Professor Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College says we are “arming the heavens.” During the Obama administration, she observes, the U.S. defense and national security establishments took an increasingly aggressive stance toward the use of space for military purposes. Today we are well down the road toward conflict and low Earth orbit has replaced Iran and the Korean Peninsula as the world’s most dangerous military flashpoint.
In March, in the most recent development in the space arms race, India carried out a successful anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test and shot down one of its own satellites with a surface-to-air missile. Although the test was conducted at a low altitude to minimize the creation of long term debris, a number of trackable fragments traveled above the apogee of the International Space Station and now threaten the orbiting science laboratory.
India joins a small group of nations – the United States, Russia, and China – that have conducted successful ASAT weapons tests in space. With an eye on China, his country’s major geopolitical foe, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi proudly tweeted that “India stands tall as a space power!”
Dr. Brian Weeden, a space policy expert at the Secure World Foundation, says the political repercussions from India’s test will last much longer than the debris it generated. Other countries will want to join the ASAT weapons club with a similar show of force.
Weeden faults the U.S., Russia and China for helping to “feed the narrative” that offensive weapons are a critical measure of space power and prestige. He notes that all three nations are developing, testing, and deploying offensive capabilities in space. China and Russia have created dedicated warfighting command units for space and now President Trump is calling for the establishment of a Space Force.
The European Space Agency notes that although there have been combat operations in Ukraine and Syria that used jamming and cyber-attacks against satellites, there has been no real-world use of ASAT weapons in a conflict and “hopefully never will be.” The use of ASAT weapons, experts say, would create vast quantities of debris and make space unusable.
To steer clear of this scenario, the U.S. should execute a course correction in its space policy that reflects the Thirtieth General Synod’s emphasis on negotiating international agreements that encourage responsible behavior in space. Specifically, the U.S. should negotiate with other nations to establish basic norms for space conduct, including a moratorium on ASAT weapons testing. The norms would not be legally binding but would encourage cooperation and behavior that could lead to a treaty. Adopting such an approach would be our best hope for fostering a sustainable space environment where satellites can safely navigate.
Rev. Robert Bachelder is a retired UCC minister in Massachusetts and author of a General Synod resolution on responsible stewardship of the outer space environment. Through a regular series of articles, the UCC maintains its commitment to addressing the serious threats posed by space debris.