Stop Calling Space a “Frontier”

Cross-posted from the Civocracy “Debating Security Plus” 2019 forum, which invites security experts to debate specific issues online. I was invited to contribute under the discussion theme “Space: The Next Frontier?”

With the creation of the U.S.’s Space Force, and NATO’s announcement this week that outer space will be recognised as a domain of warfare, the public’s awareness of the strategic importance of space has increased. It’s a shame, therefore, that it is so often described in media reports and public policy statement as a “final frontier”. While many may like the association with futuristic images from Star Trek, the truth is outer space is not a frontier, it’s already a part of our natural environment, and already a domain in which we operate militarily and commercially. Continuing to refer to space as a “frontier” sets up the political environment to be focused upon “conquering”; controlling, battle-oriented, and offensive in nature. This may reflect many politically or militarily valuable environments, but space is unique: because it is volatile and fragile; because the creation of space debris threatens all of the space services we depend upon for our daily 21st century lives (communications, navigation, financial transactions, traffic management, health systems, climate and weather monitoring etc. etc.); and because civil and military services are thoroughly entangled in these space technologies. We all have an interest in stability in space, in the long-term sustainability of the environment and our access to it. Calling it a “frontier” threatens these interests, and is an outmoded mindset of which we must rid ourselves.

Historically, as powerful societies have sought to expand their territories and influence, they have sought to conquer new frontiers. New technologies have always provided an access to these frontiers: improved ship building, navigation and longer-range canons allowed European countries to dominate the seas for trade; trains and telegraphs enabled colonizers to expand into remote territories; aviation allowed access to the new “high ground” of the air. Inherent in the history of “conquering frontiers” is violence and competition, far from the stability needed today in outer space.

In the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, negotiated between the two competing powers during the Cold War, and still our constitutional treaty for outer space, it was determined that outer space is not subject to national appropriation, by claims of sovereignty or any other means. It can therefore never be conquered in the name of a State. On the other hand, it is already an environment understood to be contested, congested and competitive, and we must therefore face the reality of existing tensions. But there are other approaches to these tensions than to view space as the final frontier.

Frontier thinking is escalatory, and contributes to an emerging arms race in space. Since 2014 the military strategy of the U.S has been aimed at dominance and more recently at control of space, always justified by the perceived increase in counter-space technologies by China and Russia. But these policies and public statements in fact provoke such counterspace responses, which is counter-productive to the interests of the States most dependent on space systems – being the U.S. and all of its allies.

Europe and the rest of the U.S.’ allies, including its NATO partners, must not mirror these policies and must reject the rhetoric associated with it. Rather, national space strategies and policies must include the language of “responsible behaviour” in space, and must seek to retain stability in the environment upon which we are all so dependent. While it is still necessary to “defend and protect” one’s space assets, it is not necessary to do so with an aggressive, provocative rhetoric. The EU and individual States should explicitly implement the UN Guidelines on the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space, as well as the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines into EU norms and national legislation. And we must also take a more proactive lead on creating more explicit international norms defining responsible behaviour, and creating at least a minimum agreement on arms control in space.