You likely wouldn’t even notice the start of a war in space. It could be an undetectable laser, launched from the ground and targeting the optical lens of a orbiting spy satellite to blind it. It could be a high powered jammer from the ground, or a nearby satellite, trying to disrupt U.S. military communications. Or it could be the long and radiantly terrifying arc of a ballistic missile launched on the other side of the world, colliding with a satellite, blowing it to pieces, and watching the geopolitical, military and literal debris spread. In all cases, these are debris that no one can really control—or predict.
In late April, President Donald Trump raised the spectre of conflict in space via floating the idea of a Space Force. "Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea," Trump said in a speech at Air Station Miramar. "We may even have a Space Force, develop another one, Space Force. We have the Air Force, we'll have the Space Force."
While it sounds like naive futurism, the House Armed Services Committee voted just last year to approve a proposal in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would create the Space Corps—a similar idea to Trump's "Space Force" and a military arm under the Air Force aimed at overseeing operations in space—though those plans were not included within the final NDAA that passed. Even so, the importance of such foresight is obvious when you consider that all it could take to start a war in the stars is taking down one government's satellites (and the capabilities that come with them) with a rock the size of an almond.
“Something the size of my fingernail—and I have little hands—can kill a satellite,” says Theresa A. Hitchens, a senior research associate at the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland, where she focuses on space security, cyber security and governance issues surrounding disruptive technologies. “[But] in GEO (Geosynchronous Earth Orbit) where the big military satellites and early warning satellites are, we can only track something as big as a basketball reliably.”
As Peter Kamocsai writes in Space News, “Even one of the reasons the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, as one senator highlighted, was that it sanctioned the militarization of space. The United States wanted to be able to weaponize space in the future, if it chose so. It now has to use this possibility and beat other nations to be first, because they will not hesitate to beat the United States.”
And even as countries keep their offensive capabilities under wraps, it’s often hard to decipher what the difference is between offensive and defensive. Our early warning nuclear satellites are both an early warning system to detect a nuclear launch as well as a targeting system. Inherently, these capabilities are simultaneously both, which blurs the lines of how to think about space and what is a weapon and what’s not.
According to Hitchens, one of the reasons the USSR and U.S. never went down the anti-satellite weaponry (ASAT) track was because they were terrified that if there was some kind of ASAT weapons strike that hit an early warning satellites, even by accident, it would be taken as a the precursor to the launch of a nuclear warhead. “That has not changed, it’s not changed at all,” says Hitchens. “The Russians have nuclear weapons, the Chinese do, we do. What is really scary is that both the Russians and Chinese have started to talk about ‘Well, maybe we need to think about hitting those early warning sats’.' Why? Because they're also being used as part of our missile defense system which China and Russia see as a weapons system. And we’ve done something stupid, which goes back to organization systems. Where we didn't want to spend the money on separate missile defense system satellites, we decided we were going to sue early warning sats both for missile defense, targeting and planning, and for watching nuclear missile launches. Which fundamentally changes their purpose and the game.”
China and Russia are the two countries that are closest to the U.S. in terms of space capabilities. And unlike during the Cold War, ASATs are now on the table, and at times, in the air. In 2007, China shot down a weather satellite using a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile, sending shock waves through the international security community. The satellite was in low earth orbit, about 500 miles above the surface of Earth. It created almost 40,000 pieces of debris and yes, much of it were was than a basketball. Then, in May 2013, China launched a missile, the stated purpose of which was to reach an altitude of 10,000 kilometers and release a barium cloud for the purposes of scientific research. Yet the U.S. government said the missile “appeared to be on a ballistic trajectory nearly to geosynchronous Earth orbit,” at around 2,230 miles. GEO is where the U.S.’s intelligence and early warning satellites are. And that worries the U.S., because it’s incredibly difficult to defend things in space. Our satellites fly over other countries all the time. Space is is a shared playing field with the world.
“From a military point of view, one of the things our potential opponents look at is how we use our military space systems and see it potentially as an Achilles heel, in that we rely so much on it,” says George Nacouzi, a senior engineer at the RAND Corporation who works on projects within Project Air Force and National Security Research Division. “It might be vulnerable form their point of view, and they might target it to get an advantage over us and disable some of our capabilities. So that's something that we in the military have been worried about.”
Space is on the verge of being weaponized, whether we want it to be or not.
This lack of communications about offensive capabilities, coupled with mistrust, paranoia and a tense geopolitical situation, particularly with Russia, are why experts like Hitchens are worrying, and Hyten’s rhetoric doesn’t help matters. “Russia and Chinese are convinced the U.S. has already weaponized space,” Hitchens says. “And they’re convinced they’re only catching up. So you’ve got the situation where three countries are standing in a triangle with loaded guns pointed at each others heads, and they can’t talk. So they’re only watching the movement of the gun.”
The question, then, is what sets off the gun? It could be an accidental or intentional tampering with one of our satellites. It could be a first strike at the U,S’s Achilles heel if a country believes we are planning our own. Or it could be one of the millions of pieces of small debris circling the globe. In a paranoid and tense geopolitical environment, any of the above could be the spark that lights a fire.
On July 9, 1962, the U.S. conducted a high-altitude nuclear test, launching and detonating a 1.4 megaton bomb 250 miles above the planet, known as Starfish Prime. A joint effort of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Atomic Support Agency, the test was the was the largest nuclear test conducted ever conducted in outer space. But it was only one of five such tests the U.S. carried out as part of Operation Fishbowl, and in response to a Soviet announcement to end a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing.
The resulting blast resulted in a huge electromagnet pulse, disrupting electrical services in Hawaii, 898 miles away, and the blast lit up the night sky for hundreds of miles around. “Yes, in the 1960s we did tests in space and discovered it was a really bad thing to do,” says Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Creates a lot of radiation, destroys a lot of satellites indiscriminately. But still a country could do that.”
And while you’re likely familiar with the phrase star wars, the term goes beyond the films, extending to the colloquial name of one of the U.S.’s most ambitious, though ultimately unsuccessful, military space projects. President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, which would come to be known as Star Wars, on March 23, 1983. The project would construct a space-based anti-missile system, with the intention of shooting down Soviet nuclear weapons launches.
The defenses included both space- and Earth-based laser battle stations. Upon the launch of a missile, the battle stations would target the missile with lasers, hoping to disrupt its flight and destroy it. The secondary defense would include air-based missile platforms and ground-based missiles, clustered around major targets such as intercontinental ballistic missile silos. The targeting sensors would utilize a wide range of technology, including radar, optical and infrared threat-detection systems. Intended to bring the balance of nuclear power under the U.S., a successful system such as this would have given us first strike capability, upending calculations of mutually assured destruction. Due the technical difficulty, budget and friction with following administrations, the project was eventually scrapped. But the research of space weaponry didn’t.
The Tactical High Energy Laser program, run between 1996 and 2005 according to Northrop Grumman, was just another example of weaponry research that could be applied to space. In it a ground-based high-powered laser system destroyed 46 mortar rounds, rockets and artillery while they were airborne, offering a glimpse into how the U.S. is thinking about lasers. The Manned Orbiting Laboratory was another U.S. Air Force project that ran from 1963 to 1969. Reconnaissance was the stated objective of the project, under code name Project Dorian, with the laboratory carrying military astronauts. The on-board camera system would photograph the Soviet Union with a resolution better than any satellite at the time. But new details uncovered in late 2015, via the release of more than 20,000 pages of documents on the project, that MOL also could have carried missiles and nets to capture enemy spacecraft. And these are just the ones we know about. As long as humans have been going to space, we’ve dreamed about how to weaponize it. And while the current systems are less fantastical, they’re no less effective if they were called upon.
Russia and Chinese are convinced the U.S. has already weaponized space. And they’re convinced they’re only catching up.
Space warfare today would largely center around satellites and the weapons that could disrupt them, given their tactical importance. There are a number of different ways that satellites can be disrupted, disabled or destroyed. Perhaps the easiest one, and the one that’s been tested in recent years, is the use of kinetic weaponry such as ballistic missiles on the ground.
Until recently, high-level military satellites in GEO have been relatively safe because they’re hard to get to, but that’s changing. The technology needed to target and track a moving target such as a satellite is all readily available and as China has demonstrated, it’s certainly doable. However, such a strike would inevitably cause thousands upon thousands of space debris, which is uncontrollable and could come back to haunt whichever country took down a satellite by damaging their own.
So people have been looking at other ways to take out satellites focusing on the electronic warfare domain. These would come in the form of about jamming radio frequencies and hacking, where one might only need to get to the ground base of the satellite to strike.
Lasers have also been heavily researched as ASAT weapons. Lasers can blind satellites, ruining their optical sensors, or, if given the right targeting and energy, disable the structure of the satellite by burning it. The U.S. military has experimenting on putting lasers on a plane and at this point, laser technology is becoming miniaturized at such a rate that mounting one to a satellite may be an option.
The U.S., Russia and China have also all been conducting research into smaller satellites that can maneuver next to other satellites. Known as remote proximity operations, or autonomous proximity operations,such tech is being explored by DARPA and by NASA, though not for weapons purposes, but instead as a method of servicing or even potentially refueling satellites. And while there are good reasons to develop this tech, for both commercial and military purposes, the capabilities of the technology again present countries with the question of where it’s offensive or defensive. While such satellites could certainly offer repair or refueled potential, it could just as easily carry a jammer, something to disable a satellites optical lens, or even a computer virus. And while most satellites have multiple layers of protections, it’s yet to be seen how those might hold up if a small sat came alongside them and docked.
Finally, the X-37B, a United States unmanned military space plane, one of two in the air force fleet, has come under greater scrutiny in recent years. It’s conducted numerous unspecified experiments in space for about the last few decades, with its most recent flight in 2017, where it lasted 700 days in orbit. This was the fourth flight for the secretive program, which managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
The dual nature of almost all space tech is what sets the stage for the suspicion and ratcheting up of tensions that could actually lead to a conflict in space. And were one to happen, the results could quite easily be devastating.
The casualties wouldn’t be immediate though. Nearly all space systems are unmanned and therefore their destruction wouldn’t result in anyone dying immediately. But the aftermath could cause chaos.
“I think it’s going to be the indirect results that would really take a toll. What would happen if we lose communications satellites, what happens if we lose GPS?” says Nacouzi. “And depending on how fast it happens, it’s not just casualties. This is a really complex question. GPS is not in low orbit but I imagine an opponent were to go after GPS because it’s one of the systems that we have. If you lose GPS your affecting the way so many things things happen.”
Nacouzi then lays out an example. If GPS was attacked, we wouldn’t have precision weapons anymore. Instead of having precision strike capability, we are going to have to use less accurate weapons, and in doing so, probably have more collateral damage in the form of civilians. What would happen if we lost weather satellites? We couldn’t predict weather events such as hurricanes or floods, which could lead to exponentially more deaths from environmental disasters. What happens when we lose intelligence collection capabilities? The U.S. and other nations are going to be at a disadvantage, and would be making decisions in a less informed environment.
Harrison offers another example, one that provides a microcosm of what would happen on a much wider scale.
“There is an example of an inadvertent attack on our space systems. There was a solar flare that interfered with the communications system back several years back, basically blocking the signal from the satellites for a period of time,” he says. “There was a group of Special Ops forces on a mission in Afghanistan and we got intelligence they were going to ambushed, but couldn’t get it to them and people died. So that’s a real world example of what happens when you can’t use satellite information to get communication through.”
The U.S. still in some ways considers a strike at their early warning satellites a sign of an imminent nuclear strike. Such a strike would, perhaps result in a cataclysmic response from the US. It can take months to figure out what happened to damaged or destroyed satellite, whether something was intentional, an accident, or merely a piece of debris. Yet the president only has a handful of minutes to decide whether to order a nuclear strike.
And were kinetic weapons to be used on a large scale, the resulting debris creation could make LEO uninhabitable for satellites. There is already a ton of space debris, and flying out of or through LEO could potentially become impossible, leaving humans land-bound, unable to enter space.
There are, if you believe states act as rational actors, certainly reasons to not do any of this. The U.S. is increasingly paranoid about space, and might retaliate disproportionately to a strike on a satellite. The U.S. has about seven more GPS satellites than it needs at any one time for the system to continue to function properly, and taking out multiple satellites is difficult, likely giving the U.S. time to respond. Civilian communications can be rerouted through other countries satellites—though not military.
In 2014, the United States opposed a draft treaty that was submitted to the United Nations by China and Russia, which would seek to enact legally binding limits on weapons in space, as concerns arose that both countries were secretly making space weapons.
According to a report from CSIS entitled Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age, “The U.S. military uses its space systems across the full spectrum of conflict, from gray zone conflicts to high-end major theater war. It is only natural to expect that adversaries will attempt to disrupt, degrade, or destroy these systems. What is different in the second space age is not that war could extend into space, but rather that a wider array of adversaries can begin to fight back against U.S. space capabilities —both from the ground and from space.”
According to the report from 1991 through 2016, 43 percent of new satellites and 39 percent of launches have been from nations other than the United States and Russia. And since 2014, the majority of satellites and launches have been from countries such as China, Japan, Europe and India. We are no longer the space leader, and in this crowded theater, there aren’t universally adopted guidelines specific to conducting or avoiding war.
The United Nations office for Outer Space Affairs states that a number of fundamental principles guide the conduct of space activities, including the notion of space as the province of all humankind, the freedom of exploration, the use of outer space by all states without discrimination and the principle of non-appropriation of outer space. There are various treaties in place that work to support this, such as the “Outer Space Treaty,” which governs the use of nuclear weapons; the "Rescue Agreement", governing the rescue and return of astronauts and objects; the “Liability Convention”, governing the liability of damages from space objects, the “Registration Convention”, on the registration of objects launched into space; and the "Moon Treaty" governing activity on the moon. All of these work to preserve the idea that space isn’t owned by anyone. But while there are laws about things like international waters, perhaps the closest parallel to what laws in space could look like, those have yet to exist.
As of 2017, an international coalition of lawyers has been working to put together guidelines as part of the Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space Project, recognizing the law traditionally lags far behind technical capability. “Are we going to get everything right? No. The best we can do is look at what is happening today, consider where we see that going, and take a best guess at what the future will look like,” Michael Schmitt, professor of International Law at the University of Exeter, told Army Technology. “Basically we want to be looking at this before it happens, because you never want to be figuring out the law when you’re faced with a crisis. At that point the lack of time, the lack of opportunity to reflect or to ask opinions—you’re going to get it wrong.”
There is nothing explicitly prohibiting conflict. And as with all things when it comes to the United Nations, the enforcement mechanism rests on states themselves and their choice to comply with treaties. But even as some groups are working to design laws about space conduct, countries themselves are undercutting them.
In 2014, the United States opposed a draft treaty that was submitted to the United Nations by China and Russia, which would seek to enact legally binding limits on weapons in space, as concerns arose that both countries were secretly making space weapons. And while the U.S. rejected the treaty out of concerns around the ability to verify its tenants, it further escalates suspicion and concerns between the three major space powers.
A parallel in some ways exists with lethal autonomous weapons systems, which the U.N. is also trying to govern as they’re developed and proliferate. These includes autonomous or semi-autonomous systems that may make life or death decisions in the future without human intervention. For example, imagine a drone that scouted, analyzed video and made a decision to launch a missile all on it’s own.
As Mary Wareham, advocacy director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, has said, “Right now, it seems like countries just aren’t sure whether it’s best for everyone to have these systems or no one to have them. But it’s not going to be the case that only a few will have them, because it never stays that way.”
Space is already militarized, and is perhaps on the verge of being weaponized, whether we want it to be or not. Conflict simmers closer to the surface than we might think. Because space is no longer just the domain of the U.S. It’s the domain of the governments and citizens from around the world. Were an accident to happen, or an attack to occur, as it’s one of the few militarily vulnerable areas the U.S. has, it’s unclear how anyone would react. As corporate satellites proliferate, with even Elon Musk requesting permission from the U.S. government to send 4,425 satellites to space, it will even become possible for non-state actors, such as a hacker, to cause a conflict by hacking into a corporate satellite and perhaps maneuvering it into another.
“This is the kind of game we are getting into," says Hitchens. "It’s almost as if a game of chicken or kids poking each other to see what the reaction to be. This is not a good thing. This is a way to start an accidental war."