In 1967, the United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union came together to sign a document that, at the time, seemed like a pressing concern: the Outer Space Treaty. It not only established the framework for an international set of laws governing the use of outer (and orbital) space, it set important precedents about what national militaries could do in orbit. Chief among those limitations: barring weapons platforms from being deployed on satellites.
Of course, in the intervening years, nations (including the United States) have sought ways to circumvent the rules established in that treaty. There are no rules banning the use of defensive systems in orbit, like the satellites the U.S. relies on to identify and track missile launches, but to date, no nation has openly defied the intent of the treaty by deploying offensive assets in orbit… or at least, no nation has done is publicly. Both Russia and China have invested heavily in weapons systems that can interfere with or even shoot down orbiting satellites, and both nations have experimented with mobile “drone” satellites that could easily be used to disrupt, damage, or even destroy integral elements of America’s satellite infrastructure — relied on for everything from navigation to communications to reconnaissance.
While China and Russia both already have space-specific branches of their own militaries operating, President Trump’s recent directive to establish an American Space Force was met with a great deal of domestic criticism, as well as what seemed at the time to be misplaced concerns among Russian officials that America would inevitably begin deploying legitimately offensive platforms in space. Like much of the rhetoric from the Kremlin, those concerns were readily dismissed by most who, understanding the nature of the threat to America’s orbital assets, saw no real strategic value in loading rockets full of ordnance and launching them into the sky.
However, recent statements from Michael Griffin, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, seems to suggest that the U.S. is at least considering taking a more aggressive approach to its space endeavors. According to Griffin, the best way to counter Chinese and Russian hypersonic missile technology is to deploy a network of 1,000 missile interceptors on orbiting satellites, ready to deploy and engage offensive launches anywhere they may threaten America or her allies.