What’s old is unfortunately new again: Recently, two military officials said that we should be getting ready for a war in space, a sentence I am ashamed to write in the year 2017. Their advice was seemingly bolstered by a Hill article penned by two national security experts this week, which reminded Americans that North Korea could in theory use a satellite weapon to send an electromagnetic pulse over the United States, triggering widespread blackouts and ultimately, societal collapse. It seems like all those Cold War fears Baby Boomers have repressed for decades are finally getting their chance!
“Just as nuclear assets deter aggression by convincing potential adversaries there’s just no benefit to the attack, we have to maintain a space posture that communicates the same strategic message,” US Navy Vice Admiral Charles A. Richard, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), said on March 22nd during a conference in Washington, D.C., as reported by Space.com. “I submit [that] the best way to prevent war is to be prepared for war, and we’re going to make sure that everyone knows we’re going to be prepared to fight and win wars in all domains, to include space.”
As if that wasn’t unsettling enough, a few weeks earlier, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Washington Post writer David Ignatius that his branch of military is working toward “space superiority,” which he explained as “freedom from attack and freedom to maneuver.”
While Richard and Goldfein’s comments might seem out of the blue, there’s actually a long history of policy—and action—about space as a battleground. In 1967, toward the beginning of the Space Race, the United Nation’s Outer Space Treaty banned the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction from being used anywhere in outer space. But that didn’t stop Cold War powers from propagating the idea that an all-out space war was nigh—in 1983, President Ronald Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as Star Wars, which was a plan to launch an anti-ballistic missile system into space to protect Americans from a Soviet attack. Similarly, Russians entertained the idea of creating “suicide satellites,” which were essentially spacecrafts with rapid-fire cannons attached to them. Like SDI, the idea was eventually scrapped.
Then, in the early 2000s under the tenure of President George W. Bush, the notion of bringing our battles beyond Earth resurfaced again.
“The idea of ‘space war’ lived primarily in science fiction realms for many years, but became a serious part of US policy discussions with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who talked about the inevitability of space warfare— because war had occurred in other domains of air, land and sea,” Joan Johnson Freese, Professor and former Chair of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College told Gizmodo. “[He talked about] even a ‘space Pearl Harbor.’”
Things got a little more real in 2007, when China used an antisatellite weapon from Earth to blow apart one of its own weather satellites in space. Shortly after, the New York Times reported that arms control experts called the test a “troubling development that could foreshadow an antisatellite arms race.” Once president Obama took office, there was a short cooling down period until 2013, when China launched a rocket that was ostensibly for a science mission; reportedly, some researchers were concerned that this was a practice run for future antisatellite weapons. Gizmodo has reached out to the Department of Defense for comment and will update this post if and when we hear back.
“With the 2013 Chinese launch the consensus on strategic restraint began to unravel,” Freese said. “The launch, coming soon after both Russia and China testing maneuverable satellites in low Earth orbit—a capability that, until recently, had been demonstrated only by the United States—led to something of a ‘quiet panic’ within the US national space security community.”
So while the fear of a space war is nothing new, this perennial anxiety doesn’t get any easier to deal with. While recent comments from military officials might seem aggressive and sort of alarmist, Freese said that all things considered, they’ve dialed it back quite a bit. To be fair, a shooting war in space could be disastrous for astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), communications satellites, and by extension, the rest of us here on Earth. The human toll from an EMP attack that blacks out the electrical grid is also no laughing matter—although claims that such an attack would kill 9 out of every 10 Americans may be a gross exaggeration.
“Air Force General and STRATCOM commander John Hyten has toned down that muscular rhetoric, now seemingly advocating deterrence to avoid conflict, because conflict will damage or destroy the space environment critical to US military and civilian daily operations,” Freese said. “This more prudent approach makes much more sense—in terms of achieving US space goals of stability, assured access and protection of the environment—than saber rattling.”