US Space Force: The race to control the space above the sky

The US Space Force officially launches, sparking fears over the militarisation of space.

United Launch Alliance blast off
Missions to deploy a military communications satellite - like this one by the United Launch Alliance - could become more common as the United States takes a giant leap towards the creation of a new Space Force [File: Joe Skipper/Reuters]

Most reporting on United States President Donald Trump‘s 2018 Space Force announcement was framed as another rant-filled word salad served up to military personnel attending the event at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in California.

In a post-event tweet, Trump called the Marine Corps the “Marine Core”. The spelling mistake set social-media platforms ablaze with scorching Space Force and spelling-related one-liners. Even the Marine Corps Times, a publication that serves a US military audience and traces its roots to the 1940s, focused on the tweet.

But Trump wasn’t joking. Neither are US allies or adversaries.

On Thursday, 17 months after the initial announcement, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are set to preside over a White House ceremony that will “stand up” the US Space Command.

Security analysts not only see this as the first major step toward establishing a new US military branch, but a signal that the US, its allies and its adversaries could break with decades of international security norms and militarise the space above Earth’s sky. 

What has changed in space?

“For a long time, space was a bit like the high north, or the Antarctic. A quiet area. There was a UN treaty going back to 1967 to prevent the militarisation of outer space,” said Jaime Shea, a former deputy assistant secretary-general for emerging security challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and now a senior fellow at the think-tank Friends of Europe.

“Everybody more or less played ball,” Shea told Al Jazeera. “There was a genuine recognition that nobody had any interest in interfering with other people’s satellites. But recently, that kind of gentlemen’s agreement on space being a quiet zone is gone.”

Trump announcement of Space Force
US President Trump announced the creation of US Space Command in March 2018 while addressing troops at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in California [File: Alex Gallardo/AP]

Defence experts say present-day efforts to militarise space could upset the equilibrium between militarily advanced nations, which use both government- and commercially-operated satellites for communications – as well as using them to command and control personnel and weaponry, and, most importantly, to observe and understand their adversaries’ movements.

Satellites provide the tools to effectively wage war, which can on balance effectively keep the peace between unfriendly nations. But if one nation’s satellites are somehow disabled or destroyed, that country’s ability to mount an effective defence against an adversary could be fatally undermined. That nation would therefore be less able or possibly incapable of deterring acts of war. And that is just the beginning.

“It’s like a gladiator. If you poke the eyes out of a gladiator, then he’s dead. He can’t see, and you’re going to chop his head off,” James Townsend, former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for European and NATO policy – and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security – told Al Jazeera.

“Instability comes from not being able to have trust in your satellites, whether they’re jammed or they’re knocked out,” Townsend said. “If you feel you’re going to lose your satellite coverage, then you’re going to do a first strike. You’re not going to wait until your satellites are knocked out and then you’re defenceless.”

The travels of the Olymp-K

In September 2014, a rocket launched the Russian-made Olymp-K satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan into geostationary orbit, a very high orbit that follows the equator and where the largest communication satellites are parked for their years of service. There was nothing special to see until the satellite, also known as “Luch”, started taking a tour.

In April 2015, after months of bouncing around, the Olymp-K parked between two communications satellites owned by the Luxembourg-US satellite operator Intelsat. The company provides the US military with high bandwidth-secured communications services for “gathering and distributing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance”.

In September of that year, Olymp-K moved again, to seemingly shadow Intelsat satellites.

The Olymp-K satellite made headlines again in 2018, when French Defence Minister Florence Parly openly accused Russia of “espionage”. She revealed that sometime in 2017, the satellite had come so close to the Athena-Fidus satellite, which provides secured communications to the French and Italian militaries, “that anyone would have thought it was attempting to intercept our communications”.

A number of governments believe Russian’s ministry of defence and its spy agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), control the Olymp-K. Unlike most satellites in geostationary orbit, the Olymp-K has never been registered with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Frank Rose, a former US assistant secretary of state for arms control and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera: “Denying the US and its allies access to space-derived data would provide our adversaries [with] significant military advantage. And over the past decade, both Russia and China have devoted significant resources to the development of anti-satellite and counter-space systems.”

Rose said the systems include jammers that can disrupt electronic communications, lasers, and kinetic kill systems – projectiles designed to destroy an enemy target.

“The key question for the United States,” he said, “is how should it respond to the growing [anti-satellite] threat.”

The Western response

The US and its allies see a looming threat to their security and to a burgeoning global space economy that some estimate could be worth trillions of dollars by mid-century.

US Space Command is viewed by many analysts as the beginning of what the US Department of Defense describes as a phased process to establish the Department of the Space Force – the first new branch since the establishment of the US Air Force, 72 years ago.

Across the Atlantic, France’s Parly recently declared: “We need to perfect our space defence capabilities. Space is also a new front to defend. And we must be ready.”

Parly also announced that France, a US ally, would develop a new weapons programme called “Mastering Space” that would provide France’s space assets with surveillance and active defence measures. “I want to be precise,” she said. “The active defence, this is not an offensive strategy, it’s all about self-defence.”

SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch
Analysts say international security frameworks on space will need to include private sector actors like SpaceX, which can launch military and civilian satellites [File:John Raoux/AP]

What about diplomacy?

Rose, who was an Obama administration appointee, supports Space Command’s creation, but says the US space security strategy is missing an effective diplomatic component.

“The Trump administration has been largely absent from the space security diplomacy arena,” Rose told Al Jazeera. “In this era of great power competition, America’s system of alliances is one of its key advantages over Russia and China. Unfortunately, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to recognise that, which is extremely unfortunate.”

It is widely expected that at this December’s NATO Summit in London, member heads of state, including Trump, will vote to formally designate space as a “domain of operations”.

That would formally acknowledge that hostilities can be waged in orbit and beyond, which would allow NATO to provide the technical and diplomatic framework to identify goals and needed earthbound and in-orbit assets – a move necessary to address the alliance’s security needs in space.

Townsend told Al Jazeera that diplomatic solutions outside of the NATO framework – such as broader agreements akin to arms control arrangements – should be sought.

“I think we all have an interest in not letting space become unstable … this place of high stress and high tension [where] everyone is watching radar screens as satellites pass close to one another,” he said.

“If we get into that and everyone is on a hair trigger, then we’re in bad shape,” Townsend said. “I think when it comes to diplomacy and arms control, we have to come up with some rules to the road, where we can bring some transparency, so we know what everyone’s going to do, so there’s not a guess.”

But who exactly should be at the negotiating table may also be in question. Advances in technology have made launching into space – especially into Low Earth Orbit, where most satellites operate – a much more affordable business endeavour.

“You don’t have to be a superpower anymore,” said Shea. “You’ve got more and more private sector actors. Elon Musk with SpaceX is now in the business of offering companies the chance that he could put a satellite up.”

“You can’t get anywhere simply at the government-to-government level any longer, like you could with nuclear weapons,” Shea added. “The private sector portion is growing vis-a-vis the state portion. And therefore, as you get more actors and more diverse societal actors, you have to have this broad conversation about what the rules of the road are going to be.”

Source: Al Jazeera