Six potential logos for the US Space Force, created by the Trump-Pence 2020 Campaign PAC.
“When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space…” proclaimed Donald Trump, “We must have American dominance in space”. Trump’s recent announcement of the establishment of Space Force, a sixth branch of the US armed forces dedicated to US defence operations in space, has both captured the imagination of the general public and left many scratching their heads. Although the Trump administration’s recent declaration leaves little doubt as to the objective of US military dominance in space, many questions were left unanswered: Is this really necessary? Who will pay for it? How will dominance be measured? And as has been said of generals and war, is the US seeking to win the wrong, meaning the last, race?
Of course, this announcement remains confined to rhetorical space, having no real impact on policy until the plan receives congressional approval. In fact, recent policy proposals toward establishing a dedicated space corps have successively been knocked back by Congress (the last one as recently as last year). Regardless of whether Space Force is set to become a legitimate policy item on the 2020 agenda, it warrants a closer look at the current international space-security dynamic and begs the question of what international legal frameworks are in place to protect the final frontier from military domination.
While many are concerned about the militarisation of space, it is important to note that this has long been a process in which the US and other global powers have been engaged. In fact, “space” is one of the five dimensions of military operations, defining it as a domain of warfare in the core US military doctrine. Space Force, far from being a novel concept in US military policy, has actually existed as a dedicated space command within the US Air Force since 1982. The Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) currently employs over 35,000 people and is responsible for supporting vital satellite, missile and cyber operations worldwide. As such, rather than setting a bold historical precedent, the Trump Administration’s Space Force announcement fits squarely in line with the history of the space race, a marathon that has always been run with military ambitions.
In his speech declaring the creation of Space Force at the Pentagon in June, Mike Pence claimed, “Our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already”. This speech positioned Space Force as a US response to the rapidly developing military threats of China and Russia, especially with regard to the destruction and jamming of satellites. Anti-satellite weapons are a critical component of the Space Force plan, as satellites are not only the backbone of the US military complex, critical for logistics of ballistics and drone navigation, but also a technology we rely on daily for civilian matters such as telecommunications and weather reporting. The jamming, destroying, or hacking of US satellites would have widespread and crushing ramification for US infrastructure and defence capabilities.
But the use quantum computing, communication and control could profoundly tip the scales in this next chapter of the space race. Quantum encryption presents the most enticing hope of a massive security advantage with regard to satellites in space, allowing for the highest level of security possible. The use of quantum encryption would theoretically prevent hackers from cracking codes and other forms of espionage, military or otherwise. Quantum computing could allow for an exponential military advantage in space. Satellites equipped with quantum capabilities would enable offensive tactics like surveillance and reconnaissance to be done with greater speed, accuracy and security than ever before.
It would obviously be in the interest of Space Force to lead the way in quantum-satellite technology; however, China has been steadily gaining the lead on the US for some time. In 2016, China successfully launched the Micius satellite, the first quantum satellite in space. Earlier this year, Micius set up the first ‘intercontinental cryptology service’ using quantum cryptology.
So, if the world’s strongest powers are actively developing space forces with satellite striking and quantum encryption capabilities, what international legal protections prevent an all-out battle for space dominance from developing?
Notably, the US and the Soviet Union are both signatories to The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the most comprehensive legal framework enforcing non-armament and guiding the collaborative, peaceful and scientific exploration of space. While this treaty does not explicitly concern the militarization of space, Articles I and IV are of particular interest.
Article I states: “The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.” This article exists to counteract claims exactly like Trump’s, to settle for nothing less than establishing US “dominance” in space.
It is worth noting that even prior to the Trump Administration the position of dominance in space has been a cornerstone of US policy. In contrast to Pence’s assertion of adversarial aggression in space, Russia and China actually made a joint effort over a decade ago to prevent the proliferation of military arms in space. The Russia-China working paper— “a draft document containing possible elements of an international legal agreement on the prevention of the deployment of weapons in outer space, the threat or use of force against outer space objects”— was presented to the UN Conference on Disarmament in June 2002. The treaty outline did not progress in large part due to the US’ staunch opposition.
According to Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty:
“States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.
The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden…”
Article IV is the only article specifically concerning the use and orbit of arms in space but only prohibits weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This WMD-specific language is a major loophole in the treaty that will ultimately aid US interests in creating Space Force, allowing (or rather, not legally disallowing) the use of air or ground weapons, including the use of anti-satellite or anti-missile weapons in space.
There exist a handful of other treaties guiding space issues, but these mostly concern the temporal matters of nuclear testing and explosions in space, damages to space objects, and natural resources on the moon. While these treaties were and remain important, they do not provide a thorough legal framework to prevent military dominance and armament in space. The most relevant treaty concerning this issue, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty between the Soviets and the US, is no longer in effect after the US withdrew in 2002.
Clearly, the US has long since decided to dominate the domain of space. This position is much more pervasive than Trump’s claim that the idea came to him recently. US leaders have historically fought to ensure that the US military-space advantage would not be subject to legal oversight, despite the risk of adversarial challenge from competing world powers.
While international conventions strive to position space exploration as a cooperative venture for scientific purposes, the reality is that the space race has always been largely focused on military advantage and political economics. Given this perspective, there is little doubt that quantum capabilities will be at the heart of this next chapter in the space race.