Is it time to think about how to prevent a space war?

With tensions rising between space-capable powers such as Russia, China, and the United States, the Pentagon is taking orbital threats to satellite systems more seriously.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters/File
Models of a North Korean Scud-B missile (R) and South Korean missiles are displayed at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul in this file photo from March 16, 2012.

Earlier this month, top space experts said that the international community should update space treaties to prevent satellite collisions that could cripple major powers across the globe.

As relations remain tense between many space-faring powers – including China, Russia, and the United States – that level of cooperation could be difficult, but it would almost certainly be worth the effort, said Rear Admiral Brian Brown, deputy commander for the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, at a summit earlier this month.

"Everything is about not having a war extend to space," he said.

Revisiting the international laws that govern how various nations use space would support that, he argued. Most of these laws and treaties date from the cold war era and do not reflect the current dependence on satellites for civilian and military applications.

Since the end of the cold war, US military conflicts have involved smaller guerrilla forces with no spacefaring capabilities, which has allowed the spectre of war in space to fade. But with the rise of antagonism between space-faring powers, that prospect has become more of a concern for Pentagon officials.

Of particular worry is China's military-based space program, which has expanded rapidly in recent years, following a mandate from Chinese President Xi Jinping for the country to become an "aerospace power," as The Christian Science Monitor's Ellen Powell reported

In order to could prevent conflict in space, norms continue to be established governing orbital devices such as satellites, says Admiral Brown.

"Much like the maritime laws that we have, they established over time by safe and responsible behaviors and patterns of life," he said. "That is something we are pushing for in a lot of different areas, so we don't have miscalculations in space."

Space law, which was first established at the height of the space race, was initially an attempt to avert a destructive all-out war between the United States and Soviet Union. The historic United Nations-brokered Outer Space Treaty of 1967 banned all orbital or moon-based weapons of mass destruction – remaining mum on conventional orbital weapons – and established the principle that no country could claim any celestial body in space as its own.

The agreement helped lay the foundations for decades of peaceful cooperation in space by its signatories.

But in the years since the cold war ended, Russia and China have developed satellites capable of destroying or crippling US satellites, reports CNN's Jim Sciutto, and some in the US military are hoping to build and launch protective satellites in case of a confrontation.

The US, more than any other country, depends on a network of satellites for communications, research, and military applications. 

"These satellites were built 15 years ago and launched during an era when space was a benign environment," Lt. Gen. David Buck, Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space told CNN. "There was no threat."

He continued, "Can you imagine building a refueler aircraft, or a jet for that matter, with no inherent defensive capabilities? So our satellites are at risk, and our ground infrastructure is at risk. And we're working hard to make sure that we can protect and defend them."

The Pentagon's current space budget stands at $22 billion per year.

In the decades since Sputnik, Earth's orbit has grown crowded, with more than 4,200 satellites now circling the planet. With more satellites launching every year, it is becoming increasingly likely that an unlucky hit – let alone an intentional strike – could send debris flying in the path of other satellites, causing a domino effect with massive technical and political consequences. 

"It's important to note that if something were to happen in space, our response wouldn't necessarily be in space," said Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, at the Nov. 17 summit.

"If someone were to do something, we would respond in a time and place of our choosing, primarily because we wouldn't expect something to happen in space in isolation," he said. "It would be an extension of some conflict that would be occurring terrestrially."

Updated space laws could revitalize international cooperation in space, said Mr. Beauchamp, and halt the "erosion" of decades-old space norms "as folks around the world have tried to find advantage, find seams."

"That's part of the reason why we want to codify our norms and behavior in space," he said, "because it is such an important domain, not just for us, but for humanity."

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