Date22 March 2021
Published date22 March 2021
AuthorHandelman, Joshua
Record Number673937796
AuthorHandelman, Joshua

"[T]he prospect of a celestial war can no longer be regarded as mere fantasy." (1)


In the climactic scene of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, (2) the Rebel Alliance attacks the Death Star, a large space station equipped with a powerful weapon, which had been maneuvered into a position threatening the Rebel base. (3) Predicting an imminent and overwhelming attack, the Rebels launch a preemptive strike on the station. (4) The assault succeeds, the Death Star is destroyed, and the audience goes home satisfied. Star Wars is science fiction. But that strategic decision faced by the Rebel leadership on Yavin IV parallels decisions that military leaders on our own planet will face in the not-too-distant future. (5) War affects civilians and noncombatants beyond the targets of military commanders, in terrestrial and space warfare alike. Two films later, the Rebel Alliance destroys a second Death Star, again preemptively removing the destructive power of an enemy weapon. (6) However, this second station was under construction when it was destroyed; commentators have theorized that this would mean huge numbers of noncombatant contractors also died onboard. (7) The remains of the station later crashed onto a moon of the planet Endor, scarring the surface. (8) So, while the strategic objective was accomplished, the environment and many noncombatants also suffered harm.

Back home on Earth, we have only just begun to reach beyond our planet's surface. In 1967, a gathering of nations signed the Outer Space Treaty, the "Magna Carta" of Space Law; (9) a year and a half later, Neil Armstrong took his first small step from the Apollo 11 Lunar Module onto the surface of the Moon. (10) In the fifty-nine years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human in orbit, (11) only a few hundred people have been to space--not quite the thousands that would have crewed the Death Star. (12) Yet, as Air Force Space Command's Michael Hoversten put it, "it is an unfortunate reality that wherever humans have wandered, war has followed." (13) International humanitarian law developed in response to the suffering caused by armed conflict. (14) It "comprises those rules of international law which establish minimum standards of humanity that must be respected in any situation of armed conflict." (15) It "protects not only human beings, but also civilian and cultural property, the environment and, to a certain extent, the continuity of the political order of States." (16)

As humanity moves into the stars, can our laws keep up? One area of particular, pressing concern is the targeting of satellites. Testing of anti-satellite capabilities--which had been on hold since the Cold War--became a renewed area of military interest in the early 2000s. In 2007, China destroyed one of its own weather satellites. (17) In recent years, Russia, (18)

India, (19) and the United States (20) have conducted tests of their own. Space marines and laser swords are still science fiction, but the targeting and destruction of objects we put in space is in our immediate future. Military strategists and policy makers should consider the potential harm to civilians and noncombatants when planning anti-satellite attacks. International law presents a framework for such considerations.


    Satellites are used by civilian, military, and commercial actors. (21) Many satellites are used for more than one purpose, with multiple onboard transponders communicating for different missions. (22) "[A]n important group of space assets used for military purposes are 'dual-use' satellites - which also provide 'civilian' communications, remote sensing, and GPS services." (23) Some other civilian uses for space include scientific research in physics and biology, (24) tracking the weather, (25) commercial technological development, (26) and the International Space Station (ISS), a multinational research laboratory. (27)

    1. Military Use of Space

      Space is also increasingly used by terrestrial armed forces around the world. The first Gulf War (1990-1991) could be called the first space war, because allied forces relied "heavily upon space-based assets to facilitate coalition fighting within the terrestrial environment." (28) Space is the sixth domain of warfare, complementing operations on land, sea, air, sub-surface, and cyberspace. (29) As Maogoto and Freeland put it: "outer space is increasingly being used as part of active engagement in the conduct of armed conflict .... It is now within the realms of reality to imagine outer space as an emerging theatre of warfare." (30)

      In modern armed conflicts, militaries rarely plan an operation without first considering space capabilities, "using satellites for such ends as weather tracking, unit positioning, timing, communications, and missile warning." (31) Satellites provide support to terrestrial forces in three ways: allowing information gathering, (32) directing troop and missile movements, (33) and providing communications networks. (34)

      In December 2019, the United States created the Space Force, separating the command from the Air Force and the other services. (35) The United States Space Force joins other national military space services, (36) including the Chinese People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, (37) and the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces. (38)

    2. History of Anti-Satellite Targeting

      Satellites are high-value military targets for two reasons: they support missions in a number of crucial ways (39) and they are vulnerable to attack. (40) Satellites "are relatively few in number, not generally hardened against attack, not usually equipped to 'fight back', normally follow predictable orbit patterns, tend to be unable to take evasive action, are often not equipped with sensors to give situational awareness, and may even not register that an attack is happening . . . ." (41) There has never been a recorded attack on one state's satellite by a different state, (42) but in recent years several states have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities through tests against their own spacecrafts. (43) Hostile anti-satellite attacks may be inevitable. Strategists should prepare to make decisions that involve targeting objects in orbit, and the international community should prepare to observe that existing international standards in the conduct of warfare are maintained in celestial combat. (44)

      History shows as much. During the Cold War, anti-satellite research by the Soviet Union and the United States focused on kinetic interceptors, such as missiles that could be used to physically destroy satellites. (45) The United States began to develop anti-satellite methods soon after the Soviet satellite Sputnik was put into orbit, (46) conducting the first known anti-satellite test in 1959. (47) Most of the first interceptors were designed to be launched from Earth, although an early Russian system was designed to be placed in orbit. (48) The United States also developed systems intended to be launched from aircraft, (49) testing its last attempt, the ASM-135, by destroying an American satellite in 1985. (50) The Soviet Union dissolved six years later, and with the end of the Cold War there were no anti-satellite tests for over two decades. (51)

      In 2007, China returned the world to anti-satellite testing when it destroyed one of its own defunct weather satellites, (52) and thus ended the "de facto moratorium" on anti-satellite tests. (53) One year later, in 2008, the United States destroyed a U.S. reconnaissance satellite that was leaking dangerous fuel. (54) Commentators wrote that the strike likely served three policy goals: to "save the world from [the dangerous fuel], test a missile-defense rocket as an antisatellite weapon, and put the Chinese on notice that we can kill satellites." (55) "[T]he U.S. shootdown may have marked the opening of a new arms race in space ... it looks to have been part of a larger U.S. effort, mostly out of public view, to develop antisatellite weapons and to militarize space, with potentially catastrophic consequences." (56) In 2013, China returned the effort by launching a rocket into space to study the Earth's magnetosphere. (57) According to the United States, the launch was in fact a test of a kinetic interceptor intended to target satellites. (58) Russia has since begun tests of its own anti-satellite kinetic interceptor, a missile known as the Nudol. (59) In 2019, India became the fourth country to demonstrate anti-satellite capabilities by successfully shooting down one of its own satellites. (60)

    3. Anti-Satellite Attack Methods

      Anti-satellite attacks can be grouped into four broad categories. Kinetic physical weapons are designed to collide with or explode alongside a satellite, physically damaging or forcing it out of orbit. (61) Non-kinetic physical weapons damage the satellite without requiring a physical interceptor and include electromagnetic energy weapons such as lasers, high powered microwaves, and electromagnetic pulses. (62) Electronic attacks target the satellite's sensors and antennae, jam radio frequencies, or send fake commands to the satellite. (63) Finally, cyberattacks target the data and data systems on the satellite, and include attempts to commandeer the satellite's computers. (64)

      The harm to noncombatant populations from an anti-satellite attack could be minor, if, for instance, the satellite is moved to a harmless orbit, or if the satellite is disabled without causing physical damage. On the other hand, certain attacks, especially those using kinetic anti-satellite weapons, could have a significant impact on civilians, non-combatants, and the environment. A kinetic strike typically creates space debris. (65) Space debris presents a serious problem for the future of safe space operations for all actors. (66) There are currently more than 500,000 pieces of space debris in orbit (67) and the physical...

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