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The New Space Race

Nov 02, 2021

We have all read about how multi billionaire entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are competing to be the first private actor to establish a base on Mars. But besides the billionaire competition in space, a new global space race is shaping a new foundation of control for both civil and military use.

Modern society is largely dependent on the use of satellites at various heights above the Earth's surface, as they are used for among other things positioning, communication and weather/climate monitoring. The lives of the majority of civilians around the world would be severely affected if these satellites were to suddenly stop working. In the future, we will become even more dependent on satellites in our daily life. To meet these future demands, a large number of satellites are planned for launch in the coming years. The companies OneWeb and Starlink for example are planning to send over 80,000 microsatellites into low earth orbits to provide our entire planet with internet access.

In addition to civilian uses, satellites are necessary for the military battlefield to control weapon systems, for communications, as well as conduct intelligence from space. In recent years, there has been a great deal of media attention around how different countries have shifted their position on space. China for example made significant progress this year by sending a hypersonic controllable weapon with the help of a civilian launch vehicle, which after circulating the Earth was steered toward a specific location – a major technological leap forward for China.

Furthermore, Chinese scientists claim that they have developed devices that, once in space, can maneuver alongside satellites and cause faults in the satellite's propulsion system in a way that can be perceived as a malfunction.

On the Korean Peninsula, North Korea and South Korea are competing to build larger launch vehicles to place satellites in orbit. North Korea’s launch vehicle is also directly linked to its weapons program as a carrier of among other arms, nuclear weapons.

Other countries are also investing in building their own rocket launchers, to be able to place large objects in orbit, in addition to the major players, Israel, India, Iran, and Japan also have that capacity today. Extensive projects, both private and government funded, are being conducted in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Australia, the Philippines, New Zealand, Sweden, and the UK.

The capability to build satellites and space probes is even more widespread than launchers, for example, the United Arab Emirates' space probe arrived on Mars in 2021, and Iran constructed a spy satellite that was launched with its own launch vehicle in 2020. The broadened technical competence, combined with more affordable launches, has provided several countries with the opportunity to develop their own satellites. This has increased their capabilities for building military satellites, which will revolutionize the modern battlefield.

For many years, the US, Russia, China, and India have had the capacity to destroy satellites with weapon systems based on Earth or on aircraft. This ability has been demonstrated on several occasions and has resulted in a large amount of space debris circulating the earth and strong diplomatic objections. What we now see is a more multifaceted threat, with new types of weapon systems that can knock out other space-based systems or hit targets on Earth.

In addition to the fact that more state actors can directly affect the space arena, there is also a risk of other antagonistic threats. It has been proven to be relatively easy to hack a satellite's control system to make it unusable. Although much is being done to ensure the security of the 8,000 satellites currently in Earth’s orbit (and for the large number of planned satellites), there is always the possibility that for example, a terrorist group can knock out satellites by hacking.

As a consequence of the militarization of space, our dependency on satellites and the fact that more actors are establishing themselves in space, new military functions are being established. For example, since 2015 countries, such as the US, France, Russia, China, and Iran, have established military space forces with assault capabilities and several countries have established space command centers to monitor the space arena.

There has long been international legislation, such as the Outer Space Treaty from 1963 that stipulates that weapons of mass destruction may not be stationed in space, or that military bases shall not be established on other celestial bodies. However, the existing legislation does not address other forms of militarization in space, which means that there is major room for interpretation on how military capabilities can be established in space. Therefore, new legislation that regulates the future use of space, space debris, minerals, etc. needs to be introduced. This inevitably means that the various space powers will actively lobby on new legislation to support their own interests. 

How will the increased focus on space affect the geopolitical landscape?

  • The major geopolitical actors, such as the US, the EU, Russia, and China, will continue their strong focus on space with, for example, the further introduction of positioning systems (GNSS), and the creation of increased offensive and defensive capabilities in space.

  • We will see a new space race, both on a regional and a global level with more players that are prepared to invest significant resources to gain control over their own security via space. New weapon systems will be established both in space and on the ground.

  • As the cost of launch systems and satellites continues to fall, more minor players will be able to take measures to ensure their own security by having a military presence in space. This may shift the balance of power to new actors in the geopolitical arena.

  • In the event of a conflict, the focus will be on disrupting the opponent's ability to use its satellites, which will also directly affect civil society. In addition, this might happen in the event of minor regional conflicts, as more actors acquire increased capabilities in space.

  • States will to a greater extent benefit from the knowledge and technology of private companies to gain an advantage in space more quickly. Companies such as Space X will thus become a power factor in global security in the future.

  • Private companies will also increasingly use their own satellite systems to ensure their capabilities related to navigation or communication for example.