Give Peace a Chance—in Space

Even so, the 1967 treaty demonstrates that in space, the peaceniks seem to be winning, at least for now. Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College explained that there are two ways that, at the most schematic level, there are two ways the international legal regime could conceive of outer space: "On one end you put the view that space is a common heritage of mankind," she says. "The other end of the spectrum is that air, land and sea are all environments, and all those environments have been weaponized and therefore it's inevitable that space too will also become weaponized." The latter formulation raises a number of chilling possibilities: most people probably don't expect a war to break out in space, but the soldiers at Siachen probably didn't expect to be fighting atop an 18,000 mountain pass either. Humanity has proven willing to fight over literally anything, so long as the capability exists. Why should we assume space will be different?

Space has already become militarized. Does that mean that it's inevitable that space will also turn into a battlefield?

Space hasn't been weaponized, and the general anti-weaponization tilt of the 1967 treaty is part of the reason why. That tilt has gained the status of a respected legal norm, one arguably strengthened by the fact that the treaty itself was founded on a bedrock of mutual self-interest. "In the 1960s, the superpowers were able to agree that there was more of a benefit in keeping the other party from doing it than they saw a drawback in themselves being forced to abstain from it," von der Dunk says of the U.S. and Soviet Union's view towards stationing weapons of mass destruction in space. In other words, each side believed that preventing their opponent from weaponizing space was worth the potential strategic cost of foreclosing on their own ability to weaponize space. Even after the Cold War, the norm has endured.

Yet it's becoming increasingly clear that the existing international legal framework is ill-equipped in dealing with the most immediate, realistic -- and, therefore, worrying -- possibility of space combat. It's currently illegal to nuke the surface of the earth from outer space. But what can multilateral diplomacy and the international legal system do to prevent a future where countries shoot down each others' satellites, or ram their satellites into one another?

"As soon as you tweak a satellite to allow it to bump into another satellite -- which is easy to do -- almost immediately it would enter into the realm of weapons," says von der Drunk. And defensive war in space is absolutely legal -- if two space-faring countries were ever at war, one would have a legally valid justification for taking out the intelligence or communications satellites of its enemy. The vast majority of satellites have some kind of dual military and civilian use. Space has already become militarized. Does that mean that it's inevitable that space will also turn into a battlefield?

The Obama administration isn't building a Death Star, but it also isn't treating this question as the crucial, perhaps civilizational issue that it is.

* * *

In 2007, China successfully tested an earth-to-space anti-satellite weapon against an aging orbital weather station. The results of that weapons test, and of an accidental collision between satellites in 2009, now account for most of the hazardous debris in low earth orbit, according to Harvard's Jonathan McDowell.

Debris is worrying enough at low orbits, where the intentional destruction of an enemy satellite could wreak havoc on existing global communications and navigation systems. Luckily, there are plenty of usable orbits around the earth. There is, however, a single narrow five-to-ten mile band, roughly 23,000 miles above the earth's surface, where satellites can orbit in lockstep with a fixed point on earth, completing a single revolution around the earth once every 24 hours (rather than once every hour and a half, the speed at which the International Space Station orbits). This thin ribbon is the only point where a satellite can achieve what is known as "geostationary orbit" -- where it can function as a "tower 23,000 miles high," as McDowell puts it. Satellite dishes never have to angle to pick up the signal of a satellite in geostationary orbit. The line of communication is always open -- it's why receivers for satellite television and radio don't have to constantly be adjusted.

The destruction of geostationary orbit would have worrying consequences for humankind. "Geostationary orbit is vulnerable because it's a very precise orbit and it's relatively crowded," McDowell says. There's always the possibility that a satellite's fuel ignites, or that there's some other mishap in space. "If you add to that the danger of deliberate action then [geostationary orbit] is a resource that we could easily lose if a large explosion were to occur." And once it's gone, it's gone until humankind can invent some kind of orbital garbage-truck.

The surest way of foreclosing on the possibility of this all-too-plausible doomsday in space is through the same kind of multilateral efforts that have stanched the spread of nuclear arms, stigmatized the use of chemical weapons, and all but stricken catastrophic inter-state warfare from the face of the earth. The world needs a system of multilateral checks and balances that relegates war against space assets to the same political and psychic space as World War III: something that humanity, by dint of mutual self-interest and robust international institutions, has successfully turned into a geopolitical boogeyman, a bandied-about but nevertheless distant worst-case scenario.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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