In his recent State of the Union address, President Trump gave a shout-out to space exploration, highlighting the newly-created Space Force branch of the US Military, and NASA’s Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration. Artemis aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2024 (the first time since the 1972 Apollo mission), and use the lunar surface to train for missions to Mars in the 2030s.
“In reaffirming our heritage as a free nation, we must remember that America has always been a frontier nation. Now we must embrace the next frontier: America’s manifest destiny in the stars,” Trump said during the nearly 80-minute speech. “I am asking Congress to fully fund the Artemis program to ensure that the next man and first woman on the moon will be American astronauts, using this as a launching pad to ensure that America is the first nation to plant its flag on Mars.”
While Trump has made peaceful space exploration a priority of his administration, what he probably hadn’t reckoned on was seeding the next generation of US weaponry that will help to fuel an arms race among the most advanced space programs. Indeed beyond the atmosphere of planet earth, and the range of the naked eye, an impressive arsenal of weapons have been, and are continuing to be developed, for a new theater of war.
A brief history
The Pentagon has known since the late 1990s that space could be a flash point, when it started using satellites and space weapons as part of its war games. Military top brass realized that attacking an adversary’s ground-based satellite weapons before they were used, could be the trip wire that starts a war. Disrupting a satellite’s communications, say by firing a beam of microwave radiation at it, could also rapidly escalate a war and might even lead to an exchange of nuclear weapons.
In fact the technology for fighting a war in space can be traced back to the USSR’s launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. The drive to place objects in orbit stimulated space research, including the demonstration of ballistic-missile technology, and by the late 1960 both the United States and the Soviet Union were regularly deploying reconnaissance satellites.
These satellites had a strategic purpose in allowing the US and USSR to take photographs and spy on each other’s military installations. As the resolution and accuracy of satellites improved, anti-satellite weapons were developed that could either destroy or “blind” a satellite. At the same time, directed-energy weapons (focused energy including laser, microwave and particle beams), kamikaze-style satellites and orbiting nuclear explosives were researched, to varying success.
Meanwhile as rocket technology grew in sophistication, the range of missiles increased and led to the first inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of targeting virtually any target on earth within seconds. The Cold War doctrine of developing so many nuclear weapons that the other side couldn’t possibly win a nuclear war without provoking an attack that destroyed itself, came to be known as “mutually assured destruction”.
In 1983, President Reagan proposed a cutting-edge technology called the Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI). A space-based system designed to protect the United States from attack by missiles capped with nuclear warheads, the nick-named “Star Wars” plan was ridiculed by some as unrealistic and wildly expensive. However in retrospect, SDI was taken very seriously by the Russians and would hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union by forcing the Kremlin to either dedicate a large portion of its annual budget to countering SDI, or watch their substantial nuclear stockpiles rendered obsolete.
United States Space Command was created in 1985 as a branch of the Military, to help institutionalize the use of outer space. USSPACECOM, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, shares its Commander in Chief with NORAD, the US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command.
According to a Wikipedia page, Military space operations coordinated by USSPACECOM proved to be very valuable for the U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The U.S. Military has relied on communications, intelligence, navigation, missile warning and weather satellite systems in areas of conflict since the early 1990s, including the Balkans, Southwest Asia and Afghanistan. Space systems are considered indispensable providers of tactical information to U.S. war-fighters.
When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, so ended the three-decade-long US-Soviet space rivalry. However despite the eclipse of the USSR, America did not, and does not, have a monopoly over space exploration and militarization. Among the countries with active space programs are Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Union.
Current space militarization revolves around three areas: the continuing development of reconnaissance or “spy” satellites; the Global Positioning System (GPS), designed and controlled by the US Department of Defense; and network-centric warfare.
The primary military purpose of GPS is to improve command and control through pinpoint location awareness, and to facilitate accurate targeting of smart bombs, cruise missiles and other munitions. GPS consists of a constellation of 24 satellites, which carry detonation detectors. Russia has its own global navigation system called GLONASS, while the Chinese “Beidou” system affords the country a regional navigation capability.
Network-centric warfare uses high-speed communications to allow soldiers and other military personnel to view the battlefield in real time. For example a soldier can access satellite imagery and direct aircraft to attack a target, while a commander watches the events on a computer monitor hundreds of miles away.
Space-based, directed-energy weapons can attack orbiting satellites, targets on earth or flying missiles. A 23-mm cannon that was fitted on the Soviet space station Salyut 3, successfully fired on satellites at ranges of between 500 and 3,000 meters.
That brings up the point, how often have space weapons been used? Wikipedia states there have only been a few incidents and all were training missions:
In the mid-1980s a USAF pilot in an F-15 successfully shot down the P78-1, a communications satellite in a 345-mile (555 km) orbit.
In 2007 the People’s Republic of China used a missile system to destroy one of its obsolete satellites (see 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test), in 2008 the United States similarly destroyed its malfunctioning satellite USA 193, and in 2019, India followed same by destroying a live satellite. To date, there have been no human casualties resulting from conflict in space, nor has any ground target been successfully neutralized from orbit.
Today’s armed forces use space-based assets for a number of purposes including reconnaissance, communications, navigation and weather tracking. According to Space.com, the US Air Force regularly launches GPS and missile-defense tracking satellites, and operates two X-37B robotic space planes.
The main function of the reusable X-37B is to carry payloads, derived from experiments in space, back to earth for examination. Like the space shuttle, the solar-powered space plane launches vertically with the help of a rocket, and performs a runway landing like a regular aircraft. It is capable of operating at altitudes of between 177 and 805 kilometers. Last October an unpiloted X-37B landed back on earth after a record 780 days in orbit.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin boldly declared in 2018 to have created a hypersonic missile (it travels 5 times the speed of sound) that is “invincible” to air defenses. The US Military’s Defense Advanced Researched Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking to prove him wrong by awarding $13 million to defense contractor Northrop Grumman, to develop interceptors to take such missiles out. DARPA and the Air Force are also reportedly working on two hypersonic missile concepts: the Tactical Boost Glide weapon and the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC.
Last month the Air Force awarded Raytheon a five-year, $197-million contract to build FORGE, a system that gathers and fuses data from the Military’s space-based missile warning sensors. The technology enables the collection of data from the Air Force’s main missile warning satellite system, known as the SBIRS constellation, and its eventual replacement system. These satellite systems use on-board sensors to detect the heat generated by a missile launch.
For a look at some of the coolest past, present and future space weapons, including DARPA’S MAHEM, a device that blasts streams of molten metal, and Project THEL (Tactical High-Energy Laser Program), a US-Israel project involving a ground-based defense system that successfully destroyed 46 airborne mortar rounds, rockets and artillery, visit this Space.com page.
Space arms race
Technology aside, the weaponization of space is a disturbing development that could easily destabilize international relations in an already unstable world.
Countries with space programs already have the capability to destroy the satellites of its adversaries, or sabotage them through electronic warfare using directed-energy weapons like lasers. If you think these weapons are some unlikely version of Star Trek, consider that police forces already have technology to bring a speeding car to a halt by firing a microwave beam at it, disabling its electronic devices.
Lasers can also be used defensively, to take out an attacking satellite’s solar panels. Destroying its power source leaves the satellite unable to communicate with its ground station, and it becomes “lost in space”.
A super-EMP weapon is an enhanced hydrogen bomb that, detonated at high altitude, would attack all communications including cell and Internet coverage.
A blast 400 kilometers above the United States would unleash a flood of gamma rays, causing a massive electromagnetic pulse that fries all electronics on the US Mainland, including the entire system of electricity grids, telecommunications and cellular phones.
How about nuclear weapons? Apparently in the 1960s a small number of space-based nuclear tests were carried out including Starfish Prime. The tests caused radiation belts to form around the earth and disabled half a dozen satellites in low orbit. These radiation belts were detectable for decades after the event. As Space.com points out, If the results of Starfish Prime are anything to go by, then clearly it would take only a handful of nuclear detonations to make space unusable for any satellites for decades to come.
While nuclear weapons in space are banned under the Outer Space Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, not all nuclear-armed nations have signed the latter, including the US and North Korea.
And while nukes in space probably aren’t much of a threat, clearly the US through the creation of Space Force, and demonstrated by a recent multi-national military exercise, sees space warfare as a very real possibility.
Last September roughly 350 military and civilian experts gathered at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama for the 13th Schriever Wargame. Set in 2029, the scenario involving the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, explores critical space issues and examines the integration of multiple agencies associated with space systems, Air Force officials said.
As an indication the US Military is aware it needs to adapt to space-based threats, read the comments from Matthew Wolfe Davidson, deputy combined force space component commander at the US Space Command and vice commander of the 14th Air Force at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, during a keynote address on Nov. 6.
“We certainly know we have an adversary that is attempting, in all different ways, to impact what we do,” said Brig. Gen. Davidson. “There is no question when you look at what our competitors, China and Russia, are doing with direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons — there are not many dual-purpose needs for that.”
A more benign space competition is for who can be the first to establish a civilian lunar base.
Just over a year ago China’s National Space Administration landed a robot on the dark side of the moon (Pink Floyd, anyone?). The Chang’e probe and its on-board Yutu-2 rover are reportedly photographing and scanning minerals, hatching fruit fly eggs and cultivating crop seeds, according to the Daily Beast.
In 2017 China and Europe said they plan to cooperate on building a moon base. Or Europe could join Russia in sending a reconnaissance probe to the moon.
As for the United States, the US Army had drawn up blueprints as far back as the 1950s for a moon base but the project, called Horizon, was shelved in the ‘60s. Surprisingly given their Cold War history, the US and Russia are working on something called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) that would orbit the moon like the International Space Station orbits the earth. Ironically the MOL program’s mission was to have US astronauts gather intelligence on the Soviets.
The Moon Treaty bans any military use of celestial bodies, including weapon testing, nuclear weapons in orbit, or military bases.
The US Military is by far the most powerful military machine in the world. Its ability to project force, manpower and equipment to the furthest reaches of the globe is unparalleled. Could US hegemony be challenged by China and Russia, maybe Europe, in “the final frontier”?
There is certainly evidence of a growing capability from America’s competitors in space warfare, but on the other hand, the US government under Trump seems to recognize the threats and is doing something about it through the creation of Space Force and promising funds for civilian lunar exploration.
It’s both fascinating and frightening to see space weapons technology advance, the kind of equipment that can kill and inflict massive casualties with the press of a button, or destroy communications and energy infrastructure we take for granted.
Another good reason to own precious metals.
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