Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
November 2021 Issue [Report]

Ad Astra

The coming battle over space
Illustrations by Shonagh Rae

Illustrations by Shonagh Rae


Ad Astra

The coming battle over space

All armies prefer high ground to low.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War


In late January 2020, in an orbital belt around 640 kilometers above Earth, two unmanned Russian spacecrafts coasted through the sky toward USA-245, an American reconnaissance satellite.

From this elevation a traveler would have seen the earth as a rounded slope of green and brown. One could have made out the rugged edges of mountains and the contours of lakes, our white atmosphere, bowed around the planet, darkening to blue and then black. Seen from a backyard telescope, the satellites would have looked like small glimmers in the night, with light from the sun glinting off their alloyed coating as if off a distant windshield.

The Russian crafts had positioned themselves unusually close to the American, in a near-identical orbit, and they had synced their paths with USA-245—a classified, multibillion-dollar KH-11 satellite, equipped with imaging systems on par with the Hubble telescope—such that one of them came within twenty kilometers of it several times in a single day. Satellites in the same plane may on occasion pass within one hundred kilometers of one another but far less frequently. The Russians, it seemed, were stalking an American spy satellite.

The larger of the two Russian crafts, Kosmos-2542, had first entered the same orbital plane as USA-245 in late November, launched from a Soyuz rocket. This in itself was not a notable occurrence, and the two passed each other only once in eleven days. But on December 6, the Russian vessel seemed to split in two. In fact, it had spat out another, smaller craft. Speaking later, in February, General John W. “Jay” Raymond, chief of the newly established Space Force, would describe it by saying, “The way I picture it, in my mind, is like Russian nesting dolls.”

According to Russia, Kosmos-2542 was an inspector satellite, a type of craft also used by the United States and China. Inspectors are smaller, more agile machines with precise navigation and controls, most often employed to closely approach or dock with friendly crafts to assess for maintenance. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that the satellite born from Kosmos-2542, called Kosmos-2543, was also an inspector, and described its begetting as an “experiment,” intended to further maintenance of its fleet. Russia also noted that 2542 was equipped with cameras powerful enough to photograph the earth’s surface. USA-245 slowly lifted into a higher orbit, away from the Russian satellites, while Kosmos-2543, the baby, zipped around the sky and, in the words of a later published space-threat assessment from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), changed its orbit “constantly”—an exceptional performance in space, where fuel is precious.

Then, on January 22, both Russian crafts approached radically closer to the American. For two months, they shadowed USA-245, one of the two never traveling more than a thousand kilometers from it. One observer noted that their orbital paths were synced such that they were closest to the American when it was in bright sunlight: the ideal choreography for taking photographs.

When Raymond first spoke publicly on the events, in an interview with Time, he called the activity “unusual and disturbing,” and noted that “inspection” of a satellite by an enemy craft is not discernibly different from an approach preceding an attack. An offensive strike could take the form of an old-fashioned kinetic assault—objects hurled through space—or chemical sprays, lasers, signal jammers, and more. The antagonism of Russia’s approach was clear. Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS, told me that the behavior was “really unusual, very intentional, and pushing the limits.” But, she added, whether it was espionage or one-upmanship, it was not illegal.

In mid-April, Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon (DA-ASAT)—a missile launched from Earth rather than from a vessel already in orbit. The country had tested this weapon system—named Nudol, after a river near Moscow—multiple times before, and the UnitedStates, China, and India had all performed DA-ASAT tests in years prior, each demolishing defunct satellites of their own. The Russian weapon seemed intended for a target in open space: it sailed through the sky and then fell back to Earth, where it likely landed in the Laptev Sea. U.S. Space Command issued a statement the same day, declaring the test evidence of the growing threats to U.S. space systems and deeming it “hypocritical”: Russia had publicly called for “full demilitarization” in space. Space Command also took the opportunity to comment on the nesting dolls. Russia, the statement said, had “conducted maneuvers near a U.S. Government satellite that would be interpreted as irresponsible and potentially threatening in any other domain.” In a line attributed to Raymond directly, it warned that the United States was “ready and committed to deterring aggression and defending the Nation, our allies and U.S. interests from hostile acts in space.”

But the Russians were not done. On July 15, Kosmos-2543, the smaller of the stalking pair, itself released a smaller object. It did not approach a U.S. craft, but both the American and British militaries called it a weapon: Russia, they claimed, had fired a projectile in orbit. U.S. Space Command has remained mum on the precise details of what happened. Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist and satellite watcher, told me that it was clear that an object had been discharged at high speed but that it was hard to say whether the intent was to test a weapon or a defense system—an especially vexing distinction in space. The action was “similar,” a statement from U.S. Space Command said, to one by Russia in 2017, and “inconsistent” with the claim that the crafts were inspectors. In response, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the release of the new object was merely part of a “close inspection” and that “most importantly, it did not breach any norms or principles of international law,” calling the American assessment of the events “propaganda,” and volleying back the accusation of hypocrisy: the United States and Britain, it said, “naturally keep silent about their own efforts” and “programs on the possible use of . . . counter-satellite weapons.”

Doug Loverro, the former executive director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told me that the projectile was “a clear provocation.” And yet Russia was right: they still had not broken any law. There were no precise rules guiding how the United States or any military should respond in a case like this—no code with which to say that the Russian satellites had come too close, none determining the nondestructive firing of a weapon as a breach. And there was no military maneuver the United States could have taken to counter the nesting dolls without risking severe escalation.

In fact, the primary source for international law in space is a drastically outdated document from 1967 called the Outer Space Treaty, designed for an environment far simpler than the current field. In a September 2019 address at a conference for air, space, and cyber security, General Raymond put it this way: “The Outer Space Treaty says you can’t have nuclear weapons in space. That’s about what it says. The rest is the wild, wild West.”

On July 8, 1962, just after 11 pm, the sky over Hawaii turned, in a moment, from black to blazing. Streetlights went out, all at once; radios stopped working. For several minutes, a red orb, edged in purple, surrounding a luminous yellow core, made the night as bright as day. It then dimmed, slowly, receding into color-changing auroras. When these lights faded, they left behind a spectral glow that persisted for hours and could be seen throughout the Pacific.

The United States had just detonated a 1.4-megaton nuclear warhead in space. Launched from the Johnston Atoll, an isolated island that had gone from seabird refuge to seaplane landing base to weapons-testing site, the hydrogen bomb exploded two hundred and fifty miles above the earth’s surface. The bomb, code-named Starfish Prime, was a hundred times more powerful than the one that had been dropped on Hiroshima seventeen years earlier. It produced an instantaneous surge of voltage, followed by a slow-rolling distortion of the earth’s magnetic field and a belt of radiation that rippled outward in space and lasted for months. The electromagnetic impact was more significant than government scientists had expected, and the radiation damaged several satellites, American and Soviet. But the United States and the USSR both tested several more nuclear bombs at high altitude that year, including two each in space, one of which, by the Soviets, caused a fire in a power station in Kazakhstan. Space—where exploration had just begun—was being weaponized.

Several of these tests took place that October, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, after which the possibility of nuclear war seemed intolerably near. In August of the next year, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed a treaty prohibiting further testing of nuclear weapons in Earth’s atmosphere, underwater, or in outer space. But the United States and the Soviet Union had still other concerns about the heavens: one of the two nations would make it to the moon first and could stake a claim, establishing a military base on that ultimate high ground. They pursued a second treaty as a hedge, using that agreement to declare that space would be free from territorial competition.

That document, the Outer Space Treaty, was signed by the United States, the USSR, and sixty other nations on the evening of January 27, 1967, in the East Room of the White House. Just an hour and fifteen minutes after they convened, a fire broke out, down the East Coast at Cape Canaveral, in the cockpit of the grounded Apollo 1 command module. The first three American astronauts in the moon shot program were killed within minutes. The disaster and the Outer Space Treaty shared the front page of the next morning’s New York Times.

The U.S. Army’s largest ground offensive in the Vietnam War had recently culminated in the burning and bulldozing of the village of Ben Suc. In San Francisco, on January 14, some twenty thousand young people had converged in Golden Gate Park for the concerts and demonstrations of the Human Be-In. The treaty reflected a politics both entrenched in and sick of war, and a vision of outer space as a canvas—perilous but pristine—where earthly politics could be transformed. Its first article stated that space exploration “shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries . . . and shall be the province of all mankind.” The agreement also established that exploration of outer space was to be “guided by the principle of co-operation and mutual assistance.” All astronauts were to be “regarded as envoys of mankind”—afforded aid when in distress, and safe passage when landing in enemy seas. The treaty further made each nation responsible for damages its crafts might cause,1 and liable for all objects launched from its territory—the result of heavy negotiation, as the Soviets were initially opposed to private entities in the cosmos. Importantly, no nation could claim sovereignty over the moon, other celestial bodies, or any expanse of space.

More than half a century later, this Cold War document remains the basis for all extraterrestrial law. It bans placing nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction into orbit—as Raymond noted—but it says nothing of Earth-to-space or space-to-space arms, nor does it speak to kinetic weapons or the many subtler forms of attack developed since its drafting. The agreement is silent on what constitutes hostile behavior, and though it states that international law extends into space, there is no ready translation of earthly rules to a realm without national borders or gravity, and with limitless potential planes of conflict. As the years have gone by and other nations have joined the United States and Russia in space, and as astronautic technologies have become vastly more sophisticated, the insufficiency of the Outer Space Treaty has become a significant danger.

At Joint Base Andrews in late December 2019, at the signing ceremony establishing the new United States Space Force, President Donald Trump gave his assessment of the nation’s position in space: “We’re leading, but we’re not leading by enough. But very shortly we’ll be leading by a lot.” “Spa-ssss,” he said occasionally, drawing out the latter consonant in a hiss.

Judging by the assessments of security experts and the ambitions of the military, he was correct. In the spring of 2020, both CSIS and the Secure World Foundation, a think tank focused on security in space, released reports finding that stability in space, long sustained by the United States’ sheer dominance there, was waning. As Kaitlyn Johnson from CSIS said: “Other nations are catching up.” And despite the bluster with which the Space Force had been introduced, and its seeming absurdity to much of the general public, military scholars and commanders were divided only on the question of separating space missions from the Air Force and into their own branch.

Since 2015, Russia, China, India, Iran, Israel, France, and North Korea have all established military space programs. China’s and Russia’s space commands are close on the heels of the United States, and according to the Secure World Foundation, the United States has idled certain of its offensive-technology programs while China and Russia actively test the same capabilities. Over the course of the past two years, martial activity beyond our atmosphere has exploded, and in conversations this summer, many space and security experts told me that the pressure is rising. “We are watching tensions ratchet up,” said Jack Beard, a former Department of Defense attorney and a professor of law specializing in space.

In March 2019, India tested its first direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon, blowing up one of its own crafts in low Earth orbit. In April 2020, when Iran announced the creation of its military space program, it slung its first reconnaissance satellite, Noor 1 (“Light 1” in Farsi), into orbit. In September of that year, China successfully launched a reusable craft, dubbed a “spaceplane,” which cruises in low Earth orbit and returns to the planet in one piece, landing horizontally. (The United States has developed its own spaceplane, the U.S. X-37B, first launched in 2010, but its missions have been classified since 2004, and it’s not clear how the crafts compare.) This May, China landed a rover on Mars and declared its intention to establish a long-term human presence there.

When China successfully tested a direct-ascent ASAT weapon in 2007, it was seen as a wake-up call for the Pentagon. And though only China, Russia, India, and the United States now have demonstrated kinetic ASAT capability, satellites are susceptible to many less spectacular forms of attack. North Korea is known to be developing signal jammers to block satellite transmissions, and Iran has cyberattack capacity that could disrupt space-based signals and corrupt data. Even Japan, a country with a pacifist constitution that prohibits offensive military action, is preparing defenses for space combat, such as robotic arms to protect satellites.

General Raymond has stated, and analysts believe, that China has been building high-powered lasers to blast sensors on satellites, effectively blinding them.2 China has also demonstrated “spoofing” technology, a type of interference where a satellite’s signal is mimicked by a fake. In July 2019, a U.S. container ship, the MV Manukai, and several other vessels in the port of Shanghai received false GPS signals, which experts believe were likely sent by the Chinese military, including notifications of phantom ships fast approaching. Though the Manukai’s captain was able to see, with binoculars, that the GPS was wrong, the spoof could have been disastrous.

While many experts say that the likelihood of kinetic war—bombs bursting in space—is impossible to assess, conflict in less overt forms is already playing out. “In some respects,” Loverro told me, “we’ve already had war in space.” In 2007 and 2008, hackers believed to be from China attacked U.S. satellites operated by the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA. In the latter case, they gained control of the craft, but stopped short of issuing it commands. The Russian government, meanwhile, has been accused of widespread, malicious signal jamming, including, in 2018, disrupting GPS transmissions during a NATO exercise in Scandinavia and disabling American surveillance drones in Syria.

All this comes at a time of exponential growth in the commercial use of space. When Russia launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, from a cosmodrome on the Kazakh steppe in 1957, the small aluminum sphere entered a near abyss. But the orbital belts surrounding Earth are now a crowded highway of around seven thousand satellites, moving at speeds of up to seventeen thousand miles an hour. Many of these machines are used for both civilian and military purposes. Three thousand of them are no longer in operation, and travel alongside around fifteen thousand pieces of space debris sizable enough to observe from Earth: the shrapnel of blasted satellites, old rocket boosters, and more, including items lost during space walks (a camera, a blanket, a spatula). U.S. Space Command tracks this dreck, alongside satellites, and alerts operators around the world when objects are due to collide. Though actual crashes are rare, the military now issues more than a hundred thousand of these warnings each day. Those who study the subject commonly describe the current play of space as “congested, contested, and competitive.”

The vast majority of satellites are split between the two most useful zones around the earth: the more accessible low Earth orbit (LEO), which begins about five hundred kilometers from the planet’s surface and is ideal for telecommunications and imaging, and geosynchronous orbit (GEO), thirty-six thousand kilometers away, where satellites move more slowly and in time with the earth’s rotation, making them stationary relative to given points on the planet and ideal for meteorology. Elon Musk’s broadband project, Starlink, is currently veiling the world in a mega-constellation of new satellites. As of this May, Starlink has launched more than 1,700 of them into LEO. These now make up over a quarter of all functional satellites orbiting Earth. According to Hugh Lewis, an astronautics researcher in the United Kingdom, they account for roughly half of all close calls—cases in which objects have passed within one kilometer of each other.3

Musk’s company SpaceX launched its first civilian passenger flight this September, reaching nearly five hundred and eighty kilometers above sea level—far higher than the voyages of fellow billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, who each traveled to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere this summer. Branson went first, on the spaceplane VSS Unity, reaching eighty kilometers above the planet’s surface, the distance at which the Air Force considers a traveler an astronaut. Bezos took off second, in a reusable rocket called the New Shepard, to one hundred kilometers above sea level—what’s called the Kármán line, another commonly used boundary for space. A representative for Bezos’s Blue Origin venture says the company will be ready to take more tourists to space at the end of this year; Branson’s Virgin Galactic claims the same for 2022. All three men—Bezos, Branson, and Musk—use the loftiest language to describe their ambitions for the void. (Musk, for his part, wants humans to become a “multi-planet species.”) Each sees a new type of prestige past the horizon, as well as extraordinary sums of money.

Competition for position on the useful orbital belts is now steep. And that competition is its own signal of risk, says Jack Beard. “There’s never been a moment in human history where all these new possibilities of resources don’t lead to disagreements between states,” he said. “And unfortunately, military involvement is usually close behind.”

This risk comes at a time when civilian dependence on satellites—for internet service, cell signals, weather monitoring, geolocation—is higher than ever, and American military reliance on satellites is near total. The military’s space-based systems underpin everything: communications, surveillance, guided munitions, nuclear command and control, and more.4 Among the spacefaring nations, the United States is by far the most exposed, operating more than half of all active satellites circling the globe. Laura Grego, an astrophysicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me that the Pentagon has been nervous about this vulnerability for a long time. “They’re relying on something that’s hard to protect,” she said.

Direct kinetic attacks on space assets, and the resultant debris, could create a cascading effect that would wreck the satellites we depend on. In the case of widespread destruction, hurricane tracking, search-and-rescue locators, financial transactions, and emergency messages could all go dark. The most important satellites, such as those communicating directives to the military, are hardened against attack, with protective shields and special maneuvering capabilities, and are backed up by others. “It’s pretty easy to kill a single satellite,” said Loverro, “but it’s hard to kill the mission.” In the case of GPS, for example, it would take fifteen or twenty successful shots to bring down the system. But all satellites are vulnerable. McDowell, the Harvard astrophysicist, put it this way: “If a large piece of debris hits you at orbital velocity—yeah, there’s not really a defense against that.” This is true even for nuclear command and control crafts. Loverro told me that while these satellites orbit in the much sparser and more distant GEO, and have some redundancybuilt into their networks, by far their greatest protection is deterrence: “We know, and the Russians know, and the Chinese and other adversaries know, that if you attack one of those satellites, it is clear that you are probably about to start a nuclear war.”

All military assets are surrounded by a “use it or lose it” ethos, says Joan Johnson-Freese, the author of Space Warfare in the 21st Century and a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. Once conflict begins, all holdings are seen to be at risk: you need to fire that missile before it’s taken out. “The military is taught to assume the worst, and to react to it,” she told me. “Because space assets are so far away, and there is a high potential to not be sure what is happening, high risk and threat must be assumed.” This is commonly referred to as “the tyranny of distance.” When the rules are not plain, whether in peacetime or war, the situation is “exponentially” more dangerous.

If conflict were to escalate in space, Johnson-Freese told me, “Things could get real sixteenth-century, real quick.” Everyone knows that space is the United States’ Achilles’ heel. “So if things went bad, and I don’t know in what way, but if things went bad—between the United States and China, or the U.S., China, and Russia, or whoever it is—and there’s a major conflict, I think it’s no-holds-barred. Because the U.S. has the most to lose.”

“Countries are starting to ask the question” of when they can and should fight, Laura Grego told me in June. “If you’re getting up close to my satellite, how close do you have to be before I can defend myself? How close is too close; what is intimidation; what is a threat, and what is not a threat?” “Countries,” she said, “are starting to answer these questions for themselves.”

Grego is a technical expert for the Woomera Manual, an independent team of scholars, government officials, and other space and legal experts from around the world that is drafting a rule book for military conduct in space, including for times of war. The document would clarify how the Outer Space Treaty and international law should be used together, making brighter the bright lines of war, and delineating rules for engagement in space—including proportionality of action—that its creators hope will help to avert outright conflict in the first place. Something of a sister organization, the MILAMOS Project—the Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space—is crafting a rule book exclusively for peacetime in space. (The two began in 2016 as a single project; Woomera splintered off in 2018.)

Neither document is a treaty—they will not be ratified or formally adopted, but will become common resources. The Woomera panel is named after an Australian aerospace facility, which in turn borrows its name from an Aboriginal word for the hooked rod used to propel a spear. Its participants hail from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Israel, the Netherlands, Sweden, and China. There is no Russian participant, though the Woomera members I spoke with attributed the country’s absence to logistical factors.

The current opacity of space law, the group’s mission statement says, allows for dangerous misunderstandings, and permits “states that might wish to conduct hostile space operations to do so in a zone of uncertainty.” This in turn complicates the responses of other nations. “It’s not just the Wild West, the lack of laws” that causes the uncertainty, Grego explained. “It’s a lack of a sort of experience.” In space, she said, “You can ratchet up a crisis,” because we don’t know how nations will react to different behaviors. To this end, both the Woomera and MILAMOS manuals seek to detail the relatively few past incidents of international engagement in space and use them as a form of precedent for interpreting existing law, codifying how countries have previously behaved into a new set of rules. (This is lex lata, the law as it is. The drafters of the Outer Space Treaty dealt in lex ferenda: the law as it ought to be.)

Because of the nature of human events in space, this approach means that the Woomera editors are granting a type of authority to decisions likely made under extreme pressure and, in many cases, for the first time in history. The manual will also enshrine space behavior born of the particular power dynamics of the past sixty years. But the authors wanted buy-in from nations, and saw this as the surest path.

Beard, the former Department of Defense attorney, is Woomera’s editor in chief. He told me that some military actions in space are clear-cut—the law, and the past, need no interpretation. Some satellites, as he put it, “hold the key to Earth’s existence”: everyone understands that any threat to nuclear command and control is intolerable. But Article Nine of the OST introduces a nebulous concept, saying that states are required to “undertake appropriate international consultation” if an action in space will cause “harmful interference” with the peaceful activities of another party. What is “harmful interference”? Woomera’s task, Beard said, is in part to answer this question.

If threats to nuclear command satellites are so serious as to be considered absolutely out of bounds, then signal jamming—an action that is unwelcome but occurs regularly without repercussions—occupies the opposite end of the spectrum of perceived harm. Beard stops short of saying that jamming is accepted, but, he told me, “it’s routine.” Between these two poles—interfering with nuclear satellites on one end, and signal jamming on the other—is a vast, murky middle: satellite “dazzling” (temporary disabling via lasers), “microwaves . . . robotic-arm manipulators, chemical spray, cyber—it’s all out there,” said Beard. Dale Stephens, the former chief of operations and international law for the Australian military, a professor of law specializing in space, and a lead Woomera editor, framed it this way: “What happens if I maneuver your satellite? I don’t destroy anything—I use cyber to have it turned into the sun and away from what it’s doing. What is that? Is that a use of force?” “You have this constant battle,” Beard said, “of what’s below the line and what’s above the line.”

When the manual is complete, all interested countries will be invited to send delegates—a mix of diplomats, military personnel, and representatives from national civilian space programs—to review and discuss it at The Hague, likely in 2022. After that, Grego says, she hopes to see a copy of the manual on the desk of “every JAG in every country.”

Every space security expert I spoke with believes that both the Woomera and MILAMOS texts will be widely used. “They’ll be quite helpful,” Loverro told me. “But not because somebody is going to open up the manual and say, ‘Here’s what we should do in this situation.’ ” For each decision a military commander makes, he said, there’s a negotiation among tools like these, with lawyers, policy advisers, and others navigating quite a few “books on the shelves,” including each military’s self-determined rules of engagement for a given conflict.

Joan Johnson-Freese agreed that Woomera will be consulted by the world’s forces but noted a distinct limit. “Do I think there’s going to be that manual on every JAG’s desk? Yes, I do,” she said. But when a crisis arises—if an alarm rings out warning of a fired missile—“that manual and ‘use it or lose it’ are going to come—smack—into play. And that’s when that JAG is going to be told to sit down and shut up.”

In mid-September of last year, from a stage in a small theater at the Pentagon, surrounded by heavy curtains of royal blue, General Raymond addressed members of the Air Force. “Our adversaries are moving deliberately and quickly in order to reduce our advantage,” he said. “I’m not confident that we can achieve victory, or even compete, in a modern conflict without space power. And I am not willing to lose in order to learn.”

He was there to ceremoniously transfer three hundred airmen—twenty-two of whom were in the audience—to the Space Force. He was also formally introducing the branch’s first military doctrine, Spacepower, released to the public that August. The world’s new “war-fighting architecture,” Raymond told the crowd, demands a “new design,” and the U.S. military must “be able to meet the threat while reducing the first-mover advantage.” The United States also needs, he said, “the ability to punch back.”

The new doctrine inaugurates space as a distinct war-fighting domain, and “spacepower” as a military power in its own right. Among the Space Force’s goals, it says, are to “destroy, nullify, or reduce” adversarial menaces in space, especially by deterrence through the flexing of enormous military muscle. The document is dutifully reverential of the Outer Space Treaty and international law, and says that “military space forces should make every effort to promote responsible norms of behavior that perpetuate space as a safe and open environment.” But at its core, the doctrine opposes the fundamental purpose of the OST, which was to define and preserve space as a place of peace. It also explicitly hedges against the promises of the ’67 treaty, saying: “No domain in history in which humans contest policy goals has ever been free from the potential for war.” The United States must “acknowledge” that space “is for peaceful purposes” while preparing to defend it, a quiet clause clarifies, not from those who would disrupt that peace, but from those “who will seek to undermine our goals in space.” Included in the “cornerstone responsibilities” of the Space Force, the doctrine says, are to “Preserve Freedom of Action” and “Enable Joint Lethality and Effectiveness.”

In August, I asked Major Brian Green, a lawyer for the Space Force, how discrepancies between the Spacepower Doctrine and the Outer Space Treaty would be resolved. It wasn’t a question he answered directly. However, he said that the new doctrine “certainly doesn’t have the force of law”—acknowledging that it should not override the OST. Certain principles in the treaty, he said, became accepted “rather quickly”—such as the freedom of space exploration and the nonappropriation principle. But now, how those “very clear terms” apply to the moon and other celestial bodies is “becoming a little more challenging.” He noted that Article Two of the OST says that such bodies “are not subject to national appropriation in any way. But,” he continued, “the United States’ position is that the extraction and use of resources on the moon and other celestial bodies does not violate that nonappropriation principle.” The United States’ position is also, he said, for those resources—effectively, pieces of the moon—to not be “treated as the property of the whole international community. Or what have you.”

As for the Woomera Manual, Green told me it would likely be useful, and noted the contributions of some “very smart people.” But, he said, “Ultimately government officials are going to have to come to their own decisions about what the rules are.”

In a set of space-focused war games held by CSIS in the fall of 2020, around forty space and national-security experts gathered on Zoom to run simulations of potential conflicts. In one scenario, a Russian satellite drifted near a NATO craft involved in nuclear command and control, sometimes blocking its signals. Russia claimed it had simply lost charge of its vessel. As tensions climbed, an explosion knocked out an American GPS satellite. Russia insisted the explosion must have been caused by a faulty fuel tank; the Americans suspected it was a Russian space mine, a small explosive weapon, too slight to easily detect from Earth. If it was a mine, it wasn’t on the official registry of objects in orbit. The participants considered a range of possible responses, from issuing Russia a formal warning to jamming the uplinks to the nation’s network of mines to blowing up a satellite in GLONASS—Russia’s navigation system—with a kinetic weapon. When the players were asked later what resources they wished they’d had, they said they wanted better spatial awareness and clearer international rules.

All challenges to nuclear weapons remain on the far side of a bright line, but the tension between the Spacepower Doctrine and the OST makes clear that the treaty’s authority is softening at its edges. The balance of international risk has shifted, though extreme shared risks remain. As in the Cold War, the United States is once again involved in a “great power competition,” in which nations are projecting military might across many spheres. But, as Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow in international relations at Stanford and at the American Enterprise Institute, told me, in the 1960s the risks of nuclear war were divided equally between the United States and the Soviet Union. “There is now a huge asymmetry in vulnerability,” she said, with China’s power growing, and the United States the most sensitive to attack.

Experts focused on pursuing peace, or at least safety, in space now see two paths to that end: through further diplomatic efforts and arms control, or through a new assertion of military supremacy. But most of those I spoke with said that there is no appetite for new binding international treaties. “There’s a lack of willingness to limit your own arsenal in order to achieve better global stability,” said Kaitlyn Johnson, from CSIS. “And there’s just a lack of trust—there’s not a lot of goodwill.” Each nation views the operations of others in the most threatening possible light, while describing their own actions, no matter how bellicose, in innocent terms. At a Secure World Foundation panel in May 2019, an Indian diplomat used the question-and-answer portion of the event to deliver a speech characterizing his country’s ASAT test as purely defensive and responsibly conducted. After a Russian craft, the Luch-Olymp (the “Ray of Olympus”), closely approached a Franco-Italian secure-communications satellite, the Athena-Fidus (“Faithful Athena”), in 2017, the French deemed it a provocation, and Florence Parly, the minister of the armed forces, accused the Russians of pursuing “a little Star Wars.” Then, in July 2019, when France announced its new military space command and declared an intention to arm its satellites with machine guns, Parly’s office insisted that the country was not embarking upon a space arms race—it was simply carrying out a “reasoned arsenalization.”

“The question I always want to pose,” Johnson-Freese said, “is, What could China do in space that the United States doesn’t consider threatening? And the answer is, nothing.” China, for its part, has said that the very creation of the U.S. Space Force is “a serious violation of the international consensus on the peaceful use of outer space,” and Russian officials have implied that the force could be a stepping-stone to the United States breaking with the OST. The two countries describe their own space forces as defensive necessities.

Both China and Russia have proposed drafts of a space arms-control treaty known as the PPWT (the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects), which would theoretically ban all types of weapons in space. An American diplomat, speaking for the U.S. position, said that both versions were “fundamentally flawed,” citing their lack of means of verification and their implicit allowance of direct-ascent ASAT weapons. Tom Ayres, a former general counsel of the Air Force who oversaw the drafting of the legislation that created the Space Force, told me that treaties such as this would put the United States at a disadvantage. “We in the U.S. will abide by the rules of law,” he said. “But there are nations who would love to have these very strict rules for space put into place and then completely flaunt them—just like they do with international intellectual property laws or the laws of the sea.”

The U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is currently focused on establishing guidelines to limit the creation of space debris. Niklas Hedman, the committee’s secretary, told me that he thinks any new binding treaty in the current geopolitical environment is “impossible.” Green, the Space Force lawyer, said of new treaties: “I don’t see that as likely at this point.” Mike Hoversten, the lead counsel for space, international, and operations law at Space Operations Command, told me that he thinks it is “unfortunately probably going to take some kind of a significant event” in space for the international community to accept a new treaty.

Loverro worries that these claims of infeasibility can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If you say there’s no chance for an agreement, then there’s no chance for an agreement,” he said. He believes that a new treaty outlawing kinetic weapons “is absolutely in the U.S. national interest” and that “we should never forget the right, the need, to negotiate treaties that are in our own self-interest. No matter how hard it might be.”

In his September 2020 speech at the Pentagon, General Raymond told the incoming troops of the Space Force:

If deterrence fails, a war that begins or extends into space will be fought over great distances at tremendous speeds. . . . Direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles can reach low Earth orbit in minutes. Electronic attacks and directed-energy weapons move at the speed of light, and on-orbit capabilities move at speeds greater than 17,500 miles an hour. To plan for warfare at that speed and those distances, we must be lean, we must be agile, and we must be fast.

But the purpose of this preparation was precise. In a similar address a year before, he put it plainly: “We want to win this fight before this fight ever takes place,” he said. “Nobody wins this fight if it begins or extends into space.”

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now