Conflict Aloft: Is Space the New War Zone?
The idea of warfare in space raises some tricky issues. Attacks on satellites and other systems may be “invisible” to a person looking up into the sky and hard to track in general, but they can be just as devastating as attacks on terrestrial technology, as our digital world today is dependent on satellite networks that cover the globe.
The U.S. military is taking steps to increase space defense, particularly protection of satellites, but the creation of a new branch of military to oversee space defense remains questionable. Today more and more countries, even developing countries, are taking steps to go digital. For many nations, cyberspace is a critical part of their infrastructure. And now cyberwarfare has a new potential battlefront: low Earth orbit.
Our early fears about space-based wars were allayed somewhat by the United Nations’ 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which banned the use of nuclear weapons in space. The treaty was based on legal principles governing the activities of states in the exploration and use of outer space. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed the treaty and it became effective in October of that year. The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework for international space law.
However, it did not ban use of conventional weapons in space. Consequently, rocket attacks on satellites are an area of concern, as are electronic attacks. What’s more, satellites can sabotage other satellites and ground systems can block GPS signals. And, as with terrestrial data storage and transmission systems, there is certainly a danger of hacking in space. Cyberattacks require no guns or explosives. All you need is a computer and an internet connection, and with the right skills, you can affect governments and millions or even billions of people worldwide. For that reason, the time is now for the international community to respond.
Perhaps an organization like the United Nations should work to expand on the Outer Space Treaty to address the looming specter of conventional and cyberwarfare in low Earth orbit. One thing is clear, it is critical to virtually everyone on our planet that we collectively take steps to protect the world’s rapidly growing collection of mission-critical satellites.