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A Short and Long Term Look at the Next National Security Concern: Anti-Satellite Warfare

A Short and Long Term Look at the Next National Security Concern: Anti-Satellite Warfare

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By Eva Cohn, WiSe Leadership Initiative Fellow

From watching TV in your home to communicating exact mission locations to troops half way around the world, both civilians and the military depend on satellites for communication and GPS. As our world normalizes this technology and becomes increasingly dependent on it, anti-satellite (ASAT) warfare will become increasingly likely.

Attempts to disrupt or block these vital channels of information with precision missile attacks or the scattering of lethal debris will be detrimental. The U.S. must continue to explore strategies to avoid this type of anti-satellite warfare and protect what has now become a fundamental technology capability for the U.S. With profuse commercial and military satellites currently orbiting Earth, the next national security concern—impacting the military, technology, and diplomacy—will be the global defense of a country’s satellites.

The U.S. needs to prepare today for military conflict to occur in space with satellites serving as primary targets. This new dynamic of military conflict is a potential implication of more countries developing and launching their own satellites into Earth’s orbit causing new U.S. national security strategies to be proposed and determined. China and Russia proposed in 2008 and 2014 the “Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects” (PPWT) to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. The U.S. did not sign the treaty as some of the language was not specific enough and did not address a country’s ability to manage ground storage of ASAT. As the U.S. builds its national security stance and participates in the global discussion to promote global stability, other concurrent technology as well as diplomatic actions can be considered now to contribute to the de-escalation of ASAT warfare and balance international relations with countries like China.

In 2007, China tested an anti-satellite missile against one of its aging weather satellites. Similar tests were carried out conspicuously over the next few years which reflects China’s technological capability to disrupt the function of satellites. All countries with satellites orbiting Earth will need to continue researching and developing technologies and designs to withstand or defend against this new form of warfare (whether a country’s satellites are the target or not). In the next ten years, the U.S. needs to evaluate if privately developing new technologies and designs for satellites will continue to fuel other countries like China to do the same or will sharing fundamental findings of safety technology and design elevate the global standard of satellites and de-escalate the rising concern. Opening the channels of communication could greatly benefit the important satellites tracking weather patterns, gathering climate data, or managing mass communications to improve designs, strengthen maneuver capabilities, and reduce risks after a collision.

Although anti-satellite warfare will be a national security concern for the U.S., the scientific community has the potential opportunity to build bridges with allies and adversaries through scientific collaboration to contribute to global stability. After the race to space and the Cold War, American and Russian scientists collaborated on ground breaking science and technology tests. As a result, American astronauts complete Russian courses today before traveling to the International Space Station. This new national security concern may have a similar impact between American and Chinese scientists. Although NASA faces restrictions working bilaterally with China, American and Chinese scientists in the private sector could begin discussing data gathered from climate monitoring or remote sensing satellites to build relationships which could grow into stronger diplomatic ties. As the world is still understanding the implications of anti-satellite warfare, long and short term considerations can be taken to globally defend a country’s satellites while developing relationships and trust to bridge diplomatic relations and de-escalate this national security concern.

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