President Trump’s announcement on June 18, 2018 to the National Space Council, and more importantly to the Pentagon and US Department of Defence, relating to the establishment of a space force has fascinated the world. The announcement was a surprise but the militarization of space is hardly a novel idea.
Technological progress in the past decade especially among the major powers and private sector has led to the idea of a militarized outer space. Science fiction has become a reality. For example, China successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 and plans to become a space superpower by 2030. Russia is reportedly developing hypersonic weapon systems that could reach Earth’s orbit and potentially threaten US satellites. The US space force is both a reflection of President Trump’s unique leadership style and the US’ preoccupation to protect its geopolitical influence amid challenges from powers like China and Russia – in a multipolar world.
The potential risks of a space arms race, which would be an extension of existing geopolitical rivalries on earth, could aggravate problems that have been besetting global peace and dividing humankind along the lines of nation-states, identities and ideologies. Like the Cold War, this race could drag other states into the fray that are reliant on or allied with the major powers for trade and security.
The international community has foreseen the risks and hence the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty went into force in 1967, a decade after the birth of the space age. Essentially, the treaty defines outer space as a global common for all people, governments and non-governmental entities to explore peacefully and exploit responsibly.
Evidently, the treaty has its limitations in preventing outer space from becoming another dimension of conflict. Existing geopolitical rivalries and the dual use of space technologies have coalesced into the ratcheting up of military ambitions with spacefaring states developing threat assessments and strategies to compete with each other. These ambitions run counter to the principles stated in the treaty by jeopardizing peace in outer space.
Furthermore, the UN established the treaty during the time when it was nigh impossible to anticipate three important security-related trends that exist today and could also affect non-spacefaring states.
First, space technologies are essential for the daily functioning of states as the services of satellites support data transmission, ground observation, communications and navigation for government, economic and social applications. In 2015, about 75% (S$450 billion) of space activities reportedly support commercial services that are integral to everyday lives according to the Space Foundation. Hence, outer space is emerging as the next critical infrastructure sector, which typically comes under the umbrella of national security.
Second, space technologies are no longer just under the control of governments as private companies have revolutionized the industry. For example, plans by a group of private companies to use a SpaceX rocket in 2019 to launch a device that would start a 4G mobile network on the moon could be a “giant leap” for space-driven communications and surveillance. Fears over the rise of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data analytics however have shown how private companies and the new technologies that they develop and sell could influence national security by disrupting how state and non-state actors engage in conflicts and play politics.
Third, malicious non-state actors figure in the national security environment and have launched cyberattacks on terrestrial targets for criminal or ideological motives including proxy wars. Cyberattacks that either corrupt data transmitted through satellites or interfere with satellite operations would be the next frontier of cyberwarfare and could have serious military and civilian implications. Non-state actors who are religiously driven may plausibly start perceiving outer space conflicts as an eschatological sign that perpetuates their radical ideologies.
The implications of these trends to the national security of non-spacefaring states could be direct and indirect depending on how these states bandwagon the space industry for economic opportunities and sustainable development.
Specifically, small states may see the space industry as an emerging business sector that could support economic growth given their limited size and resources. Smart cities depend heavily on data transmitted through satellites – such as Global Positioning System (GPS) – to deliver better public services, improve living conditions and transform industries. The rising dependence on outer space could hence raise the exposure of small states and smart cities to the security risks that stem from a cold war in space and malicious non-state actors exploiting space technology.
Singapore is a non-spacefaring state that fits the definitions of both a small state and smart city. In 2013, the Singapore Economic Development Board established an Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn) to help build up the local space-satellite industry. In 2020 Singapore will implement a satellite-based electronic road pricing system (ERP) which is in line with its Smart Nation vision. In October, 2016, given its growing stake in the space industry, Singapore reaffirmed its support for international norms that promote a secure and peaceful outer space during the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly on agenda item 48 on outer space.
The effectiveness of international norms in influencing responsible behaviour in outer space however is debatable. A contemporary example would be how the Hague tribunal ruling – in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – has limited the effect in influencing state behaviour to cease tensions in the South China Sea which, like outer space, is a global common.
Respect for international norms for outer space would also depend on the behaviour of private companies and non-state actors. Challenges are afoot if there is participation by private companies in the formulation of international norms, and if non-state actors have malicious intent.
Realistically, humankind has a blemished record of putting aside differences to cooperate in the exploration and exploitation of common resources. Hence, while many space technologies are moving closer to reality, a united and peaceful humankind as seen in the Star Trek drama is likely to remain a fiction in the near future. Non-spacefaring states would need to be prepared for this scenario.
*Muhammad Faizal bin Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow with the Homeland Defence Programme at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
This article was published at International Policy Digest