Grappling With a MAD Space Future
Image Credit: US Navy

Grappling With a MAD Space Future


While the United States once dominated military space activities, in recent years a number of factors have combined to make space less hospitable to its national security interests and Washington more willing to reach out to potential partners—including those in Asia.

One complicating factor for the United States has been growing congestion resulting from foreign satellites, orbital debris, and radiofrequency interference. Another has been the spread of offensive space capabilities and activities, which has placed more space targets under threat. But a third is the reality that US space dominance has simply been eroded—dozens of governments, companies, and other actors now launch and operate satellites, while the United States itself is making fewer satellites.

It’s with these developments in mind that the United States is looking to transform its space policy in partnership with the private sector, foreign governments, and intergovernmental organizations, a strategy highlighted in the National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) released this month.

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According to the document, the idea is to ‘minimize the chances for mishaps, misperception, and mistrust in space’ through sharing space situational awareness information, improving information and developing transparency and confidence-building measures. However, there’s also an unmistakably hard edge to the US approach. As Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told the media, ‘We need to ensure that we can continue to utilize space to navigate with accuracy, to communicate with certainty, to strike with precision, and to see the battlefield with clarity.’

The new approach recognizes that no single country—not even the United States—has the resources to track every space object. The goal of the new cooperative approach therefore is to notify satellite operators of potential collisions between orbiting objects much earlier and with far greater accuracy.

In addition, the Pentagon is also considering extending cooperation to include: exchanging more space-generated data regarding other domains including the world’s oceans (to notify shippers of the locations of pirates), establishing a collaborative missile launch warning network, and conducting collective environmental monitoring of the military effects on climate change.

In keeping with the emphasis on boosting co-operation, the Defence and State Departments are already engaged in technical exchanges with experts from the European Space Agency and the European Union—as well as with the individual member states belonging to these two organizations—to enhance interoperability between their space awareness systems. But both departments also have their eyes on working more closely with US allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific.

Indeed, Asian countries represent important potential partners—and problems—for this new approach. As a group, Asian countries are expected to soon surpass European nations by securing 12.5 percent of the global military satellite sales market. Japan and China have longstanding space programmes, while India, South Korea, and Iran are emerging space powers. Even North Korea justifies its periodic long-range missile tests by professing to test space launch vehicles.

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