Outer space is set to become the next frontier of military competition. A new international treaty that sets limits on what can be done with weapons in orbit is urgently needed.
One can turn one’s eyes to the heavens these days. Not in the expectation of divine salvation “from above,” in a world that is partly dismantling itself, but rather as another living space, “somewhere out there,” in a universe where everything could be more peaceful, freer, and generally less burdened than is currently the case on Earth.
But distance doesn’t protect from disappointment. It hasn’t been peaceful out there for a long time. At least not since humanity began to conquer outer space. What is allowed to happen in outer space is still regulated by a document from 1967. The “Outer Space Treaty” was signed in the White House by the US, the former Soviet Union, and sixty other states on the evening of January 27, 1967, and was designed for a world and a universe in which almost nothing was happening, at least much less than today.
In the spirit of the peace movement and protests against the Vietnam War, the treaty states that the exploration of space will be carried out “for the benefit and in the interest of all states” and is “a matter for all humanity.” It is to be guided by the “principle of cooperation” and by “consideration for the corresponding interests of all other signatory states,” and sees all astronauts as “messengers of humanity.” It all sounds nice and peaceful; yet it is fluffy and meaningless. As a hard fact, the document states only that nuclear weapons are banned in outer space. The rest is Wild West.
Meanwhile, orbit has become a racetrack. About 7000 satellites orbit the earth, most of them usable for civilian as well as military purposes. Almost half are no longer operational, but continue to fly as space junk, triggering thousands of collision warnings every day at ground stations. Since no one keeps precise records of what these flying satellite zombies can still do, one would rather not risk a crash.
Since 2015, seven states have launched a military space program, including Russia, China, India, Iran, and North Korea. These are not abstract activities. There are numerous examples of how individual protagonists of the new military buildup in outer space are testing their capabilities to dangerous limits. As early as 2007, China tested a weapon system with which it is possible to launch a direct attack from Earth to outer space. In 2019, India also made such an attempt with a satellite destruction weapon, specifically shooting down one of its own satellites. It has long been possible to operate militarily in outer space from the ground. We have come down to Earth in space.
As if that were not enough, military experts believe that China has developed laser weapon systems that can be specifically used to disable satellite sensor communications. In 2018, for example, the Russians interfered with GPS communications during a NATO exercise in Scandinavia. Conversely, such systems can also be used to simulate satellite signals that do not exist — that is, faking them. In the summer of 2019, there was an incident in the port of Shanghai, for example, in which a US container ship and a couple of other freighters received GPS signals that experts believe came from the Chinese military, including information about attacking speedboats. Fortunately, the captain of the US freighter could verify with his own eyes and a telescope that the information was incorrect and thus prevent a disaster. But this is the Information War 2.0, in which disinformation fluctuates freely between Earth and orbit.
From Earth, no one can see with the naked eye what is happening up there in outer space. Even the military experts operate with systems that are endlessly far away and have never been used. And this is the great risk of the militarization of outer space: the “tyranny of distance.” Once a conflict begins, it is a millisecond’s decision to fire before one’s own weapons are disabled.
In light of these developments, it’s a joke that outer space is an almost rule-free space for military armament. A new international treaty is urgently needed that sets limits on what can be done with weapons in orbit. Two international groups of experts are working on this. One of the documents describes the principle of “proportionality of action” as an essential requirement for all involved in outer space. We can see how some people interpret this on Earth right now. In Ukraine.
This article was originally written in German (translated by Kristy Henderson).