Artist’s concept of an In-Orbit Military outpost

Arming the Heavens: The Militarization & Weaponization of Space

Space: The last frontier, or perhaps the first doorway towards the heavens. Mankind developed a relation with Space after Yuri Gagarin became the first visitor in Earth’s orbit. Space travel and Space exploration became the next big dream of many nations. But as is the case with many good-intended endeavors, this novel dream was militarized citing security as an exigent factor of Space. No doubt the space programs of almost all countries are basically under the command of their armed forces. But the influence of the militarization aspect in space has grown with the advancement in space. 

Among the famous and iconic Films or series to date, Star Trek and Star Wars stand out as the most recognized and loved ones (though I recommend “The Expanse” all the same to understand the theme!). A constant theme of these marvels and many other entertainment pieces is warfare in space. Perhaps mankind’s romance with conflict demands to see it played out in Space as well! So it is inevitable that space exploration and space conflict will go hand in hand. But the preparations of Space warfare lead to the gradual but advanced militarization of space over the recent past decades.

Significance of Space

What makes Space a possible theatre of armed conflict? The answer is multi-faceted and complex. Without going into the details of modern defense strategy, an understanding of the importance of space establishes space as the pivot of modern defense. Space itself is a complex place that requires a high level of sophisticated technology to function and serve various purposes. Space-grade tech. is the penultimate creation of any given time. Many examples show that inventions that were meant to be developed for space eventually found useful applications on Earth. To understand the importance of Space as an armed conflict zone, you only need to look at the top five or top 10 nations that are advanced in space technology are exactly the same that are far ahead of other nations of the world. If you are a power in space, you are a power to be reckoned on Earth.

Present scenario: Militarization of Space

Now if you have the capability to develop high-functioning space tech, it’s logical to explore the Moon and Asteroids for minerals (i.e Rare-Earth Metal that is used in Rechargeable batteries). Just like there is conflict on Earth over the minerals present here, similarly, there is a conflict in space for the same purpose. Although it is still a far-fetched scenario, it’s a very possible one. The present active utilization of space technologies is found in almost all equipment that is used in air, land, and sea warfare (fighter jets, submarines, frigates, aircraft carriers, tanks, missiles, and missile defense systems). Now Cyberspace and space itself are considered battle zone. As the Head of US Strategic Command, General John Hyten, once said: “Space is now a potential battle zone…the Air Force wants to ensure ‘space superiority’ which he says means “freedom from attack and freedom to maneuver.”

To face this challenge, some countries have established dedicated “Space commands” structured in their Strategic defense commands. A Space command manages the Cyberspace threats and works with other entities of the Strategic Command to develop offensive and defensive strategies to mitigate such threats. A basic difference can be identified between a Space command and a space force. The space command develops space systems for cyber warfare, establishes coordination between the conventional and non-conventional armed commands to meet all requirements of modern dimensions of warfare. It does not necessarily develop space weapons for warfare in space (yes literally in space!). Whereas a Space force is a dedicated force that consists of personnel, technology, and weapons to be functional in space warfare. A Space force is structured under the Space command and serves as a specialized branch for space warfare. Long-range missiles (ICBMs-Inter Continental Ballistic missiles) already travel in space as a part of their journey to the target. These types of missiles, space, and cyber systems are already operated by the Space Command so feasible to structure the space force under the space command.

The biggest example of a dedicated space force is the “US Space Force”. It is the world’s first and currently only independent space force. Its personnel are mostly raised from the USAF to serve in this space service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Presently, the following countries have officially declared to constitute a space force. Among these, only the US has officially announced its space force to be an independent entity under the US Space command (a separate force). Each country has structured its Space commands/forces best suited to the structure of its armed forces. We have listed these space forces in terms of the declared number of personnel.

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Space forces of different countries

These Aerospace/Space forces are responsible for highly sophisticated technological developments to tackle cyber, space, and electronic warfare. They also perform threat and risk detection, assessments, and mitigation planning in the aerospace domain to protect the assets and interests of their respective countries in air and space.

Many other countries that have functional and profitable space programs also have designated space commands but none of them have declared to have a space force to date. These countries include Canada, United Kingdom, Japan, India, Brazil, Korea, and Peru.

Future scenario: Weaponization of Space

The present space technologies and primitive space weapons give us a good idea of what might be the future of space weaponization. The future (perhaps not so distant) will see more countries entering space and joining suitable “Space alliances” as partners in technology and profit sharing, along with being “space forces” for mutual security in Space.

Every military/force needs weapons. Space forces will be equipped with a large range of Space weapons with cutting-edge technology. Presently, there are many types of weapons under development. Although most of these are highly covert projects whose details are not publicly available. However, the basic operational capabilities are based on present space technologies so it is possible to understand their application. Here are some examples of possible types of Space weapons based on presently known technology:

Types of Space Weapons

As space warfare is an integral dimension to warfare as a whole, so it is governed by the general theory of war as developed in the classics, especially “Clausewitz’s On War” and Sun-Tzu’s “Art of War”. No matter how unfamiliar the military technologies or strange the environment, warfare is still warfare!

Space theorist Everett C. Dolman predicted that “the future lanes of commerce and military lines of communications in space will be the Hohmann transfer orbits between stable spaceports”.

This signifies the critical importance of space weapons that can affect the economy and military of any country. Here we look at some of the most advanced space weapons that have been developed completely or partially to date.

Cyber Warfare

In today’s era of satellites, satellites are no longer just a source to transmit television signals or perform reconnaissance missions! Satellite technology has come a long way during the past couple of decades. The emergence of commercial space companies has cut down the cost of satellite development and launch. Similarly, there has been a rapid advancement in satellite technologies as well. With satellite internet being in the test phase and more countries adopting cyberspace to develop their “integrated warfare systems”. So in a modern warfare scenario on Earth where GPS, BEIDOU satellite systems are pivotal for military communications, whoever has the command on cyberspace and information, easily wins the war before it even starts on Earth! This is the reason why many countries have designated cyber commands in their strategic defense commands. A military force that is blind in cyberspace can be easily crippled to fight on Earth by an adversary that has advanced cyber power.

Electroinic, Electro-magnetic weapons

Advancements in electronics are a major catalyst in all modern weapons. Drones, satellites, Rail-Guns are all good examples of the use of electronic and electro-magnetic technologies in warfare. In space as well, these technologies have played an important role to enhance the impacts of space warfare. One good example is Electro-Magnetic pulse weapons. The deployment of such weapons in space can pose a serious threat to the enemy’s electronic infrastructure on earth, satellites, spacecraft (human or non-human), and even other space weapons. These weapons can cripple enemy electronic systems (on earth and in space) by firing an electromagnetic pulse on their target. Just imagine such an “EMP bomb” attack on a modern city, all infrastructure that is totally operational on electronics will fail to cause mass chaos. Even worse, all military equipment (fighter jets, ground defense systems, etc.) will be taken out of the equation within seconds and the war can be won without firing a single bullet!

Killer Satellites

Russia, United States, China, and India have all tested the “anti-satellite” technology. Even though this technology creates a mass of space junk that can be harmful to an attacking satellite itself, so many “Killer satellites” are self-destructive in the sense that they are built to serve this single purpose. A killer satellite can be mounted with small warheads, types of lasers, jamming technology, or physical collision techniques to destroy an enemy satellite. The target satellite can be any type of satellite i.e communications satellite, reconnaissance satellite, etc.

Re-entry missiles/Objects for terrestrial bombing

The idea of keeping Nuclear warheads in Earth’s orbit isn’t a new one. The US and Russia have pondered on this option for a long time but certain International treaties prohibit them to carry out such an act. A good substitute weapon for an equivalent (or even more) impactful catastrophe is a heavy Tungsten rod placed in orbit and dropped to impact the target location with a great powerful impact. Such weapons are dubbed as “Rods from God”. These weapons can hit their targets on Earth with an equivalence of the impact of a powerful ICBM but without any radiation! An excellent example is the US Air force’s project “Project Thor”. Have a look at this video to understand the most lethal Non-Nuclear weapon possessed by the US:

Project Thor: US’s Most lethal Non-nuclear Weapon!

Conclusion

“There was never a territory in human history that someone didn’t think they could own or make money out of. And that goes for outer space as well…” -David Barnett, 2015

To be realistic, the possibility of space warfare is not an immediate threat. But the course of the advancement of space technology, human space travel, space exploration for precious minerals predicts a near-future of conflict and warfare in the complicated domain of space. Hence spacepower of any nation establishes its dominion over future energy resources and its dominance in modern warfare.

USEFUL READS:

  1. “War in Space: The science and technology behind our next Theater of Conflict”, Linda Dawson, Springer Praxis Books, 2019.
  2. “Another Bloody Century: Future warfare”, Colin. S. Gray, Phoenix Press, 2005.  
  3. “Space warfare in the 21st century: Arming the Heavens”, Joan Johnson-Freese, Routledge, 2017.
  4. “War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics”, Bleddyn E.Bowen, Edinburgh university Press, 2020.

Also Read: SCIENCE AND WARFARE

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