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Making a Moral Case for Nonconflict in Space: Expanding Strategic Norm to Taboo

  • Published
  • By Dr. Wendy N. Whitman Cobb


(Air Force photo by A1C Zoe Thacke)




On 29 January 2020, SpaceX launched a fourth batch of 60 Starlink satellites, on their way to building out a system of well over one thousand 485-pound satellites to provide internet and communications services around the world. Later that day, two defunct satellites in low earth orbit came dangerously close to colliding over Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Though they passed safely by one another, at their closest, the satellites were just 154 feet apart, travelling at thousands of miles per hour.1 Both the increasing utilization of space represented by SpaceX and the possibility for collisions in space highlight the growing congestion in the most frequently used orbits around earth. With modern life increasingly predicated on space-based systems and the economic infrastructure and services they provide, state behavior that threatens to upset a precarious balance presents, if not an existential threat, a serious and significant one to a way of living on earth.

This reliance on space-based systems has taken several decades to develop. At the opening of the space age, the United States and the Soviet Union sought to take advantage of space for strategic and military purposes, quickly developing reconnaissance and imaging satellites as well as weapons to combat the other side in space. However, after the opening of the space domain in 1957 and even after the development of weapons for use in space (the United States first tested an antisatellite weapon in 1958, followed by the Soviet Union in 1962), there have been no instances of kinetic conflict in space, let alone open, public, nonkinetic warfare.2 This is despite the early military value in space-based assets, which has only grown exponentially since. James Clay Moltz describes the situation as such:

By contrast, space dynamics witnessed a sharp decline in deployed weapons and the channeling of competition mainly into civilian and military support (and later force enhancement) realms, with devoted weapons research taking place on the margins, but resulting in little testing and almost no deployments. The fact that the two sides [the Soviet Union and the United States] decided to set space aside from their continued weapons buildup requires further attention.3 (emphasis in the original)

Because the commercial value of space has developed comparatively recently, early limitations on space activities taken on the part of the former Soviet Union and the United States were largely strategic in nature. Take, for example, kinetic antisatellite weapons (ASAT). When employed, ASATs can destroy satellites in orbit, but they can also cause a significant amount of debris that could in turn threaten other satellites (discussed further below). Limits on ASAT testing and development in the 1960s evolved from strategic concerns centered on the increasing pace of arms races and limiting the terrestrial effects of competition in space.4 Because space-based reconnaissance took on such an important role in stabilizing nuclear politics between the superpowers, both states sought to limit the effects of ASATs to continue other operations unimpeded. In the 1980s, members of Congress sought to limit Pres. Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) not from a moral perspective but a strategic one centered on costs, the availability of technology, and debris concerns. Military leaders also discouraged an expansive program because of the continuing problem of debris.

Strategic norms can change quickly, however. No prohibitions on conflict in space are enshrined in international law, and legal scholars are divided on whether the Outer Space Treaty or customary law either prohibits or allows states to weaponize space.5 Short of formal laws or treaties, norms, traditions, and taboos can fill the gap, regulating behavior in certain ways. In the case of nuclear weapons, for example, the amount and type of devastation that they can bring make their use morally reprehensible, thereby regulating behavior. According to Nina Tannenwald, the moral taboo represents the strongest form of norm, one that is hardly ever considered worth breaking.6 T.V. Paul, on the other hand, does not believe the nuclear taboo approaches this threshold, instead arguing for the use of the term tradition.7 In any case, constructing a certain behavior as worthy of being a taboo or tradition further strengthens prohibitions on it in the absence of international law.

While there is indeed a norm that has developed centered on nonconflict in space, is it possible to frame conflict in space along the model of a taboo? Scholars have not hesitated to invoke nuclear principles in assessing space-based conflict, yet the idea of a nuclear taboo or tradition of non-use has not similarly been taken up.8 The weapons that have already acquired a taboo against their use (nuclear, chemical, biological) all have in common the unique ways in which they cause harm and destruction. To construct a moral case against kinetic space conflict in particular, one needs to demonstrate how and why it too should be considered uniquely dangerous and reckless. Using space warfare’s similarity to nuclear conflict, I propose a moral case against conflict in space based on the amount of environmental destruction it might cause. In doing so, I highlight the absence of a significant factor that has contributed to the development of other taboos: societal pressure. The public has not yet been exposed to the consequences of space conflict because it has not occurred; in the absence of such bottom-up pressure, further institutionalization of a space taboo will be severely limited. Policy makers and other interested actors wishing to limit conflict in space must therefore make a concerted effort to frame the dangers of space conflict in such a way as to highlight its grave consequences.

The Nuclear–Space Comparison

Tannenwald, in answering the question of what makes nuclear aversion a taboo, identifies a taboo as a particular type of norm that is “concerned with the protection of individuals and societies from behavior that is defined as or perceived to be dangerous. . . . It thus involves socially constructed notions of danger as well as institutional mechanisms to localize the danger and regulate behavior.”9 A taboo, then, is predicated on the morality of the behavior being forbidden; the action must be so normatively abhorred as to acquire a socially constructed and socially given identity as being a prohibited behavior. While it does not necessarily need to be recognized in international law, it does have to be accepted and practiced by states, and increasingly for space, by private actors. For the nuclear taboo, the awful death, destruction, and environmental consequences are key to making it a normatively undesirable behavior. While it might at first appear absurd to compare potential space conflict to nuclear warfare, consider the following statements:

Additionally, destruction of even a non-military satellite could devastate a society that increasingly relies on satellites for daily functions critical to the civilian and economic well-being. . . .10

Globalization has been fostered through satellite technologies. Their disruption can be devastating for all parties. . . . What may occur is the graveyard of the modern economic system.11

Each of these three arguments describes potentially catastrophic consequences of space conflict that appear to be on par with the destruction wrought by nuclear weapons. Karl D. Hebert makes this connection explicit, writing, “Some non-WMD [weapons of mass destruction] space weapons hold special attributes allowing rapid attack, thus creating a situation akin to the nuclear crisis in terms of fear and urgency.”12 To assess the extent to which the effects and consequences of space-based conflict coincide with nuclear conflict and therefore make it prohibitively destructive, we must first ask what the hallmarks of nuclear conflict are that make it so distinctive? Primary among them is the sheer amount of death and destruction that nuclear bombs bring. In 1945, an estimated 66,000 were killed in Hiroshima with 69,000 injured, and 39,000 were killed in Nagasaki with 25,000 injured. Many more surely had their lives shortened due to radiation exposure, and those that survived underwent enormous amounts of suffering.13 Further, this destruction occurred quickly, with no warning and no knowledge about even the potential use of such a weapon. The massive casualties and damage caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki contributed to Pres. Harry Truman’s later revulsion against using atomic weaponry as well as the creation of the so-called nuclear taboo.14

A second characteristic of nuclear war is the relative speed at which it would occur and the time pressures that it initiates. In 1945, there was no advance warning of a nuclear strike because most of the world was unaware that such a weapon existed. During the Cold War, nuclear strikes could be initiated at any time, with the target country needing to respond in less than an hour. The beginning of the space era helped introduce a level of stability in this situation—satellites could observe and verify the opponent’s capabilities and actions, thus limiting misunderstandings and active conflict on the ground.15 Satellites became important in monitoring adversary behavior; if a state appeared on the verge of utilizing nuclear weaponry, those actions would not be easily hidden (though they still could be obscured to an extent). Even with the ability to monitor and identify suspicious activities, nuclear strikes were and continue to be a sword of Damocles, the thread of which could be cut on the drop of a hat.

Nuclear strikes continue to present a time threat today. Proponents of missile defense systems argue a missile shield would be largely effective in destroying nuclear-laden missiles before their arrival in the United States. Despite these claims, the programs have experienced significant difficulties in development and testing, have required an immense amount of resources, and have likely contributed to aggravating arms imbalances between the United States and other near-peer competitors. Though missile defense systems, including the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, might be deployed, they are unlikely to be 100-percent effective; some government officials believe a 90-percent effectiveness rate is acceptable.16 Even if such systems did work perfectly, the development of countermeasures and hypersonic missiles represent new challenges mitigating the effectiveness of a missile shield and further decreasing potential response time even if such an attack is launched.17 In sum, though technologies have been developed to help ward off a nuclear attack, if one was occurring, there would still be little that could be done to stop it and little time in which to make decisions about how to react to it.

A final characteristic of nuclear war is its environmental effect, including the spread of dangerous radiation and changes to the global climate.18 The effects of a nuclear conflict would not be limited to the geographical area that was attacked, but instead would spread to affect the globe. Some have argued that the amount of dust, smoke, and debris created by a large-scale nuclear attack would reduce the amount of sunlight coming through the atmosphere, in turn lowering the global temperature, and creating the scenario of a “nuclear winter.”19 Despite some doubt expressed about these models, there is none about the significant environmental and health effects due to nuclear radiation. In a study of the environmental impact of nuclear weapons testing, Remus Prăvălie finds significant amounts of radioactive pollution in atmosphere, aquatic, and underground environments.20 Increased incidents of thyroid cancer among humans have been found in Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and South Dakota indicating the widespread nature of nuclear pollution. Adverse health effects continue to plague the regions around Chernobyl and Fukushima, the sites of two nuclear accidents. The use of nuclear weapons will produce wide-scale health and environmental effects which few other weapons, if any, can lay claim to.

While it is fairly easy to identify the characteristics of nuclear combat, it is far more difficult to identify the characteristics of conflict in space given that actual, kinetic combat has not occurred. Paul Szymanski likens space warfare to an “elaborate video game,” implying a certain physical, and potentially emotional, detachment from the implications of the conflict.21 Additionally, space conflict could take on a variety of forms which Todd Harrison and his colleagues divide into four categories: kinetic physical, nonkinetic physical, electromagnetic, and cyber.22 Kinetic physical attacks are those that seek to physically strike a satellite or detonate a warhead nearby rendering the satellite nonoperational. Nonkinetic physical attacks seek to disrupt a satellite’s operations but without the physical contact brought on by a missile strike, for example. Both types of attacks could be targeted at satellites in orbit or on the ground control networks that support them. Nonkinetic attacks include electromagnetic interference and cyberattacks, and they can be temporary or permanent depending on the method utilized. The threat that is most acute from space conflict, as discussed below, are those that create significant amounts of debris, likely caused through kinetic physical strikes. For our purposes, I assume space conflict to be physical and permanent in nature, though not necessarily kinetic. These characteristics are important, because even if a satellite is disrupted nonkinetically and remains fully intact, if that disruption is permanent, the satellite will still become a piece of space debris, unable to be moved from its current orbit to a parking orbit or lowered in altitude so that it burns up harmlessly in the atmosphere. (Incidentally, this was just such the case for the two satellites that could have collided at the end of January.) While that outcome is slightly better than creating thousands of pieces of space junk, it still can create a hazard and take up a valuable orbital inclination that could otherwise be used.

In thinking about the characteristics of nuclear weapons discussed above (human casualties, environmental degradation, and time pressures), space conflict would not create casualties on the same scale that nuclear weaponry can. Even if astronauts were in orbit at the time of the attack, the death tolls would not be comparable. And, while there might be a loss of life on earth associated with a satellite disruption (emergency services often depend on the precise timing signals of GPS satellites), the potential death toll from an attack occurring solely in space does not come close to the one potentially borne out through nuclear weapons.23 In fact, some have argued that the lack of human casualties may be one characteristic that makes space warfare somewhat easier to undertake—after all, satellites do not have mothers and fathers to report the loss to.24 In terms of deterrence specifically, the massive loss of life in a nuclear attack is one aspect that raises the costs of a nuclear attack. The same mechanism would not work in terms of space deterrence, because the cost in terms of human lives is not nearly as high. It is hardly possible, then, to compare nuclear and space conflict on the basis of casualties inflicted.

In terms of environmental degradation, the most significant characteristic of space conflict and the one that leads some analysts to liken the effects to nuclear war is the creation of debris. Space debris is a growing problem with potentially massive consequences. Because of the lack of gravity, once a piece of debris is in orbit around the earth, it is likely to stay there, if not permanently, then for a significant period of time. As activities in space have increased, the volume of debris has also increased: according to the European Space Agency, there are over 900,000 objects in orbit that are greater than one centimeter.25 The 2007 Chinese antisatellite test alone created an estimated 150,000 pieces of debris larger than one centimeter. Because that test took place at a higher altitude, much of that debris remains in orbit today. Even still, the odds of a satellite being impacted by a piece of space junk is less than one in a thousand.26 Though much of the debris is cataloged and tracked, the more junk that is in orbit, the greater the chances of accidental impact that can lead to a scenario called the Kessler syndrome.

The Kessler syndrome, first postulated by a NASA scientist in the 1970s, hypothesizes that, as the volume of debris in orbit around earth increases, the chances of an incidental collision increases. That collision in turn creates more debris, ultimately leading to a runaway chain of collisions leading to earth orbits that would be unusable because of the amount of junk in them.27 Should this type of cascading collision occur, there would be no way to control its effects and save nonmilitary or nontargeted satellites. The effect of destroying one state’s satellite could have the effect of destroying many others, leading to significant consequences on earth. These consequences would not be limited to simply military activities either; the effects would ripple through the economy and civilian populations. And while such collisions are possible given the amount of debris in orbit today, kinetic conflict in space would significantly increase the possibilities of cascading collisions over time.

Debris-creating conflicts in space would likely lead to the environmental degradation of the near-earth environment, potentially restricting use of some orbits if not making them completely unusable. This type of environmental effect can be compared to the environmental destruction threatened by nuclear attack.28 Some analysts estimate that the removal of just five key pieces of space debris a year could mitigate the potential for a Kessler-type cascade, but to date, there are no proven removal techniques.29 Several are being pursued and investigated, including a prototype harpoon system that was tested in 2019, but these come with problems of their own. Debris-removal technologies themselves present other challenges—like most space technologies, they could be dual-use in nature, meaning that the system can have both civilian, peaceful uses and military uses.30 If a debris-removal system can remove a piece of junk from orbit, it could also function as an antisatellite weapon and remove or damage a satellite. There may be a fear that by deploying debris-removal systems, earth orbit is implicitly being weaponized.

Even if the technical hurdles were overcome, there are still legal challenges to confront. According to the Outer Space Treaty, all spacecraft, including the debris generated from them or by them, belongs to the country of origin. If a piece of debris has a known source, the owner country would need to give permission for its removal; if the owner state is unknown, though, it would be legally questionable whether removal was permitted. And, like many other problems associated with common pool resources, there is little incentive for countries to remove debris resulting in the classic collective action problem.31 Even if accepted debris mitigation guidelines continue to be followed, collisions between objects in near-earth space will continue and themselves create additional pieces of junk. For the time being, then, debris will continue to be a significant and worsening problem in near-earth space.

Debris is not just a concern for the military or satellite operators—space conflict has the potential to affect all those who utilize space-based systems. Satellites are used for activities as simple as a credit card transaction to weather forecasting and driving directions. Given the extent to which many everyday activities on earth depend on such systems, an accurate accounting of the potential costs of satellite destruction is difficult to come by.32 In 2018, the size of the global space economy was estimated at 400 billion USD, 80 percent of which is commercial activity.33 One service that is provided through satellites is remote sensing, which allows for pictures and images of the earth to be captured by satellites and transmitted for analysis to the ground. Though remote sensing contributes to intelligence activities, it also has a significant economic impact. Remote sensing systems contribute to weather forecasting, disaster monitoring, forestry, urban planning, and real estate.34 In a study from the US Geological Survey, looking at just one agricultural region in Iowa, remote sensing images from the Landsat satellite were found to have a value of 858 million USD per year and a 38.1 billion USD impact over time.35 The United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) also contributes greatly to economic activity, not just in providing location services but in its timing function as well. GPS satellites are used to transmit precise times, calculated by atomic clocks on the satellites, which help agencies synchronize their activities and transactions. One recent study put the economic impact from GPS between 1984 and 2017 at 1.4 trillion USD and found that a GPS outage would cost 1 billion USD a day—with the costs increasing over time.36 These are just two examples of the type of economic impacts that would occur should certain satellites be disrupted.

While such destruction might not create the loss of life that nuclear weapons do, it is still a type of significant destruction that would affect the global economic system. Because of the extent to which the global economy has become interdependent, it will be difficult to contain economic effects to one country or one region of the world. Globalization itself has been enabled by the growth of satellite technology, thus it is to be expected that if satellite services were disrupted, the effects would also be globalized as well.37 Even if only one country’s assets were targeted (ignoring the problem of debris for the moment), the economic losses would reverberate globally. Arguably, this could create a situation of mutually assured economic destruction (MAED), whereby the downstream effects of space conflict initiated by one party are so great that the initiator suffers economic losses as well. The idea of MAED is not a new one; in a RAND report on the potential for general conflict with China, James Dobbins and his coauthors write,

Short of a nuclear exchange, the greatest damage from any conflict with China is likely to come in the economic realm. Massive and mutual economic harm would indeed result from any significant Sino-US armed conflict, even if the two sides eschewed employment of economic weapons. The two economies are linked with each other and with the rest of the world in a manner unparalleled in history. This mutual dependency can be an immensely powerful deterrent, in effect a form of mutually assured economic destruction.38

Though this analysis does not discuss space conflict, it demonstrates both the interdependence of state economies and the potential deterrent power of economic connections. Importantly, the authors argue that MAED would likely work differently than the classic mutually assured destruction associated with nuclear weapons since conflict could potentially be limited to the subnuclear level whereas economic impacts would not be able to be limited at all. While it is not my intention here to rigorously subject this argument to further analysis, it does suggest that MAED could have a more global impact than a limited nuclear strike.

While the term MAED is not commonly used in international relations literature, the concept is often returned to in research on the role that economic and commercial ties have in reducing conflict. In essence, as the potential for economic costs resulting from war increases, a state should have less incentive to engage in such action. Notwithstanding the counterexample of World War I, various scholars have pointed to economic mechanisms that have the potential to reduce conflict among states, including trade,39 a state’s interdependence with other economies and the global economy,40 the presence of capitalism,41 industrialization,42 and foreign direct investment.43 Elsewhere, I have related this literature to space itself, arguing that it is precisely the global dependence on space-based systems that increases the costs of space conflict, thereby discouraging the behavior among states.44 While the type of destruction wrought by space conflict will not nearly be the same as nuclear destruction, there is nevertheless a significant risk associated with space conflict that is not entirely unlike a nuclear strike. However, it must still be acknowledged that the degradation of the space environment would still allow for human survival on Earth. The lifestyle of many developed countries and their citizens might be significantly changed by the destruction of near-earth space, but there would not be the massive loss of lives that could be expected from nuclear fallout. The same might not be true in the case of nuclear-caused environmental harm on earth, which weakens this point somewhat.

A final point of potential comparison is the ability to quickly identify and react to a nuclear or space-centered attack. Like a nuclear attack, there would likely be little warning that an attack was imminent and even less time to respond to a kinetic space attack, which could happen anytime from a few seconds to a few hours after its initiation, depending on the type of weapon being used.45 And unless active defensive weaponry is deployed in the area, there will likely be little a target can do to stop it. Loss of the satellite may be mitigated through quickly deployed replacements or a redundant system, but little can be done to stop an attack in progress.

Adding to the problem of reaction time, there is also a problem with attribution. It might not be immediately clear who originated the attack, and gaps in space situation awareness (SSA) can obscure the identity of the aggressor.46 While it would be clear that a satellite was malfunctioning, it might not be obvious that the malfunction was the result of an attack rather than a micrometeroid impact, an equipment problem, or even user error. On top of that, any potential response would take even more time, depending on the desired action. If the attack was coming from a peer competitor with significant space-based assets, a proportional response may call for a similar attack on a satellite. A kinetic response could come from the ground or space; however, each presents its own difficulties. In the former scenario, readying a rocket or missile for launch as an antisatellite weapon would be obvious and visible and require time. If the response came from space, it would not only require the placement of weapons in space but also an acknowledgment of such an action opening the door to other actors doing so as well. If the attack, though, came from an actor without significant space assets and a space-based response is not possible or appropriate, ground-based retaliation would also take time.

The compressed time scale is a strong comparison point between nuclear and space conflicts. Szymanski, in laying out potential rules for space warfare, repeatedly emphasizes the quick nature of space conflict, writing, “Due to the remote nature of satellites in space, small-scale space attacks may be initiated, executed, and completed before the recipient even knows it is under attack, who is attacking, what the attack strategies and goals (end states) are, and when an uncomprehending senior political leadership can validate the attack and respond in a military, political, diplomatic, or economic manner.”47 This incredibly short time frame leads to several consequences for space conflict, including the importance of surprise, the likelihood of quick escalation, and the inherently destabilizing nature of the conflict.48

Is it possible to make a moral case, then, that space-based warfare is so distinct, harmful, and unique that it should approach the level of a taboo? Though the level of human suffering from a space conflict comes nowhere close to that brought on through nuclear weapons, there are striking similarities in other areas: destruction of the environment, destruction of the economy, and compressed time pressures. To be sure, degradation of the space environment and the global economy are not the same as destruction of the Earth’s environment and the widespread health effects of nuclear fallout, but the potentials are similar given the extent to which the economy is globalized and that economy is dependent on space-based systems. A large-scale space battle will almost certainly create debris, increasing the congestion of low-earth orbits in particular. The debris poses threats to all satellites, creating a sort mutually assured satellite destruction that could be translated into MAED on the ground. The remoteness and non-observability of potential space conflict mean that countries can be taken by surprise when satellites fail and be unable to immediately attribute them to an attack. Space attacks can take place within minutes, limiting the time frame in which to respond, leaving the target unprepared to respond.

Limits to the Establishment of a Space Taboo

While I believe a moral case based on the uniqueness of space warfare and the amount of possible destruction can be made, there is still a significant limitation to the possibility of furthering it. Tannenwald emphasizes the role of social pressure in establishing the nuclear taboo. Similarly, Paul focuses on the reputational effects that use of nuclear weapons would have on an aggressor country. It would appear, then, that a needed element in establishing a taboo is widespread social awareness and understanding of the issues involved.49 The activation of such a pathway in terms of a space taboo is seriously lacking. Space in general, let alone conflict in space, is not a salient issue that people think about or take seriously. Because of its relatively low public policy importance, polling organizations like Gallup only rarely include space-related questions in their battery of questions. One of the only long-term measures of public interest comes from the General Social Survey (GSS), now biannually deployed, which, since 1973, has asked whether a respondent believes there is too little, too much, or an appropriate level of spending on the space exploration program. This trend, shown in figure 1, shows that a majority of respondents believe that spending is either too much or about right in terms of space exploration. More recently, the GSS added another question, asking about interest in space, which also shows less than stellar results in terms of public interest (figure 2). While those reporting they are very interested in space has ticked up somewhat, in 2018, it only represented 25.5 percent of those polled.

Figure 1. Attitudes on Spending on Space Exploration, 1973–2018. Source: General Social Survey


Figure 2. Interest in Space Exploration, 2008–2018. Source: General Social Survey

The potential disruption of space-based activities and their economic effects is not fully appreciated among the general public as, unlike the nuclear taboo, there has been no demonstration of the consequences of its disruption. Antinuclear groups could hold up as examples the death toll and terrible suffering experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They could also point to the effects of fallout and radiation produced in nuclear tests. Such a demonstration does not exist for space, dampening the effect that the public could have on establishing a space taboo. Without that impetus, the public finds it hard to focus on space, especially when confronted with an overwhelmingly fast-moving news cycle and daily life.

This is not to say that recognition of the dangers does not exist; certain groups, including space scientists and those seeking to leverage space for commercial opportunities, largely advocate for the establishment of a norm of nonconflict. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists has repeatedly warned about the dangers of a space arms race to satellite security and space science.50 Additionally, although the US response following India’s ASAT test in March 2019 was relatively muted, the commercial space industry largely condemned the test as dangerous, with some analysts calling for a commercial boycott of India’s launch systems.51 Even NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine strongly objected to the test, particularly the associated increased risk its debris posed to the International Space Station.52 The US military has also expressed concerns regarding space debris dating back to the development of the SDI in the 1980s.53 Despite these limited objections to the creation of space debris that could greatly affect both strategic and commercial operations in space, no coherent anticonflict movement has emerged that is comparable to the antinuclear movement Tannenwald singles out.

One additional area, however, where there does have the potential to be some influence is through the efforts of states without a significant amount of space capabilities, comparable to the role of nonnuclear states. There has been an effort among smaller states with little to no ability to access and leverage space on their own to set out codes of conduct for space that would not preclude their ability to take advantage of the benefits it has to offer. Because the cost of space programs and technology has historically been rather prohibitive, smaller states have made a concerted effort at the international level to keep major space powers like Russia, the United States, and now China from obstructing access to resources such as orbits or mineral deposits on the moon or in asteroids. For example, though largely designed by the two superpowers of the time, nonspacefaring states were able to insist on the inclusion in the Outer Space Treaty of a provision “that requires all countries to share in the benefits of space ‘irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.’”54 Later, as a rebuff to the notion of freedom of overflight in space established by Sputnik, equatorial countries whose geographic location makes them particularly attractive as launch sites, released the Bogota Declaration that claimed that geostationary orbits above their territory was like air space and therefore, they reserved the right to refuse access to it. The claim was not recognized by other major international actors and did not substantially change international law or customary law with regards to access to space.55 More recently, states without as significant of a space presence have attempted to shape codes of conduct in space, with France in particular taking the lead at the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to establish guidelines for space sustainability.56 All states, to the extent that their own economy is dependent on and integrated with the global economy, could suffer in the event of conflict in space. Their increased advocacy in this arena could go a long way to stimulate the social pressure needed to construct a space taboo.

Overall, acting in a concerted manner, those who would like to discourage space-based conflict may be able to adopt the means of taboo or tradition development to further encourage the development of a space peace norm or conflict taboo. Those in favor of greater weaponization in space have historically adopted the model and theories of nuclear warfare; there is no reason that the taboo character of nuclear weapons cannot be invoked as well. As Paul and Tannenwald show, there is a role to be played by societal actors acting as norm or reputation entrepreneurs, highlighting the dangerous nature of space conflict and the consequences of it. Each of their narratives also demonstrates that smaller states have a role to play, something which has also been present in the case of space. As the rhetoric of danger in space increases, this can be an area in which a serious effort might be made to rein in dangerous behavior short of formal international law making.

Dr. Wendy N. Whitman Cobb

Dr. Whitman Cobb is an associate professor of strategy and security studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). She received a BA and MA from the University of Central Florida, both in political science, and a PhD in political science from the University of Florida. Her research focuses on the political and institutional dynamics of space policy, public opinion of space exploration, and the influence of commerce on potential space conflict. In addition to several books, including The Politics of Cancer: Malignant Indifference and Political Science Today, an introductory political science text, her research has appeared in Space Policy and Congress and the Presidency. Prior to arriving at SAASS, Dr. Whitman Cobb was an associate professor of political science at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma.


1 Morgan McFall-Johnsen, “A Dead NASA Space Telescope and an Old Air Force Satellite Avoided a Crash on Wednesday, Beating ‘Alarming’ Odds,” Business Insider, 30 January 2020,

2 Brian Weeden, “Through a Glass, Darkly: Chinese, American, and Russian Anti-Satellite Testing in Space,” Secure World Foundation, 17 March 2014, .

3 James Clay Moltz, The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests 3rd ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2019): 45.

4 Moltz, The Politics of Space Security, 174.

5 See, Blair Stephenson Kuplic, “The Weaponization of Outer Space: Preventing an Extraterrestrial Arms Race,” North Carolina Journal of International Law and Commercial Regulation 39, no. 4 (2013): 1123–63; and Jacob M. Harper, “Technology, Politics, and the New Space Race: The Legality and Desirability of Bush’s National Space Policy under the Public and Customary International Laws of Space,” Chicago Journal of International Law 8, no. 2 (2008): 681–99.

6 Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge UP, 2007).

7 T.V. Paul, The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009).

8 See, Todd Harrison et al, Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017); Michael Krepon, “Space and Nuclear Deterrence,” in Anti-satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations, ed. Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 2013), 15–40; Karl Mueller, “The Absolute Weapon and the Ultimate High Ground: Why Nuclear Deterrence and Space Deterrence are Strikingly Similar—Yet Profoundly Different,” in Anti-satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations, ed. Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 2013), 41–60; and Surya Gablin Gunasekara, “Mutually Assured Destruction: Space Weapons, Orbital Debris, and the Deterrence Theory for Environmental Stability,” Air and Space Law 37, no. 2 (2012): 141–64.

9 Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, 10.

10 Kuplic, “The Weaponization of Outer Space,” 1138.

11 Roger Handberg, “Is Space War Imminent? Exploring the Possibility,” Comparative Strategy 36, no. 5 (2017), 420.

12 Karl D. Hebert, “Regulation of Space Weapons: Ensuring Stability and Continued Use of Outer Space,” Astropolitics 12, no. 1 (2014), 9.

13 For further discussions of the unique destructiveness of nuclear weapons, see, Kenneth N. Waltz, “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4 (1988): 615–28; Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate, 3rd ed. (New York: WW Norton and Company, 2013); Robert Jervis, “The Political Effects of Nuclear Weapons,” International Security 13, no. 2 (1988): 80–90; and Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2008).

14 Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo

15 Harrison et al, Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age

16 George N. Lewis, “Ballistic Missile Defense Effectiveness,” AIP Conference Proceedings, 1898,

17 Alan Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons: Tactical Uses and Strategic Goals,” War on the Rocks, 12 November 2019,

18 David Bressan, “Even a Small Nuclear War Would Still Have Effects on a Global Scale,” Forbes, 12 August 2017,

19 For a summary of such research and the controversy over the concept, see, Alan Robock, Luke Oman, and Georgiy L. Stenchikov, “Nuclear Winter Revisited with a Modern Climate Model and Current Nuclear Arsenals: Still Catastrophic Consequences,” Journal of Geophysical Research 112, no. D13 (2007).

20 Remus Prăvălie, “Nuclear Weapons Tests and Environmental Consequences: A Global Perspective,” Ambio 43, no. 6 (2014): 729–44.

21 Paul Szymanski, “Techniques for Great Power Space War,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 13, no. 4 (Winter 2019), 79.

22 Harrison et al, Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age.

23 Because the focus in this piece is on conflict in space, I do not consider the potential casualties of attacks from space, which could be quite significant and add to the weight of evidence that space conflict is a unique form of warfare.

24 Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (New York: Frank Cass, 2002); Gunasekara, “Mutually Assured Destruction”; Mueller, “The Absolute Weapon and the Ultimate High Ground”; Harrison et al, Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age; and Szymanski, “Techniques for Great Power Space War.”

25 ESA, “Distribution of Space Debris around Earth,” 8 October 2019, .

26 Andrew M. Bradley and Lawrence M. Wein, “Space Debris: Assessing Risk and Responsibility,” Advances in Space Research 43, no. 9 (2009): 1372–90.

27 Donald J. Kessler and B.G. Cour-Palais, “Collisional Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt,” Journal of Geophysical Research, 83, no. A6 (June 1978): 2637–46.

28 Gunasekara, “Mutually Assured Destruction.”

29 C. Priyant Mark and Surekha Kamath, “Review of Active Space Debris Removal Methods,” Space Policy 47 (2019): 194–206.

30 Bohumil Dobos and Jakub Prazak, “To Clear or to Eliminate? Active Debris Removal Systems as Antisatellite Weapons,” Space Policy 47 (2019): 217–23.

31 Alexander William Salter, “Space Debris: A Law and Economics Analysis of the Orbital Commons,” Stanford Technology Law Review 19, no. 2 (2016): 221–38.

32 Henry R. Hertzfeld and Ray A. Williamson, “The Social and Economic Impact of Earth Observing Satellites,” in Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius (Washington, DC: NASA, 2007); and Phillip Scranton, “Commercial and Economic Impact of Spaceflight: An Overview,” in Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius (Washington, DC: NASA, 2007).

33 Kevin O’Connell, “Remarks on the Trillion Dollar Space Economy,” Office of Space Commerce, 27 November 2018,

34 James Clay Moltz, Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space (Columbia, NY: Columbia UP, 2014).

35 William Forney et al, “An Economic Value of Remote-Sensing Information—Application to Agricultural Production and Maintaining Groundwater Quality,” US Geological Survey Professional Paper 1796,

36 Eric Berger, “Study Finds That a GPS Outage Would Cost $1 Billion per Day,” Ars Technica, 14 June 2019,

37 Handberg, “Is Space War Imminent?”

38 James Dobbins, David C. Gompert, David A. Shlapak, and Andrew Scobell, “Conflict with China: Prospects, Consequences and Strategies for Deterrence” (RAND Occasional Paper, 2011), 8,

39 Solomon William Polachek, “Conflict and Trade,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 24, no. 1 (1980): 55–78; Solomon W. Polachek, John Robst, and Yuan-Ching Chang, “Liberalism and Interdependence: Extending the Trade-Conflict Model,” Journal of Peace Research 36, no. 4 (1999): 405–22; John R. Oneal and Bruce Russett, “Assessing the Liberal Peace with Alternative Specifications: Trade Still Reduces Conflict,” Journal of Peace Research 36, no. 4 (1999): 423–42; Han Dorussen, “Balance of Power Revisited: A Multi-Country Model of Trade and Conflict,” Journal of Peace Research 36, no. 4 (1999): 443–62; James D. Morrow, “How Could Trade Affect Conflict?” Journal of Peace Research 36, no. 4 (1999): 481–89; Havard Hegre, John R. Oneal, and Bruce Russett, “Trade Does Promote Peace: New Simultaneous Estimates of the Reciprocal Effects of Trade and Conflict,” Journal of Peace Research 47, no. 6 (2010): 763–74.

40 Susan M. McMillan, “Interdependence and Conflict,” Mershon International Studies Review 41, no. 1 (1997): 33–58; Erik Gartzke, Quan Li, and Charles Boehmer, “Investing in the Peace: Economic Interdependence and International Conflict,” International Organization 55, no. 2 (2001): 391–438; Han Dorussen and Hugh Ward, “Trade Networks and the Kantian Peace,” Journal of Peace Research 47, no. 1 (2010): 29–42.

41 Erik Gartzke, “The Capitalist Peace,” American Journal of Political Science 51, no. 1 (2007): 166–91.

42 J. Tyson Chatagnier and Emanuele Castelli, “A Modern Peace? Schumpeter, the Decline of Conflict, and the Investment-War Trade-Off,” Political Research Quarterly 69, no. 4 (2016): 852–64.

43 Margit Bussmann, “Foreign Direct Investment and Militarized International Conflict,” Journal of Peace Research 47, no. 2 (2010): 143–53.

44 Wendy N. Whitman Cobb, Privatizing Peace: How Commerce Can Reduce Conflict in Space (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).

45 Harrison et al, Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age; and Szymanski, “Techniques for Great Power Space War.”

46 Forrest E. Morgan, Deterrence and First Strike Stability in Space: A Preliminary Assessment (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2010); Handberg, “Is Space War Imminent?”; and Mariel Borowitz, “Strategic Implications of the Proliferation of Space Situational Awareness Technology and Information: Lessons Learned from the Remote Sensing Sector,” Space Policy 47, no. 1 (2019): 18–27.

47 Szymanski, “Techniques for Great Power Space War,” 89–90.

48 Ibid.

49 This might be questioned given recent findings about the weakness of the nuclear taboo amongst the public; see, Daryl G. Press, Scott D. Sagan, and Benjamin A. Valentino, “Atomic Aversion: Experimental Evidence on Taboos, Traditions, and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons,” American Political Science Review 107, no. 1 (2013): 188–206.

50 Laura Grego, “Creating a Space Force Would Trigger a Space Arms Race and Threaten US Satellite Security, Science Group Says,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 10 December 2019,

51 Debra Werner, “Boycott Indian Launchers? Industry Reacts to India’s Anti-satellite Weapon Test,” Space News, 27 March 2019,

52 Jeff Foust, “NASA Warns Indian Anti-satellite Test Increased Debris Risk to ISS,” Space News, 2 April 2019,

53 Moltz, Politics of Space Security, 202–03.

54 Dolman, Astropolitik, 100.

55 Ferdinand Onwe Agama, “Effects of the Bogota Declaration on the Legal Status of Geostationary Orbit in International Law,” Nnamdi Azikiwe University Journal of International Law 8, no. 1 (2017): 24–34.

56 Peter Martinez, et al, “Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, UNISPACE+50, and Prospects for the Future of Global Space Governance,” Space Policy 47, no. 1 (2019): 28–33.


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