How do we prevent conflict in space?

As more governments develop their military capabilities in space, there is growing concern that this increases the likelihood of international conflict in space. Space-based conflict is an issue worth worrying about because, if it happens, it would likely negatively impact much of humanity given how much society depends on space-based technology. To learn about space militarization and ways to prevent it, we spoke to Cassandra Steer. She is a senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s College of Law and recently edited a book on the subject.

What drove you to edit a book regarding war and peace in outer space?

In 2018, I organized a conference for the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Lawon the weaponization of outer space. Our keynote speaker was the Vice Commander of US Air Force Space Command, General David Thompson – now Vice Commander of the Space Force. Also represented were experts from the United Nations, governments, and academia across Europe and North America, as well as experts in arms control and stakeholders from the space industry. It’s rare that people from such a range of disciplines, nationalities, and political backgrounds get together to talk about the potential for war in space and how to prevent it – except at the UN, where talks are slow-moving. The book, War and Peace in Outer Space, is a collection of essays from experts who attended the conference. It highlights challenges and potential solutions.

The book aims to reach a wide audience to educate them about the existing issues and what can be done. The golden thread throughout is that greater communication, cooperation, and collaboration is the answer. It might seem counterintuitive to talk about more communication or transparency internationally when thinking about space security. In fact, though, the issues around space debris and space traffic management are a threat faced by all nations in space. Dealing with those first will make it easier to deal with intentional threats. It’s difficult to attribute a failure in a satellite system accurately – knowing whether it was environmental, unintentional, or intentional. Greater communication, cooperation, and collaboration can help solve this and reduce the risk of miscalculation. At the conference there was consensus on this point among various attendees, including military lawyers, experts who work at the US Naval War College, and defense industry representatives.

What are some issues regarding space-based conflict that are commonly misunderstood?

When the United States established its Space Force in 2020, a lot of people thought it was a joke. But space has always been militarized, and with new technologies developing, we’re in a bit of a covert space arms race already. When I talk about my work on preventing a space-based conflict, many people think of Star Wars, lasers, and explosions. But the biggest risks are smaller, effective interferences with satellites and space systems – jamming signals, dazzling satellites, and hacking systems. A conflict in space would be catastrophic for all of us because we depend on satellites in our daily lives. Such a conflict is unlikely to be characterized by big explosions, though. In some ways that makes it harder to track, regulate, and reign in. It certainly makes it harder to attribute a failure to a specific actor or even to an intentional act.

The other big misunderstanding is that it’s all about China and Russia threatening space. India and the United States have also been testing counterspace technologies. Furthermore, there are policies and military strategies in many countries that are starting to destabilize the safety, security, and sustainability of space.

There is a lack of space literacy among many politicians and military decisionmakers; they think that declaring space a “warfighting domain” is just a descriptive term and that space is no different from other domains. But as any military space operator or space lawyer will tell you, space is unique as a domain. This is because of its physical characteristics, the dual-use nature of all our technologies in space, and the ways in which we are all dependent on continued access to space. Warfare on land, at sea, in the air, and even in cyber or information domains is something we apparently have to accept as part of our present reality. In space, though, warfare has so far been prevented by an international understanding that restraint is what will keep space stable. But that understanding is waning. And that is a concerning development.

What advice do you have for individuals who are interested in addressing the weaponization of space?

Read this book! Honestly, the range of disciplines, expertise, and perspectives here is really valuable. The book answers most questions you would have about the history of militarization in space, the technological and legal developments in recent decades, and anticipated threats in years to come. Most importantly, it poses solutions for crisis management, space diplomacy, and greater transparency. We are all stakeholders in space remaining stable and accessible.