(Un)Safe Space: The growing military and commercial exploitation of space

Book Review: ‘War in Space – Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics’ by Bleddyn E. Bowen. Published by Edinburgh University Press, 2020

With the increasing recognition of satellite technology as critical to our daily lives, a number of states, including the US and the UK, now see space as a critical military domain like land, sea and air.  Bleddyn Bowen’s new book ‘War in Space – Strategy, Spacepower, Geopoliticsattempts to place the notion of ‘spacepower’ into the mainstream of International Relations by adding the use of space systems to the preparation for, and execution of, warfare.

Bowen notes that spacepower has provided new methods of political-economic development and poses questions such as ‘will a war begin or be decided in space?’, ‘how do satellites change the way war is conducted on Earth?” and “what difference can space warfare make on Earth?”  While full answers to these questions are not easily provided at a time when rapid change is taking place, Bowen does suggest that wars may not begin in space or be decided by what happens in orbit alone, and that space technology is not going to provide simple solutions to strategic problems.

While the second part of that statement may be true, the first part can be challenged in the light of the recent rush to space activity. Satellite systems are defenceless and extremely vulnerable and now that satellite technology is employed in so many aspects of our lives – from controlling drones to weather forecasting to banking and communications to GPS – the loss of an important satellite could cause havoc. However, the loss (even through an accident such as impact with space debris or a meteorite) of a key military or dual use satellite (such as one used for early warning of missile attack) at a time of international tension could lead to a military exchange and be catastrophic. 

At Sea?

Referring to space warfare as “the continuation of earth politics by other means”, Bowen draws on a common analogy between space and sea power. The historical importance of sea power in achieving national hegemony were stressed by Alfred Thayer Mahan, the nineteenth-century naval officer and theorist who developed US strategic approaches to difficult times and laid the foundation for what some have termed “The American Century.”

Mahan is frequently referred to by Bowen and others as responsible for laying the foundations for sea power and recognising the interdependence of the military and commercial control of the sea. He asserted that sea power was important for achieving a global system of commerce but that each nation was also going to make its own self-interests determine its foreign policy decisions. He believed that, because of the competition for raw materials and for markets in a growing global system, “commerce thus on the one hand deters from war, on the other hand it engenders conflict.”

This is certainly the case for outer space, the importance of which and the vital roles it can play was recognised very early on in the development of space travel. It was the reason that The Outer Space Treaty (OST) on ‘Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’ was developed at the United Nations in 1967. The treaty recognises outer space as a Global Commons, stating that:

“the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all [hu]mankind.”

However, the dependency on space and the rapid development of space technologies are now running out of control. Military domination, commercial competition and money have become controlling factors and we are experiencing a “Tragedy of the Commons,” where major users with open access to space and who are unconcerned about any rules that govern access and use, are acting according to their own self-interests and, contrary to the common good of all.

The space budgets of the main space-faring nations gives a clue as to where the push for space is coming from.  The US, China, Russia, France and India are the major space-farers and a sizeable slice of those budgets involves supporting the further militarization of space.

Government Expenditures for Space Programs 2020, Total = $82.5 billion
Commercial interests

Today, data and information are the space power equivalents of sea power’s commerce and trade as crucial components for obtaining and maintaining dominance in the commercial and military arenas, although markets for space tourism and transportation are being developed by major commercial stakeholders. This may develop further in the future as commercial space activities develop to the point where the mining of planets and asteroids, for resources that are being exhausted on Earth, becomes important. In fact, in 2015 President Obama signed the so-called “Space Law,” approved by the US Congress to allow US companies to exploit space mining and the appropriation of asteroids and other “space resources.” Unfortunately, this does not compare well with the aspirations of the OST.

In his book, Bowen suggests that his work on spacepower could be seen as analogous to Mahan’s on sea power, as he envisions space as a new ocean and the orbits of space objects around the Earth as a part of a “crowded and contestable coastline”. Extending this analogy – control of the oceans once resulted in continental domination so could control of space lead to global domination? Bowen believes not – suggesting that the influence of spacepower is more subtle than this form of ‘astrodeterminism’ which, he says, is a consequence of the overselling of space.

However, the exploitation of space is expanding and as long ago as 1960 President Kennedy was quoted as saying that “the nation that controls space can control the earth”.  In September 2000, right-wing think thank ‘Project for the New American Century’ published “Rebuilding America’s Defenses; Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century”, which detailed how the space policy of the US would be developed by Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush et al.:

“Much as control of the high seas – and the protection of international commerce – defined global powers in the past, so will control of the new ‘international commons’ be a key to world power in the future. An America incapable of protecting its interests or that of its allies in space or the ‘infosphere’ will find it difficult to exert global political leadership.”

This parallel between space and the “freedom of the high seas” can be seen as an exploitative colonial paradigm that has been followed and updated by successive US administrations and others. When Donald Trump launched the US Space Force in 2019 he said that space was the world’s new war-fighting domain and that:

” American superiority in space is absolutely vital …The Space Force will help us deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground”

Bowen also draws on some historical parallels with sea power, including:

  1. Although spacepower is waged for the command of space, it is subordinated to the objectives of a grand strategy.
  2. The command of space could affect the operation of satellite communication systems – and therefore the principles of chokepoints, blockades and desirable positions in orbits.
  3. Earth orbit (it is not clear what this means but I assume it is the geostationary orbit occupied by some communications satellites) is seen as “a cosmic coastline suited for strategic manoeuvres”.
  4. Spacepower is dispersed globally and requires dispersed support systems (military operated launch facilities and communication and control bases) on earth.

In addition, there is an assertion that activities of commercial space activities and non-state actors are subordinated to supporting a war effort. However, the activities of western billionaire entrepreneurs operating in the space environment (such as Musk, Bezos and Branson) has increased, and the influence and power of these commercial interests is growing and involves a considerable amount of collaboration with the military – especially in the US.

For example, while the US has relied on Russia to send its astronauts to the International Space Station since the US closed down the shuttle programme in 2011, the development of Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch vehicles is enabling NASA to return to domestic launches in the near future. In addition, as the diagram illustrates, the majority of spacecraft currently launched are by commercial companies, although many of these launches will be dual use and will also serve the military. Space use therefore has evolved into a fuzzy military/commercial collaboration.

Following on from the US launch of a Space Force, there is a growing number of similar forces around the world – including the UK – with growing budgets. In 2020 the total global annual expenditure was over $28 billion and space launches, and the use of satellites has expanded rapidly to areas that that are not beneficial to everyone.  Rather than let a small cohort of nations and billionaires dominate and exploit space in their own interest we need now to swiftly ensure the just and peaceful use of space for all.

  • Dave Webb is former Chair of CND, Director of The Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space and member of the Steering Committee of Drone Wars UK.

Leave a Reply