Why space wars are probably staying in sci-fi

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Jan 6, 2018, 4:41 PM EST (Updated)

When you think of war in space, you probably think of X-wing fighters blasting laser beams in Star Wars or aliens infiltrating the mothership with some mysterious disease or mind-control device on Star Trek. What could really happen out there (barring a weaponized extraterrestrial takeover) is a lot less cinematic.

Conflict beyond our atmosphere will probably involve cyberspace instead of hyperspace and more legal battles than laser battles. Cyber and electromagnetic attacks are what our military fears the most. Even now, there is information combat going on out there as the Russian military’s war games jam phone and GPS signals, putting aircraft that suddenly lose their navigation tech at risk and shutting off emergency numbers out of nowhere. The Russians have also been sabotaging satellites.

“This was a demonstration of muscle,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told The Washington Post about one such incident back in October. “This was not defensive but offensive.”

Space wars are more complex than starships firing things at each other, though the Chinese military did experiment with a satellite-destroying missile that shattered a premade target in space into thousands of shards of space junk that now pose a threat to the highly sensitive instruments of the International Space Station and other spacecraft orbiting Earth. This was not just a military move but also a political move in the race to show who should dominate the vast expanse beyond our planet.


Space wars look nothing like The Last Jedi. Credit: Lucasfilm/Disney

“Any operation in outer space must comply with the same law that is applicable to other domains, like sea, air, and ground warfare,” Michael Hoversten, chief of space, cyber, international, and operations law at Air Force Space Command headquarters, told Space News.

International law has established certain restrictions that reach past Earth. Celestial bodies like the moon are only to be used for peaceful purposes under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but how exactly this is interpreted could range from strictly scientific activity to non-combative military missions. The problem with this treaty is that it doesn’t cover any place you can’t put boots on, so at least for now, military forces have free rein over the space between. Sort of. Nonaggressive military action is legal so long as it doesn’t cross the boundaries of international law and UN charter, but defining militarization can get nebulous.

Weapons and technology such as spy satellites have been floating around in space for decades. Lasers, jammers, and other weaponry can legally go into orbit, and figuring out what to ban and whether to ban anything at all has been notoriously difficult because of confusion over the criteria for what defines a weapon. Only weapons of mass destruction are currently taboo. Even if we get that down, how could we justify using countermeasures? Military officials are struggling with that—especially when both the public and private sectors are reluctant to speak out on cyberattacks.

For now, go see Star Wars: The Last Jedi and be glad that kind of space warfare happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

(via Space News)