The Military’s Race for Space

Close combat…


Since the advent of the Space Age, space has evolved from being a mere frontier of scientific exploration to becoming a vital arena for global security and military strategy. The growing dependence on space-based systems for communications, surveillance, reconnaissance, and navigation has catapulted the importance of satellites and space-based technologies to an unprecedented level. This article explores the rise of military control in space, focusing on the importance of satellites and their role in modern warfare and strategic defense.

The Inception of Military Interest in Space

The militarization of space began with the Cold War-era ‘Space Race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union. The launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in 1957 not only represented the first artificial satellite in space but also initiated the strategic significance of space. As the Cold War intensified, both superpowers realized the potential of satellites for surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications, leading to an increase in military interest in space.

Satellites: The Eyes and Ears in Space

Satellites play an indispensable role in modern military operations. They provide a wide range of capabilities that enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, and safety of military forces. Here are some key functionalities:

Military Satellite Functionality Importance
Surveillance and Reconnaissance Satellites are used to monitor enemy activities, gather intelligence, and perform reconnaissance. They can provide real-time video, radar, and infrared imaging over vast areas, which is critical for strategic planning, threat assessment, and force protection.
Communication Military communication satellites provide secure, encrypted communication channels that can be used for coordinating operations, transmitting orders, and sharing intelligence. These systems enable global communication and are more reliable than terrestrial systems, which can be disrupted by geography or sabotage.
Navigation and Positioning Systems like the Global Positioning System (GPS) rely on satellites to provide precise positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) information. This is crucial for a variety of applications, including guiding troops and vehicles, targeting weapons, synchronizing operations, and search and rescue missions.
Meteorology Weather satellites provide data on atmospheric conditions, which is crucial for planning and conducting operations. Accurate weather forecasts can impact everything from troop movements to aircraft sorties and naval operations.
Early Warning Satellites are used to detect and provide early warnings of missile launches, which can potentially provide precious minutes to respond to an attack. Infrared sensors on these satellites can detect the heat from missile exhaust and track the trajectory of the missile.
Target Acquisition and Weapon Guidance Satellites are used for target acquisition and guiding precision-guided munitions. This can increase the effectiveness of weapons and reduce the risk of collateral damage.
Space Domain Awareness (SDA) Military satellites are used to track and catalogue all artificial objects in Earth’s orbit. This knowledge is essential for avoiding collisions, predicting and mitigating space debris, assessing threats, and safeguarding friendly space assets.
Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Satellites can be used to intercept and analyze enemy communication signals, providing valuable information about their intentions and capabilities.
Nuclear Test Detection Certain satellites are equipped with sensors that can detect the seismic activity, light flashes, and radioactive fallout associated with nuclear tests.

The importance of these functionalities cannot be overstated. They allow armed forces to operate more effectively, make informed decisions, maintain strategic advantage, ensure the safety of personnel, and achieve mission objectives. Without satellites, modern military operations as we know them would be nearly impossible.

The Race for Space Dominance

The importance of satellites has led to an escalating race for space dominance among global powers.

The Rise of the Space Warfare Domain

China established the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) in 2015. This branch of the military is responsible for space, cyber, and electronic warfare.

Russia established the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2015. This organization was formed by merging the Russian Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces. It is responsible for Russia’s air force, air and missile defense, and space forces.

The United States’ established the US Space Force in 2019, officially acknowledging space as a strategic warfare domain.

Japan, India, Iran, Spain, United Kingdom, Mexico, Israel, Germany, Canada, South Korea, Australia, and France also have space domain focused military organizations.

It’s important to note that the specifics of each country’s organization and focus can differ.

The Rise of State Operated Military Use Satellites

The number of states that own and operate satellites dedicated to military functions is growing.

As of July 2020, the satellite database of the Union of Concerned Scientists indicates that 29 states operate satellites with dedicated military or dual-use functions: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Qatar, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States.

The United States operates the most dedicated military satellites (204). followed by China (114) and Russia (104).

Development of Advanced Capabilities

The increasing militarization of space has also led to the development of defensive and offensive space capabilities. Defensive measures aim to protect a nation’s space-based assets from attacks. This could be through passive measures such as maneuverability, stealth technology, and redundancy, or active measures like deploying satellite defense systems. Offensive capabilities, on the other hand, involve strategies to disrupt, degrade, or destroy an adversary’s space-based capabilities.

Examples of military research related to the space domain, include the following:

Military Tech Research Description
Hypersonic Weapons These are weapons that travel at speeds greater than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5). While not strictly a space technology, they’re often mentioned in the same breath due to their ability to traverse both atmosphere and space during their flight. They are being developed for their potential to penetrate missile defense systems.
Space-Based Missile Defense Building on the existing ground and sea-based missile defense systems, some militaries are exploring the use of satellites to detect and potentially intercept incoming missiles. This could provide a global, always-on missile defense capability.
On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) This involves the ability to repair, upgrade, refuel, or even construct spacecraft while in orbit. This could greatly extend the lifespan of military satellites and potentially reduce costs.
Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Weapons These are weapons designed to incapacitate or destroy satellites for strategic military purposes. While not new, there is ongoing development and testing in this area.
Space-Based Solar Power Some militaries are researching the use of satellites to collect solar power and transmit it back to Earth. This could provide a renewable source of energy for remote or mobile military installations.
Quantum Communication Quantum communication systems use the principles of quantum mechanics to secure data transmission. Some militaries are exploring the use of satellites for quantum communication, which could provide unhackable communication channels.
Small Satellites and CubeSats The military is increasingly interested in the use of small, cheap satellites that can be launched in large numbers. These could be used for a variety of purposes, including surveillance, communication, and scientific research.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) AI and ML are being used in a variety of military space applications, including image and signal processing, anomaly detection, predictive maintenance, and autonomous operations.
Biological Research Some militaries are using the unique environment of space to conduct biological research, including the study of human health and performance in space, which could have applications for long-duration space missions.
Space Weather Monitoring Space weather events, such as solar flares, can significantly impact satellite operations. Improved monitoring and prediction of space weather events could help militaries better manage their space assets.

The Risks and Challenges

The militarization of space poses several risks and challenges. Here are some of the most significant ones:

Risks and Challenges Details
Space Debris The testing and deployment of weapons in space can result in a significant increase in space debris. Even small fragments traveling at high speed can damage or destroy satellites. This could have catastrophic impacts on our global communications network, GPS systems, weather forecasting, and many other satellite-dependent technologies. This is often referred to as the Kessler Syndrome.
Escalation of Conflicts The militarization of space could escalate conflicts on Earth. If one nation feels threatened by the space capabilities of another, it may feel compelled to respond in kind, potentially leading to an arms race in space.
Weaponization of Space While militarization refers to the use of space for military purposes, such as surveillance and communications, weaponization refers to the placement of weapons in space. This could lead to the deployment of space-based nuclear weapons or kinetic bombardment systems, which could cause untold devastation.
Violation of International Law The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed by over 100 countries, prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space and the use of the moon and other celestial bodies for military purposes. Militarization of space could lead to violations of this treaty.
Decreased Global Security The deployment of weapons in space could decrease global security by creating new vulnerabilities. For instance, an attack on a country’s space assets could disable critical communications and surveillance capabilities, leaving that country vulnerable to further attack.
Diplomatic Challenges Militarization of space could strain international relations and complicate diplomacy. It may also make international cooperation on space exploration and research more difficult.
Costs The financial costs of militarizing space are also significant. Space systems are incredibly expensive to develop, launch, and maintain, and an arms race in space could divert funds from other important areas like education, healthcare, and infrastructure.
Potential for Accidental Conflicts Given the critical role of satellites in communications, navigation, and early warning systems, any interference (even unintentional) with these assets could be perceived as an act of war, raising the risk of accidental conflicts.

These are just a few of the potential risks and challenges. As space becomes increasingly militarized, it will be critical for the international community to develop and enforce norms and agreements to mitigate these risks.

Looking into the Future

The rise of military control in space underscores the strategic importance of satellites in modern warfare. As nations increasingly rely on space-based assets for security and defense, the need for preserving the peaceful use of outer space becomes more important than ever. The emergence of space as a potential warfare domain requires strategic thinking beyond conventional ground-based warfare, demanding new doctrines, strategies, and technologies.

Advancements in space technology, while bringing enormous benefits, also come with the potential for conflict. It’s important that nations navigate this new frontier responsibly, to ensure that space remains a domain that fosters peace and cooperation, rather than conflict and competition. The decisions made today will determine the future of space: whether it becomes a battleground for nations or remains a shared resource for all of humanity.