This is a “what if” interview from the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network. To view the rest of the series, click here.
While it may sound like science fiction, a number of the world’s major militaries are already preparing for combat in space. The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with TIME, spoke with Theresa Hitchens, director of the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). She warns that strikes against satellites could push earth wars to a new level. (The views expressed here are her own, not those of the United Nations.)
Is there really a threat for conflict in space?
We may not be about to see a real life Death Star hovering into view, but we will see earth wars elevated into space. It is almost inevitable that if a major conflict arises between developed powers, satellites will become targets. This was not the case ten years ago, but since then satellites have increasingly been integrated into a nation’s ability to project power and pursue a war. They are used for military communications, for mapping and to guide bombs. A modern army could not operate in a satellite-free environment. This is worrying when you consider that, if a satellite is destroyed or damaged, it is not only the military functions that are taken out: most of them carry out all kinds of essential civilian services, too.
What warning signs have you seen already?
Three nations have tested anti-satellite weapons in the last three decades: the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, then China in 2007. The latter shocked a lot of people. China sent a kinetic weapon – a solid warhead – slamming into one of its own weather satellites, causing an explosion which created thousands of pieces of debris in one of the most crowded orbits around earth. The worst part was not the demonstration of capability, as pretty much everyone knew China could do something like this, it was the question of why they chose to demonstrate it in the manner in which they did. What’s more, any country that has a medium-range ballistic weapon and a reasonable commercial satellite programme can develop an anti-satellite weapon, and there is no real international agreement on what norms of behaviour are acceptable. I am pretty sure that France, India and Israel all have the capacity.
What about North Korea?
North Korea hasn’t shown much control over its ballistic missiles. Frankly, they couldn’t hit the back side of a barn.
If war were to escalate in space, how would the situation unfold?
Say you have a crisis between two nuclear-armed, space-faring countries, Nation A and Nation B, which have a long-standing border dispute. Nation A, with its satellite capability, sees that Nation B is mobilizing troops and opening up military depots in a region where things are very tense already, on the tipping point. Nation A thinks: “That’s it, they’re going to attack”. So it might decide to pre-emptively strike the communications satellite used by Nation B to slow down its ability to move toward the border and give itself time to fortify. Say this happens and Nation B has no use of satellites for 12 hours, the time it takes it to get another satellite into position. What does Nation B do? It’s blind, it’s deaf, it’s thinking all this time that it’s about to be overwhelmed by an invasion or even nuked. This is possibly a real crisis escalation situation; something similar has been played out in U.S. Air Force war games, a scenario-planning exercise practiced by the U.S. military. The first game involving anti-satellite weapons stopped in five minutes because it went nuclear – bam. Nation B nuked Nation A. This is not a far-out, “The sky’s falling in!” concern, it is something that has been played out over and over again in the gaming of these things, and I have real fears about it.
Could other channels of communication not defuse the situation?
I have fewer fears about major nation states who have established means of communicating with one another. The United States and Russia have ways of de-escalating crises which they built up during the Cold War. So when, in 1995, Yeltsin was handed the nuclear command suitcase after a Norwegian-American research rocket was mistaken for a missile strike from the West, he called Clinton on the hotline and resolved the situation. The United States and China don’t have a hot line, although their communication is improving over time. India and Pakistan don’t have a hotline. Iran doesn’t have a hotline with anyone.
If a strike on a satellite did take place, who would be impacted and how?
That depends on who is involved. Some countries have dedicated military satellites, so the impact would be quite limited, but more often, satellites have combined military, government and commercial uses. For example, in the first Gulf War, 80% of military communications went through commercial satellites. If a nation state were desperate enough to blow up a commercial satellite, the impact on civilian populations shouldn’t be underestimated. While I don’t see a situation where we’ll go back to the 1950s for six months, you could have an entire country without effective communication systems, with very little access to the internet and phones, for a certain period of time. It would disrupt telemedicine and financial systems, people wouldn’t be able to get money out of ATMs, “just in time” delivery on anything from food to manufacturing parts would falter, it would impact power grids, the water supply and search and rescue operations. There would be widespread collateral damage, and not just on the populations of our hypothetical Nation A and Nation B, since satellites serve regions rather than individual countries.
What can be done to reduce the risk of this kind of conflict?
There need to be some very serious discussions about what kind of escalation ladders and red lines can be established in any kind of conflict involving satellites. There has to be some more honest discussion on doctrines and policy, and more transparency. We need to know how and when and at what point it become unacceptable to target satellites. The United States holds that it has the right to attack other people’s satellites, including with kinetic weapons, even though the United States has the most invested in satellites. It is a short-sighted and potentially self-harming doctrine. While China is less than transparent regarding its military space doctrine, from what we can read and see regarding investments, they seem to have a similar policy. Overall, we need international discussion and agreement on how the rules of war apply to space.