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High Ambitions: Superpowers and the Weaponization of Outer Space

When Churchill in 1940 boasted that the British would never surrender, it was enough to beat your enemies at sea, in the air, in the fields and in the streets. This has been true for a very long time, and for most of the world, war is still something that happens on the ground, underwater or in the air. All military doctrines come to an end, however, and now the US Strategic Command demands a new, more holistic understanding of threats and deterrence: space is becoming an item on Churchill’s list.

The costs of space weaponization makes it exclusive to the world’s superpowers. The United States Department of Defence unclassified space projects are worth over $9 billion, and the 2016 budget for Science & Technology for Space-Based Systems in the Defence Budget is over $7 billion. Both Russia and China have formed branches in their militaries to respond to threats from outer space, but have not disclosed their budgets. India, afraid of falling behind in the space weaponization race, has formed an Integrated Space Cell to coordinate and oversee India’s space-based military endeavor.

While China and India are catching up, the head start that the US and Russia have goes back to the Cold War. The USSR took the first steps at space militarization during the Space Race with the designing of Almaz, a manned space station for reconnaissance and espionage. During the Cold War both sides realised the cost-efficiency of unmanned satellites and automated systems in comparison to their manned counterparts. With their current budgets, space superpowers can in fact achieve very futuristic goals, and plan even more futuristic projects. The heritage of Cold War remains, and the emphasis is still on intelligence and support. Most space-based systems consist of satellites designed for different purposes: GPS, communications, and spying. While the beaches, fields and streets remain the combat theatre, Earth’s orbit has become the enabler: the satellite infrastructure is crucial for military superpowers to stretch their influence over continents and seas. Real-time intelligence can be collected on the target before troops are deployed, and data transmission over long distances is easy with the help of the Teleport program.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had plans for ground-based lasers to interfere with US satellites. Edward L. Cooper, Wikimedia Commons.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had plans for ground-based lasers to interfere with US satellites. Edward L. Cooper, Wikimedia Commons.

During the Space Race, once the opportunities of space were discovered, space-to-earth weapons, or so called “space weapons”, became a subject of serious scientific research. So serious, that in 1966 both the US and the USSR signed the United Nations Outer Space Treaty which prohibits the placing of “nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction” in orbit or on celestial bodies or “in outer space in any other manner”. Scientific advancement was so fast that in 2015 Russia and China pushed through a draft resolution entitled “No first placement of weapons in outer space” in the UN First Committee. According to the Russian delegate, this treaty would prevent an arms race in outer space by discouraging any state from deploying weapons in Earth’s orbit. Four countries voted against – among them the US, arguing that the treaty does not specify what is meant with space weapons. Neither does it forbid the deployment of earth-to-space weapons. This stance is in line with the Obama government’s National Space Policy of 2010 which states that the use of space for ‘”peaceful purposes” allows for space to be used for national and homeland security activities’. The US also stretched their “inherent right of self-defence” to include space.

An ASAT (anti-satellite) missile launched from an F-15. Ryan Carierie, Flickr.
An ASAT (anti-satellite) missile launched from an F-15. Ryan Carierie, Flickr.

The “space weapons” that the 2015 draft resolution addresses do not even exist yet, but the world leaders are worried for good reason. In 2002, the global policy think-tank RAND wrote a report for the US Air Force to give an overview of the discussion-to-come about space weapons. RAND were interested in “things” that “are based in space or that have an essential element in space” and are “intended to cause harm”. The report explored the options from lasers and jammers and kinetic weapons in detail: jammers that could dismantle the enemy’s communication systems, lasers to fry ballistic missiles and people, and “kinetic weapons” that would hurl themselves at massive speed at missiles above the atmosphere or all the way down to terrestrial targets. Unsurprisingly, states with a limited budget for space weapon development are afraid and are investing in countermeasures for the existing and possible future threats.

A disadvantage in orbital structures that space-faring nations reading the RAND report noticed is that “[b]ecause of their size, the lasers would be extremely difficult to hide or to manoeuvre enough to be unpredictable”. Precautions for space weapons have been taken long before the 2015 UN treaty. Ground-based systems are easier to build, even if the technology used would be the same as in space. China is fast building a counter-space capability, and already in 2006 they illuminated a US satellite with a ground-based laser. If a laser hits a satellite in the right spot it can damage or blind it. In 2007 China destroyed a defunct weather satellite with a missile and is busy developing a long-range precision missile arsenal to destroy orbital targets, one of which was tested in 2014. Russia is working on building its own counter-space capability, and named the militarization of outer space as one of its main external military threats in its new military doctrine, approved in 2010. In line with the new doctrine, Russia replaced its air forces with Aerospace Forces in 2015.

With UN treaties in place and satellites in danger, the US and China are already competing in a new field: hypersonic glide vehicles that are speculated to have the capability to render traditional nuclear missiles obsolete. In theory, a ballistic missile booster would carry these new missiles to the outer edge of the atmosphere from where they would then re-enter the atmosphere and accelerate to such fast speeds that earth-to-space countermeasures might not have time to react. The safest way to intercept would be from – space. Some 2000 years ago Sun Tzu said not to confront an enemy who occupies high ground or oppose an enemy attacking from high ground. Space superpowers are doing everything in their power to knock the enemy off the pedestal.

Otso Rajala

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