This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

When US President Donald Trump revived the National Space Council in mid-2017, his policy direction for the high-level advisory committee charged with overseeing US space activities was not entirely clear. But when Vice President Mike Pence, who also serves as Chairman of the Council, announced on 9 August that the Trump administration intends to ‘establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces’, it became undeniable that outer space may soon take on a more competitive character.

These recent developments, along with those in other countries such as China, raise the spectre of conflict in yet another domain and warrant a new analytic platform to identify and assess global concerns. Accordingly, the IISS Observatory, a monthly forum for space policy analysis, will feature expert views from government, military, industry and academia.

A National Aeronautics and Space Council was originally established in 1958, and then re-established (and renamed) in 1989, to centralize authority over space policymaking for the United States. Currently, a handful of federal agencies manage the nation’s space efforts, among them NASA, the Department of Defense, and more recently, as space exploration has bled into the private sector, the Departments of Commerce and Transportation. In theory, President Trump’s reinstatement of the Council will enable more efficient coordination of space efforts across the civilian, military and intelligence spheres.

Some commentators offer that Space Force is Trump’s response to military advances in other countries, including measures that allegedly ‘weaponize’ outer space. The December 2015 establishment of China’s military space enterprise, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF), serves as the primary example. Tasked with the development and execution of the PLA’s space capabilities, the SSF was created as part of a significant reorganization of the Chinese military that prioritizes the advancement and integration of the country’s space efforts.

The SSF is unique in supporting not only the PLA’s role in space, but also its cyber and electronic warfare capabilities – a conjunction that probably forecasts the synergistic nature of future conflict. The PLA has invested heavily in new countermeasures, such as an anti-satellite (ASAT) programme with non-kinetic weapons that have the potential to incapacitate foreign satellites.

The US is also eyeing Russia, the other major space power, in this regard. Senior diplomats have raised concerns in international fora about Russia’s active and public pursuit of ASAT weapons. At a Conference on Disarmament meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, for example, the US noted that Russian satellite behaviour is often ‘inconsistent’ with Moscow’s claims and highlighted that verification – in the traditional arms-control sense – is challenging because of the difficulty in determining ‘an object’s true purpose simply by observing it on orbit’.

In his speech, Vice President Pence implied that emerging threats from possible adversaries such as China and Russia were the proximate cause for creating a Space Force by 2020. Pence described the $8 billion initiative as an adaptation to the new reality of space as a contested war-fighting domain that necessitates the development of new space capabilities. According to its Trump administration architects, Space Force will allow the US to maintain its prior dominance in space – a questionable yet certainly parochial claim. A new military service branch responsible for US outer space operations would inter alia synchronise command of existing satellite systems, which presently include a constellation of reconnaissance, navigation, missile-warning and communications platforms under different agencies.

Celestial competition

Although the bulwark of international space law, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, reserves the exploration and use of space for peaceful purposes in the common interest of humanity, there are no explicit legal prohibitions against the militarization of space other than claiming individual territory or placing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in orbit.

Over time, space has become an arena for military support functions and displays of technological prowess, including the deployment of spy satellites and testing of ASAT weapons.

Space weapons and military space units are both proliferating, but there is no consensus on how to govern that contested domain

Russia and China, meanwhile, have led a group of states at the United Nations promoting a draft treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space; however, the United States and other countries have criticized the proposed text as ‘fundamentally flawed’. Space weapons and military space units are both proliferating, but there is no consensus on how to govern that contested domain.

Although many nations’ space programmes evolved from military organizations, most orbital activity to date has been passive in nature – intelligence collection, remote sensing, precision timing and navigation, or proprietary telecommunications. Recent trends suggest that may not endure.

As the economic value propositions of outer space change, so too will the levels of celestial competition and confrontation. The ever-increasing number of countries and companies seeking to leverage the unique locations (e.g. particular orbits) and physical properties (e.g. vacuum, low gravity, extremely cold temperatures) of outer space makes friction inevitable and international norms essential.

Moreover, space also affords special attributes for military command and control, as well as overflight of otherwise denied areas of Earth.

Control of outer space will likely be the twenty-first century strategic equivalent of the British navy’s global dominance of the high seas in a previous era – whoever can move personnel, materiel or information between remote locations on the planet the fastest will have a distinct advantage. That metaphor also serves well regarding the East India Company, which assumed important sovereign prerogatives in the hands of private corporate interests.

Is the further militarization of space inevitable?

The actions of the major powers raise important questions as to the inevitability of the ‘weaponisation’ of outer space and what that would entail. Could expanded military sensing and monitoring platforms actually increase mutual security as during the Cold War? Will purportedly defensive installations undermine credible nuclear deterrents and thereby heighten security dilemmas?

How could offensive, space-borne capabilities short of WMD affect terrestrial power dynamics? How will private companies protect and defend their economic interests in space?

The IISS Observatory, a new monthly digest of matters of gravity for space policy, will confront these and other issues from an international vantage point that prioritizes systemic peace and security.

The dawn of a new strategic era in outer space, Sean Kanuck and Alana Vogel, the International Institute of Strategic studies