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United States Space Force: Some Thoughts

Recently US Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed the Trump Administration’s intention to establish a United States ‘space force’.[1] This has garnered a range of reactions, though I’m not sure that I’ve seen anyone who thinks a new branch of service itself is a good idea. I will discuss some of the legal aspects of military space activities, before discussing the concept of a space force more generally. These are, of course, my opinions, and I’m far from an expert in space security, which is why I finish off this post with some suggested further readings from people who are.

Space Law

There have been suggestions that a US Space Force would be unlawful under the Outer Space Treaty. However, there is nothing in the treaty that would necessarily prohibit it. While it is true that the Outer Space Treaty stipulates that outer space is used for peaceful purposes and in the interests and for the benefits of all States and people, that doesn’t, and hasn’t stopped the military for utilizing outer space. There have been, and continue, to be attempts to define ‘peaceful’ as non-military, but that is not a view that has ever been accepted by the ‘space powers’, and all ‘space powers’ make use of space for military purposes. The most obvious example of this is the various Global Navigation Satellite Systems, and it is illustrative that the UK press made the most fuss about the potential security implication of the UK losing access to Galileo’s PRS, to the extent that the UK government has announced its intention to construct its own GNSS to replace Galileo if needs be.[2]

The Outer Space Treaty does have specific prohibitions relating to military activities, most notably the prohibition of building military bases, facilities, establishments etc on the Moon or any other celestial bodies. Military personnel are not prohibited from participating in scientific or otherwise exclusively peaceful missions however. Furthermore, the Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. However, this does not apply to other weapons (though WMD is a vaguely defined term…)[3] It is also worth noting that Article III of the Outer Space Treaty stipulates that all of international law including the UN Charter applies in outer space, this means that the broad prohibition on the use of force, with the exceptions for self-defence and actions authorised by the United Nations Security Council, apply just as much in outer space as they do in any other domain. However, again, what exactly this means is something of an open question, hence the MILAMOS[4] and Woomera Manual[5] projects.

‘Dominance’ and Articles I and II…

One thing that did stick out to me during Vice President Pence’s speech was the declaration that the United States needs to ‘dominate’ outer space. He didn’t specify what the Trump Administration envisions when it says it intends for the United States to ‘dominate’ outer space, but the language was jarring. To dominate means to control, to command, to govern[6], this implies an intention to deny access, which flies in the face of two of the fundamental principle of space law expressed in Article I and II of the Outer Space Treaty; that is the freedom of access and use of outer space but also the non-appropriation principle. Now I chalk this language up to the pseudo-macho posturing that is de rigueur for the Trump Administration (who also don’t chose their words carefully, if at all…) but combined with language emanating from the House and Senate (such as the implication that space is the next ‘American’ Frontier) as well as the general attitude and demeanour of the Trump Administration it is becoming increasingly tiresome to give the United States the benefit of the doubt on these matters… the US needs to be more careful about language, especially as there are numerous states who won’t give it the benefit of the doubt when the US announces its intention to ‘dominate’ outer space.


Not exactly a new idea

Military Uses of Outer Space

As mentioned the military has used outer space since the dawn of the space age. The United States was developing intelligence satellites before the launch of Sputnik indeed there is potentially evidence that Eisenhower may have ‘allowed’ the Soviets to beat the US to space in order to establish the principle of freedom of overflight that would enable the US to fly surveillance satellites over the Soviet Union, recognizing that the value of intelligence satellites was far greater than the propaganda value of being ‘first’ into outer space. Of course, Eisenhower’s desire for the first US satellite to be a ‘civilian’ project probably better explains the delay, although it was underpinned by similar motives for establishing a clear legal precedent with a reduced risk of Soviet objection[7]. Today Western militaries (the United States in particular) rely on space for a variety of capabilities, most notably the GPS system, but also communications and intelligence gathering. Given the reliance that the military has it is both increasingly imperative that they are able to adequately defend these assets, especially as there is a clear ‘asymmetrical’ advantage to any state that is able to deny the US access to its military space assets. However, the United States, has, at least previously, also developed its own anti-satellite weapons, so it can hardly claim the moral high ground here. Furthermore one of the concerns about the developing on-orbit servicing industry is its inherent dual use capabilities, so this is more of a case of the US pot calling the Russian and Chinese kettles black than the Trump Administration would have you believe (although, for now, I will grant that I trust the US military and government more than I trust the Russian or Chinese), and it is also important to remember that even a state with these capabilities is still subject to the prohibition of the use of force mentioned above (and despite their existence in substantial (and expensive) quantities, states have exercised restraint in the use of nuclear weapons so there’s no reason to expect the use of ‘space weapons’ if they are developed.)

Furthermore, the civilian world has become increasingly dependent upon space, to the extent that the UK government issued a report a last year that estimated that if just the UK were to lose access to just GNSS for just 5 days it would cost £5.2 billion.[8] Therefore, when we talk about the need to defend space assets were not just talking about military space assets, especially as it is becoming increasingly hard to make such a distinction as, for example, the military fairly regularly acquire communications satellite services from commercial firms…

War in Space is a Bad Idea

Which allows for a nice segue into my next point which is that war in space is a bad idea and should be something we strive to avoid. This is another worrying aspect of the Trump Administration’s ‘tone’/’approach’ in this regard. They seem to be rather enthusiastic about the prospect of space war, again this is probably their pseudo-macho BS, but there have been a number in the US, particularly the armed forces, who have been rather fatalistic about the prospect of war in space, declaring that it is inevitable that war will expand into this new ‘domain’. However, war in space is not inevitable, at least in the sense that nothing is actually inevitable, but also humans are capable of exercising restraint and control, again, despite the many, many thousands of nuclear weapons we’ve managed to avoid a nuclear war (as least so far…), furthermore we have declared numerous forms of weapons systems and modes of warfare to be beyond the pale and even illegal. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is that much more heinous because the international community has declared these weapons illegal, and beyond the pale for civilized nations. We could move to develop similar norms for outer space. And we should do. There are two compelling reasons for doing so.

First, we are coming increasingly to rely on space assets for our economy and our society, the daily lives of most people in the West (and indeed increasingly in the wider world) have become intrinsically connected with the space economy even if they are largely unaware of it. This ties nicely with the second compelling reason to avoid war in space, that the realities of outer space mean that the destruction of space objects in a war scenario would result in a cascade that could make entire orbits unusable for decades, centuries or perhaps even longer (indeed Kessler syndrome as this is known, is a threat even without the added catalyst of deliberately destroying space objects…) It would be a true act of stupidity having spent all of this time developing space debris mitigation guidelines only to render space unusable by military actions of a few nations. War is inevitably an economic catastrophe, and we are still dealing with the consequences of the widespread use of sea mines to disrupt the shipping lanes during both World Wars.[9] We should avoid repeating these errors.

Furthermore, given rules around proportionality and the long term, and indiscriminate, consequences of such an environmental catastrophe, one can certainly envision an argument that the use of anti-satellite weapons violates the existing laws of war. However, it is beyond my competence and the scope of this post to explore that at this time.


Space debris – already a problem…

Freedom of Navigation/Space Guard

That the United States has legitimate security interests in outer space is without a doubt. Furthermore, the United States has the right, under the UN Charter, to engage in self-defence.[10] Furthermore, as at sea, the United States acts, or at least has acted (see concerns about plans to ‘dominate’ space), as a facilitator of the rights of free access and use of outer space, as the US Navy has been the primary defender of the rights of freedom of navigation of the seas for decades, and the US defence of these freedoms has benefited everyone, even ‘adversaries’ like China. The US should build on this role in space, they already provide formidable Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capabilities which they share freely, warning of potential collisions. Furthermore, given the US’ strength in both military and civil space the US could take the lead on safety of space operations and protecting the space environment. This would build on the US’ long history and reputation of protecting the rights of small states and general rights of access to the ‘global commons’ like the high seas. It was for these reasons that a number of voices in the United States have been arguing that the Trump Administration should go for a Space Guard (a la their Coast Guard) rather than a Space Force (if indeed the US needs a separate force, US Space Command are doing a good job, give them more money and more powers and they can fill any gap, perceived or real, that this Space Force is meant to close.)[11]

Concluding Thoughts

Space is a military domain and has been arguably since the dawn of the space age. There are legitimate security concerns with regards to outer space and it is fair and right for states to consider these concerns as part of their broader security strategies and considerations. However, we should strive to avoid ‘war in space’ and attacks on ‘space assets’, this isn’t borne out of pacifism but a recognition that actual ‘warfare’ in outer space would wreak havoc on the space environment and potentially cripple the space economy and possibly even render space unusable for years if not longer. As with many aspects of space governance we need greater international cooperation and discussion. While COPUOS isn’t necessarily the right forum for this (the P does stand for peaceful) the UN is surely the right vehicle. We’ve had great success with arms control in the past, we can do so again. We should start with space situational awareness and general space operational safety measures. There’s so much to lose and very little to gain from ‘war in space’, but together we could build a more secure and sustainable space operating environment for the benefit of all.

Further Reading:

Joan Johnson-Freese’s Space Warfare in the Twenty First Century (Routledge 2017)

CSIS – Space Threat Assessment 2018 –

Secure World Foundation – Global Counterspace Capabilities –

Secure World Foundation – The Pros and Cons of Creating a Space Force –

Brian Weeden ‘The Trump Administration needs to exercise leadership in space security diplomacy’ –

Anna Gunn-Golkin ‘Space Guardians’ –

Frank Bednar, Jim Davitch, and Cara Treadwell ‘ Evaluating Integrated Defense Systems: How to Proactively Defend the Final Frontier’ –

Stefan Soesanto ‘Do We Need a Space Force? That Depends on Our Answers to These Legal and Strategic Questions’ –

Celeste Ward Gventer ‘Make it so: Putting Space Force in Context’ –

Cameron Hunter and Bleddyn Bowen ‘Donald Trump’s Space Force isn’t as new or as Dangerous as it Seems’ –


[2]And Galileo represents the only ‘civilian’ GNSS, although the US GPS system is widely used for non-military activities (such as powering your car’s SatNav)

[3]Outer Space Treaty, Article IV

[6]Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 424

[7]Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 112-124; Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (Frank Cass 2002), 109

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