The Future of International Cooperation and Conflict in Space

CJ Cowan, Senior Editor

4 December, 2018

Sputnik, first satellite launched into orbit (1957)

Sputnik, first satellite launched into orbit (1957)


Space is not only the future of humankind, but also the future of international cooperation, industry, and warfare. Space will increasingly become an arena for technical and industrial innovation, but it will also be yet another playground for squabbling nations. It seems that there will be a battle between humanity’s opposing natures: the barbarian and the intellectual. Both will show themselves on the grand scale hundreds of miles above our heads.

The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS) was established in 1959 in response to the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957. It currently has 87 members including most major space-faring states such as the United States, Russia, Japan, China, Brazil, Canada, all the member states of the European Space Agency (ESA), and many international organizations and NGOs with observer status. The UN considers this committee as a vitally important venue, which states and other international actors can negotiate orbital and space activity peacefully. Its various duties, and activities include information exchange concerning space, monitoring and regulating human activity in space, and promoting international cooperation in Outer Space generally.

Arguably, its most important function is to act as the enforcement authority behind a cornucopia of treaties, norms, and principles governing all space activity and exploration. Undeniably, the most significant of these treaties is the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, or more commonly known as the "Outer Space Treaty." The Outer Space Treaty states that space is free for all nations to explore and no sovereignty claims can be made. Importantly, it makes clear that Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), including Nuclear Weapons, are not to be deployed in outer space, orbit, or on celestial bodies.

Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin intend for space tourism to be a reality, and ultimately for humans to colonize other planets. They are not the only industrialists looking up into the stars and seeing dollar signs. New technology is being developed, such as space shuttles able to carry heavier payloads, which has made asteroid mining a reasonable possibility. Neil deGrasse Tyson has forecast that the world's first trillionaire will make their fortune in space minerals. The minerals in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, according to NASA, has a value equivalent to a mind-boggling $100 billion for each person on Earth.

There are two major companies in the United States that aim to practice asteroid mining - Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resource. The United States made U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act law in 2015, which basically allows for U.S. citizens to exploit asteroids and other space resources, but this does not extend to the land on which the resources sit. While this makes resource hunting technically legal for American citizens, some authorities believe this could violate the Outer Space Treaty.

Michael Schmitt, an international law and space war expert, said, "It is absolutely inevitable that we will see conflict move into space". Satellites are increasingly essential tools in modern warfare, and this means satellites will become more and more the targets and tools of war. The United States, Russia and China have the demonstrable capability of launching missiles able to intercept and destroy satellites. Satellites could also be equipped and commanded to attack each other, or they could be targets of earthbound hackers and cyber attacks, such as the NASA climate satellites in 2007 and 2008, and this could amount to the Kessler Syndrome - the creation of a massive, unnavigable debris cloud surrounding earth brought about by this brand of space combat.

China sees space warfare as its unique opportunity to be on par with its main rival militarily. The PRC has no ‘blue water’ navy or anything remotely close to the extensive, hard power capabilities that the Americans can wield. China believes it can counterbalance these realities through the production of specialised missiles, spacecraft, and other spacefaring weapons and defences.

China's People's Liberation Army published Light War in 2015. The book claimed that the future of warfare would be based on cutting-edge, high-tech developments such as Big Data analytics, artificial intelligence, robot lasers, and directed energy weapons. China's efforts could surpass many years of costly research and development by the U.S. in its own directed-energy weapons, which could be in deployment as soon as the early 2020s. U.S. strategists will have to adapt their priorities, as China's openness about the inevitable "weaponization of space" is a signal that space will be one of their critical theatres of operation; thus it will amount to a distinct advantage that the United States would be reckless to ignore.

Americans are no strangers to these kinds of developments. United States' Strategic Defense Initiative or colloquially called "Star Wars", spearheaded by President Reagan in 1983, is the most famous, practical attempt to develop space warfare and defense capabilities. This system was never completed or fully tested, as there was concern that many of its components would violate the Outer Space Treaty. President Donald Trump announced earlier this year that he wants to create a new sixth branch of the U.S. military dedicated to waging war in outer space, which he dubbed the "space force". This has some political support in Congress, but there are some misgivings at the Pentagon about the initiative.  This may seem to be intuitively ridiculous, but it very well may be the amount intelligent and forwarding thinking proposal that has come out of this administration as of yet. It may be necessary to have an entirely new branch of the armed forces, but it is good that the United States, on some level, recognizes the vital importance and dangerous implications of warfare in space.

This is cliched, but it is nonetheless true. The birthright of humanity is the stars. We are uniquely suited, at least on this planet, to understand our own mortality and our place in the universe. To achieve our cosmic purpose, we need to become an interplanetary species before we can become an interstellar one. This will require us to overcome our pity differences to solve the collective-action quandaries necessary to achieve these goals. We very well may avert the coming climate crisis, but this will be a temporary reprieve from the overarching problem that led to it. This planet cannot support human life indefinitely, so we will eventually need to branch out across our solar system or face extinction. We need to start thinking as a species, rather than arbitrary factions if we are going to survive the hurdles that face us in our development.  As much as it is understandable to oppose Trump on a great many things, he may prove to be right in making space a priority.