Space is next key battleground
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, change is accelerating.
Human beings will become morally and physically better, and more beautiful, as eugenic technologies improve. Consider, for example, gene editing and screening. Companies and governments will increasingly track us. We can glimpse the future in Big Tech’s collecting data on us, the U.S. government’s collecting massive amount of data regarding our phone records, and China’s social credit system. People with low scores in China are prevented from buying plane and rail tickets, they are excluded from certain jobs, their children are excluded from certain schools, their mugshots are released, and so on. We will also have a lot more recreational time as machines increasingly replace workers in areas such as agriculture, medicine, manufacturing, and transportation.
Similar to these other changes, how we fight wars will change drastically. Worried about 21st century wars, the U.S. recently created the United States Space Force.
Space warfare occurs in outer space. It involves ground-to-space, space-to-ground, and space-to-space violence that kills people and breaks their things. The violence might involve kinetic weapons (for example, cannon, debris, guns, mines, and missiles), directed energy weapons (for example, weapons that accelerate particles or that send out lasers, microwaves, particle beams, or plasma), or electronic destruction (for example, weapons that jam or destroy satellite-based communication, positioning, or surveillance systems).
International law — specifically, the Outer Space Treaty and SALT I — currently bans countries from putting weapons of mass destruction into space. However, if one country violates the ban, an arms race will occur. Even if no country puts such weapons into space, some will develop the capacity to make such weapons and likely induce others to do so to prevent their being at a disadvantage.
The importance of winning in space and the speed with which such a war would occur make it likely that, in the future, war will begin in space. Even if war were to begin on the land or sea, space would quickly become relevant because of its centrality to surface-based war. Space war is important because a modern military’s communication, positioning, surveillance, and targeting systems depend on satellites. In addition, many civilian industries that support the military – for example, the energy, food, and weapons industries — depend on satellites. As a result, satellites would be prime targets.
A space war would likely occur quickly. This is in part because of the vulnerability of satellites to cannon, energy beams, missiles, etc. and in part because of the speed and precision with which these weapons travel through space. Consider, for example, a laser. Making things worse is the availability of a low rent way of destroying satellites in some orbits through a cascading destruction of orbiting objects (see the Kessler syndrome).
The other reason that a space war will unfold quickly is that in the future, space-war vehicles will likely be autonomous. That is, robots will run them. Autonomous machines make better and faster decisions than human beings, operate in more extreme conditions (consider, for example, cold and g-force), and lack human needs (consider, for example, companionship, food, and sleep). Because an enemy can block or hijack ground-based communication, the machines will have to be autonomous rather than depending on Earth-based signals. Even on Earth, drones – whether autonomous or remotely piloted – will continue to replace manned warplanes.
Given the speed with which such a war will occur, then, a nation feeling threatened might quickly attack to protect its space assets. This will put everyone on a hair trigger.
A problem occurs because there is no answer as to whether, as a moral matter, one country is trespassing on a second country’s rights when the first jams the second’s signal or when there is a collision between satellites. This makes it unclear what counts as an act of war. A country has the right to use a signal of a particular frequency in a location or be in that location only if it owns that location. The problem is that, as a moral matter, countries and people do not own locations in outer space.
Even if a country or people could own a location in outer space, satellites move and, so, do not occupy a location for very long. This movement in space occurs whether a satellite moves around the Earth or has a stationary position relative to the Earth’s surface because the Earth itself is moving around the sun. Owning a location in outer space is even less plausible than owning a location in airspace. The former is farther removed from people’s lands.
Countries that refuse to sign one or more of the relevant treaties do not recognize that other countries own territories in outer space. Some nations have in fact refused to sign the Outer Space Treaty. They think countries should own outer space similar to how they own airspace. Specifically, ownership should extend outward from the ground. The Treaty does not even make it clear where airspace ends, and outer space begins. In addition, the Outer Space Treaty allows nations to withdraw from it, thereby allowing a legal escape hatch.
Ownership of orbital territories is already problematic because China, Europe, and the U.S. already occupy significant regions of the low Earth orbit and the equatorial plane. Over time, other countries will have fewer places to put their satellites.
Various nations – for example, China and the U.S. – can threaten or use force to keep space demilitarized and protect current satellites against encroachment. Perhaps this is the best that can be done. Still, the U.S. should be wary of getting into bed with China because of its aggressive posture (consider its threats regarding the South China Seas and Taiwan), horrendous history (consider Mao’s starving and killing of tens of millions), abysmal treatment of the Uighurs, and the solid chance that the countries will someday go to war against one another.
Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. His views do not represent those of the university. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org