The threat of space war is already here

What will happen when war comes to the heavens? Orbit, the most immediately useful part of space, is already a military domain, housing constellations of satellites that relay communications, observing the earth below, and creating useful data on the whole of the world. These military satellites are joined by commercial and scientific satellites, connecting the world and offering a host of useful services to people and companies on the planet below.

Multiple nations have successfully destroyed their own de-orbiting satellites with missiles fired from earth, and the possibility persists that a nation may attack the satellites of another during wartime.

As Dr. Joanna Rozpedowski, senior non resident fellow at CIP, writes for the Geopolitical Monitor:

Every terrestrial war is now simultaneously a space and cyber war requiring identification and active monitoring of threats from space assets and threats to space assets from rival states. In the US Department of Defense assessment, China and Russia in particular pose significant risks to space assets through various means such as cyber warfare, electronic attacks, and ground-to-orbit missiles capable of destroying satellites and space-to-space orbital engagement systems, thus disrupting civilian infrastructure on earth. This has prompted the United States to allocate substantial resources to bolster its Space Forces, with budgetary allocations to the space domain doubling from $15.4 billion to $30.3 billion between 2021 and 2024.

Orbit is shared by commercial satellites alongside military ones, and many commercial satellite products, like images of earth from above, can be purchased by private individuals and organizations.Commercial satellites can, in a pinch, end up providing data used to military ends, as forces risk communication over a commercial network, or make plans based on satellite imagery bought for reconnaissance.

Continues Rozpedowski:

Private actors must thus increasingly reckon with the unintended consequences of detailed satellite ad hoc data sharing in active conflict zones in high-demand data environments. Navigating these complexities will require international cooperation, technological innovation, and a careful consideration of ethical and political implications as well as the provision of legal guardrails to avoid the appearance of bias and undue politicization.

The existing international treaties governing space date to the middle of last century, in effect but out of date regarding present realities. Read more from Rozpedowski about the challenges of potential armed conflict in orbit.