On the 21st of December 2015, SpaceX conducted a successful test of its Falcon 9 Rocket. The partially reusable rocket marked an extraordinary achievement as it demonstrated that the cost of space travel could be significantly reduced.
Reusable rocketry has been a recurrent theme in space travel since the ‘space race’. The US-led Space Shuttle project and the Soviet Buran spacecraft sought to overcome the cost barrier associated with space travel by developing rugged crafts that may be used multiple times. Both projects failed to economise space travel, and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union left the US unchallenged in space. However, the above-mentioned developments have thrust space travel back into the strategic spotlight. SpaceX is not the only company to be making advances in this area. Boutique companies, such as the New Zealand-based Rocketlab, have found a business selling low-cost launches for satellites to private entities. The “ride-sharing” model allows various prices depending on the weight and value of one’s payload.
Ultimately, the promise of low-cost launch services harkens a new period of development for space infrastructure – military or otherwise. However, this change comes with a range of drawbacks which may yield significant implications for policy/strategic thinkers. This article examines the consequences of these developments in space travel, specifically identifying how they will shape national security agendas, global governance, and interstate competitiveness in the near future.
Contemporary Governance on Space Matters
The current framework for dealing with matters regarding space is laid out in the Outer Space Treaty (1968). The treaty regulates many aspects regarding space, such as nuclear weapons, mining operations, environmental regulations, and private enterprise. Most importantly, it also demands that states may not appropriate or monopolise resources and territories in space. Notably, of the 110 states that signed the treaty, the overwhelming majority of signatories could not send objects into orbit and thus had little interest in the field.
However, the current framework laid down by the Outer Space Treaty does little to speak to contemporary geopolitical concerns, mainly that of terrestrial resource depletion. The Luxembourg Space Agency lists resource acquisition as one of its main motivators, stating that celestial bodies provide ample opportunity for resource extraction and ‘sustenance’ for human life.
The shifting landscape of space governance is demonstrated by the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. This act permits private entities to exploit ‘space resources’, effectively allowing American citizens to privatise assets brought from space. With this in mind, countries such as India, China, and Russia have drafted or announced policies to better integrate their national space programmes with domestic private enterprises.
It is then foreseeable that many more countries will choose to engage in these previously prohibitive projects. In particular, specifically “middle-power” countries, states that are relatively wealthy with limited military capabilities, may divert more resources to space travel – as Luxembourg, Singapore, and New Zealand already have. Consequently, the previously superpower-exclusive field of space may become more ‘crowded’. Space operations may provide a useful alternative to terrestrial resource competition as it could provide access to untapped water sources and vast mineral deposits – including gold, platinum, nickel and Iron.
Yet, the enhanced activity has sparked concerns surrounding space debris. Low-earth orbit has only a limited space for free moving waste. Some have theorised that an excess abundance of ‘junk’ may yield dire consequences for future expeditions and analysis. The problem underscores the need for deeper coordination on space ventures and an updated international framework on space matters.
Why is space becoming more relevant to decision-makers?
As previously mentioned, the costs of manned space travel in the early period of exploration were too high to garner sustainable public support – particularly in the United States. The propagandistic advantage of space travel was primarily lost after the Apollo Moon Landings. After continuous failures from the N-1 – the USSR’s answer to the Saturn V rocket – Soviet higher-ups decided to cut funding for the initiative. The end of the space race subsequently led to stagnation and waning public interest for the costly programmes.
However, there has been an increased interest in space ventures in recent years. China has become the second state to plant a national flag on the moon. Similarly, India & China have announced plans to launch and develop exclusive space stations in low-earth orbit.
Furthermore, Satellite technology started to become increasingly important to strategic thought. As these technologies have become essential parts of societal infrastructure – certain states appear to have developed the capabilities to either disrupt or destroy these objects. Four states (Russia, The United States, India, and China) have developed the ability to destroy satellites in orbit from the ground. Several actors have also demonstrated the ability to shut down satellites remotely. Speaking on the issue of anti-satellite technology, Professor Johnson-Freese of the US Naval College stated: ‘If your satellite goes down during a crisis, do you assume that it was nefarious intent? Do you react?… There is a lot of potential for misunderstanding that could very easily escalate.’ If used offensively, this capability can be used to disrupt the everyday functions of a society – including global positioning systems (GPS), broadband, satellite communications, and financial services. Concerns have also been raised that this capability may be in the reach of sub-state actors.
The point highlights the beginnings of a spiralling ‘security dilemma’. As technocratic societies have developed their reliance on orbital apparatus, particular vulnerabilities have emerged. In this case, the question for policy-makers and strategists should be “how can one discourage potential disruptive actions from taking place?” It may become apparent that these parties may choose to enhance their capabilities to deter any potential threats.
Security and Military Operations
States have also been more willing to integrate space into their security agendas. As President Vladimir Putin stated, the “preservation of strategic stability… [depends on Russia’s] ability to effectively resolve security tasks in outer space”. These ideas are echoed by British Air Chief Marshall Sir Mike Wigston, who argued that achieving command is essential as future wars may quickly spill over into space.
Thus, what is increasingly relevant to space discussion is how modern military forces rely on orbital intelligence and satellite communications. In this regard, protecting these assets is essential to a given state’s security apparatus; achieving command in space should therefore be a pressing objective.
This perspective comes coupled with the growing number of countries (the US, UK, China, Russia, France, and India) that have decided to start their own space commands. Many of these countries have linked space operations to existing institutions. However, in the US and India, space matters have received independent command structures. This difference signals the recognition of a new military environment distinct from maritime, air, and ground objectives, thus further highlighting the importance of achieving command in this area.
In this regard, the question presented by command in space parallels the issues raised by Guilo Douhet during the interwar period. Much like the “air force” question of that era, strategists must ask whether space can be effectively integrated into air objectives.
Overall, this article highlights three concerns.
Firstly, the exploration of space provides an opportunity for individual states and people across the world. However, how can policy-makers foster a greater sense of mutual accountability and cooperation in the face of enhanced space ventures?
Secondly, modern states have become more dependent on space technologies to function appropriately. The greater reliance on this apparatus has provided benefits and vulnerabilities to societal infrastructures. How can states further develop their security capabilities in this area whilst also avoiding a ‘security dilemma’ situation? Similarly, how may states deter actors from exploiting these vulnerabilities?
Finally, what implications do the rise of “space command” forces have on contemporary strategic thought? Considering the unique attributes of space as an environment, what does it mean to achieve ‘command’ in this theatre? How do these new institutions affect strategic calculi in the traditional theatres of the land, sea, and air?
To conclude, the questions presented by this new technology are novel and unique – its implications are also wide-reaching and substantial. We should consider what role it plays in our future carefully.
Robert Culligan is a MA student in International Affairs from King’s College London. He holds an MA in Politics and International Relations from The University of Aberdeen. Robert is a public speaker, event organiser and fintech-sector analyst. His research interests lie in space policy, the post-Soviet region, and British Diplomacy.
Featured Image: “Southern Africa from the International Space Station” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
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