In the space domain, there is a key governance problem, highlighted today by a new generation of players and technologies: how can we develop safe, secure, and dependable practises in and via space for all public and commercial stakeholders worldwide? In a world where great power competition has returned, there are three major obstacles to overcome: incentives, rivalry, and alliances.
The dual-use nature of space technology, as well as the institutional incentives that their creators face in unpredictable markets, present one set of issues. When we see awe-inspiring innovations unfolding—rockets that can now go up and down, diverse payloads on dedicated rideshare missions, satellites that can track and map human activities virtually anywhere on the planet, mega constellations beaming internet back down to bridge the digital divides between the rich and poor, nuclear propulsion that could take the first humans to Mars and beyond, and so on—this isn't always obvious.
However, despite optimistic predictions that the space economy would grow from over $400 billion today to $3-4 trillion in the near future, no one knows how many of the intriguing new enterprises, technologies, or niches will become economically viable. Also, these players and their technology are likely to be moulded into the service of national space security frameworks. This is already happening, with space paths being skewed toward militarization. Companies have significant incentives to pursue civilian and defence contracts, which, despite ups and downs, comprise a sizable market for both new and established space competitors (such as SpaceX) (like Boeing, Lockheed Martin).
The great power competition strengthens corporate incentives to militarize—and even overtly weaponize—products and services. The strategic competition between the United States (US) and China poses a challenging second set of obstacles for thinking about, defining, and constructing cooperation frameworks. The tightening language and postures of both nations reveal that they perceive space as a warfighting domain, based on historical experience.
Their vast power rivalry reaches into, through, and into space. Almost every major technology associated with or at the nexus of space provides a collection of capabilities that may be used to gain an advantage over a competitor. It would be naive to think otherwise, as governments tout laudable civilian and commercial goals like servicing satellites, de-orbiting space junk, and flying solid-fuel aircraft.
While such technologies may have scientific and economic significance, their military applications and consequences are evident and current. For big power status and cross-domain activities, how they connect with nuclear, cyber, electromagnetic, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and quantum frontiers is crucial. They're crucial for balancing defensive and offensive plans, especially now that both the US and China's generals consider space warfare as a foregone conclusion.
Because they impact the balance of power, the technologies are difficult to police, let alone control across nations. Both kinetic and non-kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) test are restricted.
For the time being, the United Kingdom is assuming a strong leadership position in space diplomacy, which is an essential area to keep an eye on. The United States and its allies are supporting a long-running push sponsored by the United Kingdom—a UN General Assembly resolution on decreasing space risks via norms, regulations, and principles of responsible behaviour. The United Kingdom has also proposed a UN draught resolution to establish an Open-Ended Working Group to achieve agreement on restricting threatening acts in space by voluntary methods, a procedure and goal that the US is said to support. Whether the UK can use its other initiatives to help the US and China reach a basic agreement—as it is doing now.