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The Militarisation and Weaponisation of Space

2 January, 2021

By Jack Davies – Junior Fellow

Nestled in the UK government’s recent announcement of a £16.5 billion military spending increase is the creation of a new ‘Space Command’. With this, the UK joins the US, France, Canada, Japan, Russia and China in accelerating its military activities in space.

The potential importance of space as a domain of conflict is not lost on any state. During the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) five separate draft resolutions relating to disarmament and space, including a pair of resolutions attempting to both ‘ban the first placement of weapons in space’ and ‘prevent of an arms race in outer space’ (PAROS). Both of these are notable for aiming to prohibit the placement of any weapons systems in outer space and for passing the UNGA First Committee with a large majority of votes in 2020 (132 in favour to 34 against for the former, 185 in favour to 2 against for the latter).

The US voted against both of these, and in fact has consistently been one of only 2 states to vote against PAROS since its first introduction in 1999. Despite the overwhelming support for the PAROS, the continued success of the resolution has not led to a proposed new binding PAROS treaty, with a lack of US support and refusal to engage in any negotiations rendering any discussions pointless.

How can the seemingly widespread support for arms control in outer space be reconciled with the establishment of an ever-growing number of national military space commands? How does the weaponisation of space relate to its militarisation? What does the future hold – constellations of orbiting doomsday lasers or peaceful exploration and commerce?

Space Has Always Been Militarised

The pursuit of military activities in space is effectively as old as any human activity beyond the atmosphere.

In 1958, President Eisenhower established both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency – later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Whereas NASA was given the mandate of overseeing US civilian space activities, DARPA was tasked with organising the various military branch’s competing missile and space programmes as part of its broader mandate to pursue innovative technological research for military applications. Initially, the US’s military space programmes focused on launching reconnaissance satellites to monitor both space and the Earth.

One of the first notable examples was the spy-satellite ‘Cornona’, a reconnaissance satellite that would go on to take over 800,000 images between 1960-1972. During this period, the US also launched the Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS), 12 (9 of which successfully reached orbit) satellites that formed the core of the first national missile warning system. MIDAS was then later replaced in the 1970s when the US launched the first Integrated Missile Early Warning Satellite (IMEWS-1) of the 23-strong Defense Support Programme (DSP) fleet. With the deployment of these systems, space had become an active strategic domain.

The 1967 ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space’ (commonly referred to as the ‘Outer Space Treaty’ or OST), created in the context of a Cold War nuclear arms race, recognised the potential issue of space-based nuclear weapons and prohibited the placement of any weapons of mass destruction (left undefined) in orbit (also left undefined). As long as humans have had assets in space it has been recognised as a potential military domain.

Given that space has been militarised for so long, why haven’t we experienced space warfare?

There are a few different ways of answering that question. The first, and most simple, is that we have. Imagery gathered via reconnaissance satellites like Corona has been an important source of intelligence since the 1960s, and space-based assets have been vital links in military command, control and communications (C3) networks for decades now. These C3 satellites play a vital role in US military operations around the world, from the first Gulf War to the ongoing counterterrorism conflicts in Yemen, Somalia and more.

Fair enough, but this answer feels somewhat unsatisfactory – why haven’t we seen warfare in space? For one thing, no space-based asset owning state has yet been in an open conflict with a state capable of destroying those assets. If the Cold War had gone hot, then we might have seen the US and USSR destroy one another’s early warning satellite systems (with potentially disastrous consequences if interpreted as a prelude to a nuclear strike). This thankfully never happened. However, there is another factor to consider.

Deterrence, fuelled by the shared vulnerability of all space-based assets, has so far discouraged any states from actively engaging in space-based warfare. For much of the 60 plus years of human space activity the costs have been extremely high. Each satellite was so difficult and expensive to manufacture and deploy, not to mention increasingly vital to national security once deployed, that states would not risk losing them. This fear is compounded by the vulnerability of space-based assets to anti-satellite (ASAT) systems developed as far back as the 1950s.

However, the constraints on space activity are loosening. The cost of producing satellites has dropped by orders of magnitude, especially for communications satellites. The CubeSat, a type of small satellite made up of one or more 10 x 10 x 10cm 1.33kg cubic units, built using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components is a perfect example of this. Yet even more impressive is the drop in the previously prohibitive cost of launching mass into orbit, aided by technological advancements such as an increased number of potential objects per launch vehicle and re-useable vehicles themselves. Where the Space Shuttle used to cost $54,500/kg to launch mass into orbit, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 costs only $2,720/kg.

These factors have greatly reduced the overall cost of accessing space, which in turn has a knock-on effect on deterrence. If a state has the ability to absorb the loss of its communications and earth monitoring satellite systems by readily launching thousands of inexpensive replacements, then the potential cost of risking the loss of those satellites is reduced dramatically.

Of course, if you can place a communications satellite, a space station or a tesla in space, why not a weapon?

Weaponisation of Space

In P.W. Singer and August Cole’s influential novel ‘Ghost Fleet’, a future conflict between the US and China begins with a Chinese space station firing a secretly built laser into 47 US and allied satellites, cutting C3 networks and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) feeds and sowing mass confusion. Another mainstay of science fiction, ‘kinetic orbital bombardment’ (sometimes called ‘rods from God’), involves placing solid projectiles (a typical example being tungsten rods) onto orbiting platforms, ready to be launched towards the Earth below at velocities and flight angles making them almost impossible to stop. Given that states have been thinking about space as a militarised domain since the 1940s, it is perhaps unsurprising that futurists and sci-fi writers have imagined all sorts of space-based weapons. They aren’t alone. In fact, the US government has been actively trying to develop both of the above examples, and to weaponise space, for decades.

During the 1980s, President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), his vision for a missile defence system including space-based lasers intended to shoot down any incoming Soviet missiles. It was soon clear that the technology available in the 1980s was simply not yet advanced enough to make SDI a reality, and with the end of the cold war in the early 1990s support for the SDI collapsed.

Following a period of sustained inactivity, with President Clinton’s administration consistently vetoing any plans to develop space-based weapons systems during the 1990s, President Bush revived development of such capabilities during his 8-years in office. Kickstarting research on space-based ASAT systems, reviving SDI programmes, and green-lighting the development of an orbital bombardment system, this renewed focus reflected the US’s strategic perspective that ‘the ability to gain space superiority (the ability to exploit space while selectively disallowing it to adversaries) is critically important, and maintaining space superiority is an essential prerequisite in modern warfare.’

Despite a second pause in space-based weapons development between 2010-2016 under President Obama, the US has once again been spending large sums on researching such capabilities. Under President Trump, competition and potential conflict in space has once again become a priority, with fears that Russian and Chinese space-based ASAT systems (thus far primarily limited to manoeuvrable satellites that can be piloted into collision courses with other orbiting objects) introduce intolerable vulnerabilities into US national security. It is unclear what direction the new Biden administration will proceed in, but scrapping such work would be out-of-step with the expected continuing emphasis on great power competition.

Given this extensive history of space-based weapons development, why is it that there haven’t been any significant weapons deployed? Put simply, why aren’t there hundreds of micro ‘death stars’ orbiting high above waiting to fire high-powered lasers at one another and the Earth?

Significant barriers still remain in developing these weapons systems. Lasers, more appropriately known as ‘directed energy weapons’ have seen major technological advances, with working systems already in limited use on a variety of land and sea based platforms able to intercept and destroy incoming platforms and projectiles, yet space raises unique challenges that aren’t yet easily solved. Specifically, how to power energy-hungry systems once in space (solar, chemical and nuclear energy each have their own disadvantages) and how to dissipate undesired heat in the near-vacuum of space.

Similarly, although the most significant barrier to orbital bombardment systems (the prohibitive cost of launching mass into orbit) has been greatly diminished recently, questions of cost and accuracy remain. This is especially true when such systems are compared to alternatives. Advancements in missile technology (particularly the development of hypersonic missiles capable of bypassing traditional missile defence systems) raise questions of the necessity of orbital bombardment, while advancements in precision guidance systems and unmanned robotics (drones) offer states a more accurate, and most notably reusable weapons platform. Even if these challenges were solved, any space-based asset remains vulnerable to ASAT systems.

Ultimately, despite the vast amounts of funding being directed towards space-based weapons programmes, the current weaponisation of space in reality has less to do with placing weapons in space and more the integration of space-based assets into critical military C3 networks and ISR systems as well as the ASAT weapons developed to disrupt those systems.

The idea that satellites would be a critical security objective during the opening stages of a conflict between two technologically advanced adversaries is not limited to science fiction. Take the Global Positioning System (GPS) as an example. A military-developed and operated system consisting of 30 satellites, US-sponsored research estimates that disruption of the GPS network would cost around $ 1 billion per day, with knock-on effects including disruption to the US national power grid and high frequency automated trading (both synchronised to the GPS timing system), to say nothing of the impact on military forces reliant on GPS for navigation.

Pentagon reliance on the GPS throughout its military functions has made its destruction a priority for adversaries, and although the US has been seeking alternatives (e.g. using the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate), none are currently available to replace GPS. The ability to disrupt an adversary’s C3 networks, ISR and navigation capabilities may well prove to be a deciding advantage in a potential US-China conflict. Recognising the centrality of GPS to US military capabilities, adversaries such as China and Russia are known to be building up ASAT capabilities. The US, never one to miss out on an arms race, has developed its own ASAT systems.

However, kinetic ASAT weapons such as missiles and manoeuvrable orbiting collision objects hold the distinct disadvantage of producing debris. When China destroyed a defunct FY-1C satellite with an SC-19 ASAT missile in January 2007, it produced 3,000 new trackable pieces of orbiting debris, the largest break-up event in history up until then. Orbiting clouds of debris pose a serious risk to other space-based assets. A 1cm fleck of paint travelling at a typical orbiting speed of 35,000 km/h delivers the same impact energy of a 250kg object moving 96 km/h – and a 10cm object delivers the same energy as 7kg of TNT.

This means that using kinetic weapons to destroy enemy satellites, especially those in similar or close orbits to other orbiting objects (as is the case in the highly valued geosynchronous orbit band), also incurs the risk of damaging your own assets. However, non-kinetic ASAT methods which only disrupt or disable satellites or their C3 networks, for example electronic warfare and cyber counter-space capabilities, offer states a debris-free alternative.

What the future may hold

Apprehension over the future of warfare in space is not entirely unjustified. Today’s global geopolitical climate is one of increasing competition, and for the first time in decades the prospect of interstate conflict between technologically advanced adversaries seems possible. These states have both the means and the motive to attack one another’s space-based assets, and long-standing barriers to doing so, such as the risk of producing orbiting debris clouds, are in some ways diminishing.

Space has always been militarised. States have been trying to weaponise it for almost as long. Space-based assets have, do and will continue to play a major role in military affairs, even if fears of imminent orbiting constellations of doomsday lasers are somewhat overblown. What comes next will require the serious debate both within and between the world’s leading powers.

Image: An X-37 spacecraft – until recently operated by the US Air Force, and now under the control of the US Space Force – sits on a runway after completing its mission

About Jack Davies

Jack Davies is a Junior Fellow at the Human Security Centre. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Birmingham, specialising in contemporary conflict and international law. He has worked on a number of research projects at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security including an investigation of the legality and legitimacy of armed drone strikes, on which he is currently co-authoring a book. His research interests include emerging and disruptive technologies in conflict, macrostrategy and existential risk, inter-state competition in and the weaponization of space, and environmental security.