Securing Outer Space: Emerging Threats in the
New Space Race

Gemma Sabatini

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons

Since the Cold War and its aftermath, countries have been engaging in a race for the militarization of outer space and the creation of new space forces. This competition is having a high impact on technology, military strategy, as well as on international relations and geopolitical dynamics. 

Notwithstanding the militaristic drivers, the period of Detente has resulted in more willingness to collaborate, share technological research and expertise in various  industries. Space collaboration has in fact translated into the creation of the International Space Station, where five space agencies from all around the globe are actively involved in carrying out research and observation (NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA and CSA). 

However,  regardless of the promises of such collaboration, the 21st century has been marked by growing international tensions, and, unlike the Cold War rivalry between the USSR and the US, todays’ global security context comprises multidimensional power politics.

There have been suggestions that a new Cold War is emerging, with competition between the US and China  being compared to the past US-USSR bipolar world order. Nevertheless, today’s dynamics are slightly different, with a bipolar world being replaced by a multipolar order in which regional powers are playing increasingly important roles. We can think here of the EU, NATO, QUAD, GCC, etc. What used to be depicted as a twofold competition in every aspect and domain has now evolved into a multiplayer framework, with power dynamics that are reverberating into the domain of outer space. The main actors in this vivid competition are the US, China and Russia, followed by France, Japan and India. These countries are setting up special space forces to control their military areas of scope. 

But why space? Why is there competition to secure finite portions of an infinite space? And what are viable solutions to overcome space threats?

Answers can be found both in the civilian and military sectors. Outer space has intensively been used for all sorts of purposes, ranging from meteorology, water security, the environment, communications and war. Here we can think of American entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, who have invested billions of dollars in space, coordinating with the US government – particularly the Pentagon – thus joining efforts to exploit economic, commercial and military opportunities. Another important element to consider is the interdependence of countries in meeting needs for information exchange, launching capacity and most importantly in providing security. 

Control of outer space is vital to many aspects of security, it is crucial for communications using satellite and GPS technologies, for systems that create real-time alerts for missile deployment, or for the protection of sensitive information through cybersecurity. All of these components rely on the deployment of space technology. 

These novel and interconnected dependencies create vulnerabilities, including threats of what may be perceived as an attack in outer space, and the increasing fusion (also known as duality) between the civilian and military uses of space. If different functions and end-users become too intertwined – seen for example in a merging between the civil (public or private) and military uses of space – then countries or blocs of countries could identify the others’ use of space as a threat. In other words, there is a strong collective need to secure space. Many civilian activities on Earth are now largely controlled and governed from space, and military infrastructures  are increasingly reliant on the use of outer space. Several countries, including the US, China and Russia, have proven to have developed hypersonic missiles capable of flying through space and hitting targets both on Earth and in space. These can be equipped with nuclear warheads and thus cause irreversible damage to the planet. Weapons can be located at a height of 2000km above sea levels, in an area called Low Earth Orbit zone, and are capable of crossing extremely high altitudes. Other developments can be seen in the use of the space between the Moon and Earth, where the two bodies’ gravitational fields cancel each other out. The space between the two planets can be filled in with satellites that would thus gain a position of dominance over other strategic space routes. We can note here a similarity with the laws governing maritime geopolitics, in particular those regulating the control of strategic straits with access to trade routes, which also require the presence of military forces. Another major issue revolves around space debris and the risks caused by the density of junk orbiting the Earth. The presence of significant amounts of debris may cause major technical problems to satellites, affecting our ability to operate them for different purposes, such as weather forecasting, facilitating  communications and carrying out observations.  

A possible solution in reversing trends in the escalation of space militarisation can be found in the agenda of general and complete disarmament. It is very important to separate the civilian component from the military one in the use of satellites and space technology, and to revise  existing treaties and regulations to ensure peaceful uses of outer space and to avoid further intensification of threat perceptions and undermining of security. Collaboration and communication should always be the solution. 

Watch our webinar on emerging technology from ‘The New Cold War: Disarmament Amid US-Russia-China’ series below

Gemma Sabatini

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons