Space-supported war and the signs of peace

“I just want to congratulate everybody and thank everybody. Space is going to be the future, both in terms of defense and offense and so many other things.” So said President Trump at the unveiling of the flag of the US Space Force in 2020. The United States established the Space Force to safeguard its assets in outer space in recognition that national defence means, in part, to defend its national space systems. During the unveiling of the flag, the President remarked that the United States has “developed some of the most incredible weapons anyone has ever seen, and it’s moving along very rapidly”. Although without the same level of attention from the media as the US Space Force, indeed China, India, Russia, Canada, Australia and several European states have military divisions dedicated to space warfare.

The term “space warfare” may typically be used to refer to the use of weapons in outer space, such as missiles (warheads travelling through space) or anti-satellite and electronic disruption operations (destroying or disabling satellites which provide key services for society or government). However, the relationship between space and war not only concerns acts physically occurring in the environment of outer space. Space assets themselves are an integral component for most armed conflicts taking place on the ground, in the air, on the sea and by cyber operations. Space is a key enabler for warfare in any domain. One recent example of space supporting war is the commercially available Starlink satellite service used by the Ukrainian state in 2023 for its military communications.

Communication services are but one application of the space domain for war efforts. Satellites are integral to the earth observation data and to the positioning services militaries use in their endeavours, including surveillance, reconnaissance and target identification and location. While the use of space for war raises important legal questions, not least as international law prohibits the militarisation of outer space, it is clear that space is a domain of geopolitical interest.
The origins of space activities are often framed in the context of violent conflict between states. This approach is valid insofar as when humans began launching objects into space, and began to implement law and policy relating to those activities, it was during the mid-twentieth century when tensions were high between the western and eastern political ideologies. And while it is true that satellite operations, human spaceflight and space law all spawned during the Cold War period, to say that humanity’s engagement with space arose from circumstances of conflict is otherwise unwarranted. This is so for two reasons.

Firstly, the genesis of human’s relationship with outer space had nothing to do with aggression, much less with any form of geopolitics. The first records of humans applying outer space to their Earthly activities date almost 45,000 years ago when the indigenous peoples of Australia used the stars and planets for storytelling and myth, time keeping, navigation and certain customs. There is no evidence suggesting those peoples used space to aggress upon each other. Neither was space used for intergroup violence by the many civilisations which came later, including the Athenians, the Romans and the societies in ancient Egypt, India and China. A clear exception, however, is when states commissioned military campaigns, the personnel of which would, when necessary, use the stars to navigate their way on land or on sea towards an enemy’s location. In this sense alone, space was used by ancient states for warfare.
We need not look back so far in time to address the second reason why it is incorrect to emphasise conflict as the primary driver of human engagement with outer space. The launch of humanity’s first satellite, although occurring during the Cold War, was not for aggressive purposes at all but to support an immense effort in international cooperation. The International Geophysical Year, from 1957 to 1958, was a community-coordinated scientific program to record and share internationally the many data sets of the Earth’s geophysical properties. While the many participating scientists represented over 60 nationalities, states themselves were not participants. Rather, this effort of international cooperation was driven by civilians and non-state entities.

During the lead up to the International Geophysical Year the scientific community knew that obtaining reliable data about the upper atmosphere of Earth required scientific instruments to be in the air for longer periods of time than what could be accommodated by rocket flight at the time. As the typical design of a rocket is to return to earth shortly after lift-off, the development of an object which could carry the instruments through high altitude for a sustained timeframe was needed. The answer, a satellite.

The first satellite was developed in the spirit of international cooperation as a tool to aid the collaborative efforts of the International Geophysical Year. While these efforts were used for political narratives by the USSR and the United States, the actual incentive behind the satellite’s development, and its primary function, was for discovery. Despite the many benefits of space which have come through government programs since that first satellite launch in October of 1957, the aggressive nature of space only arose when states became involved in the domain.
The good news? Since the 1990s space has been increasingly accessible to non-state actors. This is not to say that states have not also increased their ability to harness outer space for their own purposes, including aggression. Moreover many space operations conducted by non-state actors feed directly into state warfare efforts (consider the Starlink example above). However, the more avenues which exist to participate in space, and to apply space technologies on Earth, invite more non-aggressive actors to engage in space activities.
The growing incentives for space actors without aggression as their motivation for using outer space means there is opportunity for a gradual reversal of the reality of today where much of space is used for warfare. A trend moving away from violence may lead us to see in-space activities once again, as was the case during the International Geophysical Year, being primarily used not for risking or destroying life, but for fostering culture and cooperation and, ultimately, encouraging peaceful relations between nations.