Conflict “fought over great distances at tremendous speeds” — struggles with the increasing militarization of space.

The cover article of November 2021’s Harpers issue is titled Ad Astra: The Coming Battle Over Space. This report tackles the looming threat of space conflict by recounting an incident beginning in January 2020.

First, Russia maneuvered a small inspection craft into an orbit matching that of an American observation satellite–effectively stalking it. This inspection craft then split into two, releasing an even smaller craft. According to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), this smaller vehicle was capable of performing constant maneuvers to keep close watch on its American quarry. Finally, on July 15th, this stalking craft fired a projectile with an unrevealed purpose. The American military contends that this action clearly defies Russian claims that this was simply an inspection craft.

The tension inherent to this incident underpins the sentiment of the rest of the article: international conflict in space is becoming more frequent as the United States loses its wide lead in spaceborne military capabilities. The article points to several ongoing attempts to reduce this tension, citing two documents attempting to revise the principles of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty: the Woomera Manual and the MILAMOS Project (Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space). However, in the context of a potential threat, the article suggests that a general may resort to the visceral “use it or lose it” doctrine rather than a manual of guiding principles–no matter how well-executed said manual is.

Finding a way to codify the rules of conflict in space will enable militarizes to better distinguish threats, a particularly challenging feat in a domain where energy weapons can perform attacks at the speed of light. Another hindrance is the consideration that any implemented treaty may be dead in the water: the article cites Tom Ayres, a former Space Force general, explaining that China ignores policies for seafaring vessels and patent law–why would we expect differing behavior in space.

If a major conflict in space erupts, the consequences will be immense. Both government and commercial reliance on the space sector opens a major vulnerability for the United States (and other nations). An investment in prevention far outweighs the potential losses of a conflict.