, it could begin there. The United States must reconsider how it approaches thinking about space in order to prevent potentially devastating conflicts.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is it important to address conflict in space before it happens?
  2. How does the principle of deterrence apply to space operations?

Additional resources:

  • Read “Space Force and Warfare in Space,” an edition of Strategika. Available here.
  • Watch, “Historical Progression of Cyber Strategy,” a discussion with Admiral James O. Ellis Jr., Dr. Michael Warner, and Dr. Emily Goldman. Available here.
  • Listen to “The Final Frontier: Gen. John Raymond on Space Force,” an episode of Pacific Century. Available here.
View Transcript

A new era of space exploration and innovation is upon us, and with it come challenges both old and new.

Space and national security have always been linked. In a 1962 speech, President John F. Kennedy acknowledged this fact. He argued that “whether [space exploration] will become a force for good or ill depends on man.”

To date, no conflict has occurred in space. But as the US Defense Space Strategy notes, “space is not a sanctuary from attack” And, as a practical matter, there are currently space-based systems that support national security and other capabilities, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, that transit through the domain.

The reemergence of a great power competition between the United States, Russia, and China means that space is potentially a natural and unavoidable area of future conflict. In reality, there is a growing concern that not only could a future conflict spread to space but that, given our reliance on space-based defenses, it could begin there.

The good news is that the United States remains the world’s leading spacefaring nation; the bad news is that we are also more dependent upon space than our foreign competitors. Our reliance on a fragile space architecture enables our way of life. And both our prosperity and our national security require unfettered access and the freedom to operate in space.

So how should we approach thinking about space in order to prevent devastating conflicts?

First, we must continue to lead the creation of clear, collaborative international standards reinforced with robust alliances and treaties.

During the Cold War, ships from the United States and the Soviet Union used to literally collide while operating in close proximity, risking a potential escalation from which neither side could recover. It wasn’t until the US-Soviet Incidents at Sea agreement of 1972 that both sides put into place rules to prevent escalatory confrontations.

Similar agreements need to be created, codified, and implemented in space.

Second, in order to avoid an arms race in space, we must encourage potential adversaries to agree to several conditions. That includes a “no first use” agreement similar to existing treaties and norms on the use of chemical weapons and land mines. Countries would agree not to use anti-satellite weapons unless other countries have already used them.

Another potential objective is a ban on the tests of kinetic anti-satellite weapons that produce dangerous debris which dramatically increases the probability of disabling collisions.

Finally, we must also develop cooperative situational space awareness. Much like when the Soviet Union and United States provided advance notice when their naval operations would represent a danger to navigation or aircraft in flight, all space-capable nations must be forthright about how their launches, orbital selection, debris creation, and proximity operations, may interfere with others.

In the event that these and other deterrence and de-escalation efforts fail, we must still be able to defend our critical infrastructure and counter our adversaries’ use of space for hostile purposes.

Anti-satellite capabilities are part of that strategy, but equally important is robust cyber security. These disruptive cyber capabilities often fly under the radar. While we focus on the theft of intellectual property or ransomware attacks, cyber-attacks can also knock out power grids, disable critical infrastructure, or disrupt communications networks, including those that are space-based.

Deterrence, at its core, is a two-party process involving us and our adversaries While ambiguity can sometimes have its place, in space, at least, we must be clear about what we stand for…. and what we will not stand for.

We, of course, don’t want future wars to be fought in space, or anywhere else, for that matter. But that does not mean that we should refrain from becoming competent, capable, and dominant in our ability to shape the strategic environment. As always, that capability is at the heart of deterrence, on earth and in space.