Space Wars Threaten Earthly Intelligence

We depend on satellites for all sorts of information. They’re increasingly at risk.

Satellites orbiting Earth with lasers shooting between them.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Klemen Vrankar/Unsplash, PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Madmaxer/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and the New York Public Library/Unsplash.

Every corner of our modern lives depends on environmental data from Earth observation satellites. They provide more than 90 percent of the data used by weather prediction models. The availability of much of our most basic resources, especially agriculture and water, now largely relies on meteorological and environmental forecasts made using this information. Today, remote sensing satellites are able to offer scientists data that range from sea surface height to soil moisture content. With this information, farmers can better plan for precipitation and temperature fluctuations, thereby increasing their yield. Businesses and regional planners can mitigate risks of flood zones. Ecologists can monitor the migration of invasive species.

Knowing when and how long drought, flooding, extreme weather, or other natural disasters will occur is especially crucial. Timely access to global environmental data and information from satellites help federal, state, and local governments; businesses; nonprofits; and other organizations ensure the security of our property, resources, environment, economy, and lives. The array of instruments onboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s low-Earth orbiting and geostationary orbiting satellites, for example, provide meteorologists with measures of temperature, precipitation, wind speed, and other information they need to predict the strength of hurricanes. Without the dependable downlink and delivery of these data and forecasts, our national security would most certainly be severely hampered.

Now, as we enter a new era of space militarization, these environmental satellites are also at risk. They’re clear targets for militaries across the globe.

The ramp up for a new satellite arms race started in 2007 when China launched a missile that intentionally obliterated one of its own weather satellites. Since then, Russia and India have also developed, tested, and deployed technologies intended to hack, intercept, sabotage, shoot down, or even physically maneuver out of orbit satellites that provide a wide range of data. The United States and France have already claimed that Russia has spied on their satellites from space.

So far, there have been no reports of anti-satellite weapons being used against a foreign country. But it seems like a matter of time. As a response to these capabilities, French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced the creation of a French space force that would be able to defend its satellites. It’s not the only one. Today, six countries operate specific military branches for space operations, including Russia’s Aerospace Forces and China’s People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force. President Donald Trump’s plan to create a so-called Space Force, which now seems increasingly likely to happen, comes at a period of heightened tension, capability, and risk beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Countries argue they need new military investments to defend assets in space that provide vital economic, environmental, geographic, telecommunications, or intelligence information. The development of these defenses foreshadows the space wars of tomorrow.

Imaging satellites, in particular, offer huge advantages to their operators. All-seeing eyes from space are certainly an asset to any military. This makes Earth observation and environmental satellites high-value targets in the context of conflict and war. China’s successful shoot-down of its own weather satellite and attempted hacking of the U.S. weather satellite network in 2014 underscores the strategic importance these satellites have.

Worse yet, the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, which governs the use of space through international law, is out of date. The treaty does not cover modern forms of space weaponization, including ones that threaten satellite infrastructure. Without comprehensive and modern governance and regulations in space, countries are largely free to do as they please without fear of legal repercussions.

This is especially worrying when climate-driven insecurity is helping drive conflict and war across the globe. Consistent and timely observation of precipitation, temperature, and vegetation conditions, in particularly volatile and fragile states, can help to proactively manage and mitigate the potential rise of social and political tensions over scarce resources. For example, recent drought has already contributed to significant social and political tension in Central America. The drought has caused more than 2.8 million people in the region to go hungry. Such increased water and food insecurity has helped spark internal territorial conflicts, which have triggered greater migration toward Mexico and the United States. These challenges are only worsened by weak, corrupt, and ineffective governance in the region. The development of such unrest is particularly concerning, as these events can quickly turn deadly and bring about armed conflict.

Satellites provide needed data at a scale, resolution, and timeline other data-capturing platforms simply cannot rival. Limiting or knocking out the capabilities these tools have means far worse forecasting abilities. Without this data, countries will be left with the significantly increased risk of improperly handling and managing resource shortages, natural disasters, and possible conflict and migration resulting from insecurity.

Fortunately, there are a number of steps Earth observation platforms can take to adequately defend themselves against attacks in space. The most likely and gravest threat to satellite systems is through cyber hacking. Countries that bolster cyber defenses by embedding security in the design, architecture, and production of these systems are therefore best prepared for these risks. However, kinetic, physical and even laser defenses may also be needed as countries develop missiles, robotic arms, and other techniques specifically designed to subvert environmental intelligence gathering. As such, Earth observation satellites that append defensive maneuvering or interception capabilities would be best prepared.

Another way to reduce potential physical security risk is to diversify and multiply the quantity of satellite platforms. With the new space race comes significant technological leaps. Most important is perhaps the development of CubesSats, or miniaturized satellites that often pack powerful technology into small cubes. Sensors are getting smaller and propulsion more compact, and with reusable rockets, the overall cost of launching into space is plummeting thanks to startups like Spire, Planet, and SpaceX. The result: exponentially more Earth observation platforms in space. Offensive targeting of many small satellites is much more challenging than targeting one large satellite.

Lastly, we need strong multinational governance and greater diplomatic leadership to ensure that, as with the last space race, the international community sets out clear rules and fair practices for the emerging forms of space technology being utilized. Environmental and meteorological forecasting requires a global team effort. International laws and treaties that protect Earth observation assets in space can help provide the assurances they need going forward. In light of Chinese and Russian testing of maneuverable satellites in orbit, the U.S. and Japan have recently sought to develop joint space situational awareness capabilities. Such information-sharing pacts are significant first steps toward building multilateral networks that can defend assets in space.

Earth observation is becoming increasingly important as global security threats are more intertwined with deteriorating environmental conditions. Opportunities for mass displacement, civil war, and even greater nuclear proliferation increase as a changing climate fundamentally shifts the geopolitical dynamics that govern countries and their resources. Environmental satellites provide the intelligence and acute warnings needed to mitigate these risks before they occur. Securing these signals in the sky is now more imperative than ever.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.