During the Cold War, the ‘Space Race’ saw the Americans and the Soviets compete for scientific achievement and prestige in the eyes of the world, as well as for military advantage derived from surveillance, communications and missile warning satellites. Today, space has again risen to prominence against the backdrop of escalating geopolitical competition. The creation of the United States (US) Space Force in 2019 was a statement of American strategic intent in the space domain, as is NASA’s Artemis programme including the Artemis Accords, which aim to underwrite the future norms governing activities on the Moon. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s ambition is for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to be the dominant space power by 2049 with the Chinese space programme adding new records and capabilities every year. But it is the private sector, through companies like SpaceX, which is driving much of the innovation and growth in space technology – and indeed more, as Starlink’s role in aiding Ukraine’s resistance has shown. So what does the future hold? How will space impact the course of geopolitics in the years and decades ahead? The Council on Geostrategy asks seven strategic experts following World Space Week in today’s Big Ask.
Gabriel Elefteriu, Council on Geostrategy
Space is critical to modern military operations. To take the case of land warfare, in Ukraine, Kyiv’s armed forces use SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband system to share targeting data quickly for artillery fire missions. Effectively, they have now got a networked artillery system which uses mobile apps like GIS Arta; a forward drone operator geolocates an enemy target, and then they can use an iPad-type tablet to input data into the app which, via Starlink, enables headquarters to direct precision strikes against the enemy. This shortens the kill chain and allows a numerically inferior force to do more damage with less ammunition.
Beyond Starlink, Ukraine’s military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) needs are also supported by commercial remote-sensing satellite systems, from the likes of Maxar or Iceye. These are fielding increasingly capable sensors which constitute a powerful strategic advantage for Ukraine. The commercial standard in optical sensors is now 30cm linear ground resolution (and soon 10cm). Radar, which sees through clouds and at night, is now down to 16cm resolution. Other highly capable sensing technologies involve radiofrequency geolocation (identifying radio, cellphone and radar emissions), thermal or hyperspectral. A remote-sensing revolution is underway, and it is overturning some of the core assumptions of land warfare.
It is this combination of space-enabled communications, ISR, and of course precision positioning and navigation (via GPS) which has given Ukraine the edge over Russian artillery. HIMARS-type systems would not have been enough by themselves. Thus, space has a practical effect on the battlefield where it can negate traditional advantages. Add space power to the equation, and the military balance shifts – with geopolitical consequences.
Namrata Goswami, Thunderbird School of Global Management
India is a major space power in Asia. Its space programme is geared towards building its civilian and military space capabilities for independent rocket launches, satellite communications, navigation, e-commerce, getting to the Moon and Mars, as well as utilising its space capabilities for military power projection. In 2019, India tested an Anti-Satellite weapon capability and established a separate Space Defense Agency, its version of the US Space Force.
In the India Space Policy 2023, New Delhi specified how establishing a vibrant private sector is vital to enhancing its space capabilities. Towards this end, India established New Space India Limited, as well as the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre, which acts as a single window agency to issue licenses to the private space sector.
Geopolitics is one of the main driving forces behind India’s space programme. India views space as vital for its defence, particularly given the rise of the PRC and its own advanced military and space capabilities. Space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to monitor disputed territories with the PRC in the Himalayas and support India’s naval deployments in the Indian Ocean Region is recognised as critical by New Delhi. It is thus clear that as India’s geopolitical importance rises, its growing and increasingly modern space capabilities will impact the future of geopolitics.
Theodora Ogden, RAND Europe
While the Artemis Accords signal a new era of space exploration to signatories, to others it may delineate the first of several ‘space blocs’. The emerging PRC-Russia space partnership also stands to shape the strategic environment, and other countries may align with them to pursue shared interests. However, emerging spacefaring nations and developing economies may feel increasingly left behind in the ongoing ‘space race’. The Bogotá Declaration of 1976 saw several equatorial nations seek to lay claim to the geostationary orbital slots above their territories. Though ultimately unsuccessful, this initiative manifested the frustration and exclusion felt by some countries. Today, an increasingly congested and contested space domain could see tensions and competition intensify.
International space law remains outdated to address a rapidly evolving space domain and the increasingly complex network of private industry and newcomer nations. New forms of competition and cooperation between private companies and governments could generate opportunities, as well as challenges, with significant implications for the future of geopolitical stability. Major powers such as the US and PRC may need to prioritise international cooperation and mutual understanding of space norms over their economic interests and geostrategic ambitions. Elevating the core values of space as a peaceful domain for all humankind remains key to preserving the fragile space environment, and towards ensuring a just, equitable, diverse and inclusive (JEDI) space for future generations.
Clémence Poirier, European Space Policy Institute
The impact of geopolitics in space has rapidly evolved from fuelling an arms race between the US and Soviet Union to fostering the rise of commercial space actors. These commercial actors seek to occupy the orbital environment through initiatives like mega-constellations, in-orbit servicing missions, commercial space stations, lunar exploration, and the development of permanent lunar habitats. Importantly, they also seek the strategic occupation of ‘Lagrange Points’ to enable exploration missions. These are missions which may later be considered by states as a vital strategic interest to protect, thereby extending geopolitical competition over territory into space.
The impact of geopolitics in space has been felt recently in Europe. A few hours before it launched its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia launched a cyberattack on a satellite network to deprive Kyiv of the ability to use satellite communications on the battlefield, generating ripple effects across satellite users in Europe. This was a wake up call. Yet, the orbital environment is not yet entirely weaponised, as the attack targeted systems on the user segment on Earth rather than the spacecraft in orbit. The weaponisation of space is nonetheless emerging and is marked by irresponsible behaviours (i.e., hostile approaches and anti-satellite missile tests), but remains under the threshold of a casus belli.
Aditya Ramanathan, Takshashila Institution
The future of space geopolitics will primarily depend on the shape and trajectory of international rivalries.
What is clear is that states will seek to leverage space-related activities to increase their national competitiveness and wield geopolitical influence. They will do this by:
- Investing in applications which deliver direct commercial or strategic benefits, such as satellite infrastructure;
- Pursuing sustained low-Earth orbit habitation as well as lunar and planetary exploration. The budgetary support for these missions will hinge on the intensity of international rivalries as well as other competing priorities back on Earth;
- Attempting to shape norms and laws for space activities in ways most favourable to their interests; and,
- Developing capabilities to contest their adversaries’ use of space by developing ‘counterspace’ capabilities and offensive cyber tools.
All of this will create two governance challenges. The first will be to agree on new rules to govern the dramatic expansion in space activity. The other will be reaching a consensus on arms control in space even though states do not agree on definitions of space weapons or acceptable behaviour in space. Thus, it may take a major crisis for any breakthroughs in space governance or arms control.
John B. Sheldon, AstroAnalytica
In practice, space (obviously) envelops the entire planet, and therefore every country and non-state actor is, to one extent or another, impacted by spacepower – the ability in peace, crisis, and war to exert influence in and from space. This is why we are seeing more and more countries on all continents and with various levels of economic development start their own space programmes, space agencies, military space units, commands, and even separate military services entirely.
Moreover, space systems are integral and even vital to the functioning of modern economies, infrastructure, and militaries not just in the developed world, but also in developing countries. Because of this satellites are legitimate targets in war, and the space domain itself is increasingly contested. In classical geopolitical terms, and building on the works of Sir Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, ‘World-Island’ powers (Russia and the PRC mainly) will seek to deny space against ‘rimland’ and ‘offshore’ powers who will seek to control space in order to contain ‘World-Island’ expansion.
As someone who has advised policymakers around the world on space issues, and helped build space programmes, it is interesting to note that the domain is now a staple part of the global diplomatic agenda and geostrategic calculus of national leaders. Apart from a couple of notable exceptions, academia, media, and party politics in the West have yet to catch up to this reality.
Mann Virdee, Council on Geostrategy
For over a decade, the go-to axiom on space has been this: space is becoming increasingly congested, contested, and competitive. This is, if anything, more accurate now than it was ten years ago.
Innovations such as the miniaturisation of satellites and reusable launchers have reduced the cost of accessing and using space for commercial entities. This has helped the rise of commercial actors and the emergence of the private space industry. For example, SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation Starlink now makes up more than half of all active satellites in orbit. The power and influence of such companies has significant implications for geopolitics in the future; Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX, had the power to both grant and then withhold satellite service to Ukraine, a sign of what may be to come.
The list of countries with space programmes is ever-increasing against a backdrop of rising geopolitical competition. The PRC, India, and Japan are increasingly and successfully showcasing their capabilities, and may soon be joined by the United Arab Emirates and others. Following Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine, Roscosmos officials warned that quasi-civilian satellites may be legitimate targets for retaliatory strikes. Meanwhile, we are seeing more language and activity of some governmental space programmes that echoes the narratives and bravado which defined the Cold War.
In this context, increasing congestion in space from satellites and space debris may be a powder keg. That the US established its Space Force in 2019 is a sign of things to come: space is the next frontier of war.
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