A research paper published August 2023, provides insight into public attitudes towards the potential for conflict in space. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Dakota, surveyed 173 people on their views on various hypothetical scenarios involving attacks on satellites and the appropriate responses.
The results indicate ambivalent and complex public sentiments on space warfare. On one hand, a majority of respondents viewed attacks on key U.S. space assets like GPS satellites as acts of war that would warrant a forceful response. 53% said that destroying enough GPS satellites to disable the system would “definitely” be considered an act of war. When presented with a scenario of a U.S. intelligence satellite being destroyed by an adversary, 59% supported retaliating by destroying at least one foreign satellite.
However, there were clear limits to public support for escalation and first strikes in space. When asked if they would support a preemptive attack on a foreign satellite if an attack on a U.S. satellite was believed to be imminent, only 44% said they would “probably” or “definitely” support such an action. The most common response was ambivalence, with 31% saying they “might or might not” support a preemptive strike.
The researchers also found the public attaches great importance to preventing the creation of space debris, even if it means limiting military options. When presented with a scenario of the U.S. needing to respond to the destruction of one of its satellites, 65% said “a lot” or “a great deal” of consideration should be given to avoiding generating extra debris through any response.
There were some notable demographic differences in the results. Republicans expressed consistently more hawkish views than Democrats and Independents across the hypothetical scenarios. For example, 62% of Republicans supported attacking multiple foreign satellites in response to the destruction of a U.S. satellite, compared to just 20% of Democrats. The researchers suggest this may reflect an underlying correlation between Republican political affiliation and aggression.
Similarly, the middle and upper age groups in the survey expressed more willingness to support forceful responses and first strikes than the youngest age group. The researchers speculate this may be because younger people are less familiar with Cold War-era fears of nuclear conflict extending into space.
Overall, the study paints a complex picture of a public that sees space assets as vital to national security but also hesitates about setting precedents for conflict and debris-generating attacks in space. The researchers say the data provides a useful baseline for understanding public attitudes as space becomes more contested and the possibility of space warfare grows. They call for additional research as public awareness of space issues increases with events like the creation of the U.S. Space Force.