War in Space Would Be Disastrous

Space is increasingly a billionaire’s playground as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin marks its 20th mission with its latest launch. It’s easy to mock Bezos and his vision of "a future where millions of people are living and working in space," likely in less-than-safe Amazon mining factories for less-than-generous wages. Yet I’m forced to admit that even this vision is preferable to the one being advanced by the U.S. Space Force created by President Trump.

In fact, America’s Space Force has an alternate vision: "space is a warfighting domain." Thus, America’s space "guardians" seek to dominate and exploit space while denying the same to enemies and rivals. Yet space should be seen as a place for international cooperation and collaboration, not as a realm for combat and control. Even Russia and the US, after all, have worked peacefully together on projects like the International Space Station (ISS).

Admittedly, war in space looks sexy, or at least exciting, in Star Wars and Star Trek and similar Sci-Fi franchises, featuring spaceships (or "starships"), laser beams (or "phasers"), and plenty of explosions. Reality, however, would be far messier. Any kind of war in space would be potentially calamitous for a host of reasons – the potential for nuclear war here on Earth being one of them.

Consider the unglamorous problem of space junk. In the mid-1980s, I worked in Air Force Space Command. Back then, we tracked about 6000 objects in earth orbit, from weather and spy satellites to lost tools and astronaut gloves. Most of it was just junk, remnants of launchers, satellite debris, and related objects. But even small bits can’t be ignored when they’re traveling at roughly 17,000 miles per hour in orbit. At that speed, collisions could knock out even the ISS; in fact, its crews have on occasion readied themselves for emergency evacuation due to the predicted proximity of fast-moving junk.

Today, space is more crowded (and more important) than ever. Roughly 27,000 human-made objects now orbit the earth, with thousands more scheduled to be launched in the next few years. Avoiding collisions (and thus much more junk) is already difficult. Any kind of a war in space, featuring anti-satellite attacks and explosions, would likely double or triple this number in a matter of days. Space traffic control would be a nightmare, and critical satellites that we rely on daily for vital communications as well as routine transactions would be disrupted or destroyed.

War in space would also disrupt spy satellites, and that’s not a good thing. A big reason we’ve been able to avoid nuclear war, and ferret out false alarms of the same, is because of a network of sensitive surveillance satellites that quickly detect missile launches. Any damage to this network would make it that much more difficult to distinguish false alarms from the real deal. International crises, such as today’s Russia/Ukraine war, could lead to even more panic and escalation if one nuclear power or another were blinded in space due to warfighting there.

Having "eyes in the sky" that peer down and provide some transparency on rivals and their actions is essential to security and stability. Denying the same to a rival, whether purposely in war or by accident, is a recipe for wider war and potential nuclear Armageddon.

Space, in short, is too dangerous to be treated as a warfighting realm. Deploying weapons to space, moreover, would be counterproductive. America, which is $30 trillion in debt, doesn’t need yet another unnecessary, expensive, unpredictable, and destabilizing arms race.

A US Space Force that seeks to dominate space will ultimately make America less secure. Recall that NASA was created as a civilian space agency in the aftermath of Sputnik (1957) during the Cold War partly to avoid the rampant militarization of space. Recall as well that America’s astronauts went to the Moon in 1969 in the cause of peace and for all humanity. International space crews have worked cooperatively, astronaut-to-cosmonaut, for decades. Let’s not sully space with our petty Earth-based grievances.

In these chaotic and fearful times, it may be tempting to see space as yet another realm to be dominated and exploited in the cause of protecting the "homeland." But Earth is our true home, for all of us, just as space should truly belong to all of us, not just to billionaires or US military "guardians," as a realm for future, peaceful endeavors.

At the height of the space race driven by nationalism in the 1960s, Star Trek suggested space could serve as a "final frontier" for human exploration based on cooperation and collaboration. That’s the vision I support. In that spirit, let’s act to keep those Star Wars away from our planet and where they belong: in a galaxy far, far away.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) who worked in Air Force Space Command, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network.