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Star Wars: The Weaponization of Space

Technology Policy Brief #60 | By: Henry Lenard | August 6, 2021

Header photo taken from: military.com

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Photo taken from: Sputnik News

Policy Summary

Even as space commerce soars to new heights, it appears the world continues to gird itself for the inevitability of warfare in the heavens.

At the official opening of the new UK Space Command on July 30, two top British military officers directly criticized China and Russia for their “reckless” behavior in space, such as using weapons to destroy satellites. That activity has left a trail of dangerous space debris in Earth’s orbit.

The two commanders also left open the possibility that the UK could develop its own weapons to defend assets in space for the first time.

“I am not ruling out what we might do in the future, but we don’t want to weaponize space,” General Sir Patrick Sanders  of Strategic Command, told Sky News.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the head of the Royal Air Force, added: “When diplomacy has run its course and we find ourselves in a global conflict, it might not start in space, but I am in no doubt it will move very quickly to space, and it will most likely be won or lost in space.”

The UK Space Command, which will take charge of all military work involving space, is now considered a domain of operations alongside land, sea, air and cyberspace. The new organization will bolster the UK’s ability to track threats in space, from space junk to deliberate attacks in coordination..

The move follows the creation of the U.S. Space Force (USSF) two years ago as the newest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. It was established December 20, 2019 with enactment of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

USSF organizes, trains and equips space forces to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force.

Photo taken from: Born to Engineer

It was established within the Department of the Air Force, giving the Secretary of the Air Force overall responsibility for the USSF, under the guidance and direction of the Secretary of Defense. Additionally, a four-star general known as the Chief of Space Operations serves as the senior military member of the USSF and is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The bill establishing the Space Force passed Congress in 2019 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Several Democrats in both the House and Senate also crossed the aisle to form bipartisan Space Force caucuses in each chamber.

The importance of a military branch dedicated to the defense of space was underscored by the release on February 11, 2019 by the Defense Intelligence Agency of an unclassified report on U.S. space capabilities. That report identified threats posed to our space assets by four key adversaries: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

Both China and Russia, according to the DIA, are developing military capabilities in space, from laser weapons to ground-based anti-satellite missiles. DIA’s report said China “is second only to the United States in the number of operational satellites.”

To counter that threat, the USSF is planning secret satellite dish bases in the UK, Australia and Texas to protect satellites from Russian and Chinese weapons. The Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability system will be able to spot objects the size of footballs from 22,400 miles away. It will monitor the skies for both suspicious activity and dangerous space debris. It is expected to be operational by 2027.

Policy Analysis

Playing out against the backdrop of the Cold War, the “Space Race” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union always had a military component to it.

It had its origins in the ballistic missile-based nuclear arms race between the two adversaries following World War II. Both countries saw the opportunity to demonstrate technological achievements in space as necessary for national security and part of the ideological symbolism of the era.

Soon after the dawn of the Space Race, with the launch of the first satellites in 1957, the United Nations took the lead in formulating rules governing space activities. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was set up by the General Assembly in 1959 to govern the exploration and use of space for the benefit of all humanity: for peace, security and development.

COPUOS was instrumental in the creation of the five treaties and principles of outer space: the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1968 Rescue Agreement, the 1972 Liability Convention, the 1975 Registration Convention and the 1979 Moon Agreement.

Photo taken from: US Mission to the International Organizations in Vienna

The Outer Space Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law and was open for signature on January 27, 1967 and entered into force on October 10, 1967. As of February 2021, 111 countries are parties to the treaty, while another 23 have signed the treaty but have not completed ratification.

Among the Outer Space Treaty’s main points are that it prohibits the placing of nuclear weapons in space, limits the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only, and establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations, but that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.

Being primarily an arms-control treaty for the peaceful use of outer space, it also expressly prohibits the use of celestial bodies for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications. However, the treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit, and thus some highly destructive attack tactics, such as kinetic bombardment, are still potentially allowable. The treaty explicitly forbids any government from claiming a celestial body such as the Moon or a planet.

Photo taken from: Department of Defense

Outer space has since been used as an operating location for military satellites and some ballistic missiles pass through outer space during their flight.

A military satellite is mostly used for communication, navigation and intelligence gathering. Some satellites were also developed for early warning of approaching missiles. Due to secrecy and some countries having GPS satellites serving both military and civilian use, it is difficult to know the exact number of military satellites in space.

Tabulated from various sources, the U.S. has an estimated 200-250 military satellites, and Russia and China approximately 200 each. Other countries, such as France, Germany, Israel, Italy, India, the UK, Turkey, Mexico, Columbia, Spain, Denmark, Japan, Algeria, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Taiwan and Chile have less than 10 each.

China’s stated goal is to become a space power and recently designated space as a military domain. Pentagon officials have grown increasingly worried about the vulnerability of spacecraft to anti-satellite weapons as Beijing’s space programs continue to mature.

In June 2020, then Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper released the Defense Space Strategy, which identifies how DoD will advance space power to be able to compete, deter and win in a complex security environment characterized by great power competition.

“The Defense Space Strategy is the next step to ensure space superiority and to secure the Nation’s vital interests in space now and in the future,” said Esper.

Through the strategy, DoD will advance space power through three objectives: Maintain Space Superiority; Provide Space Support to National, Joint, and Combined Operations; and Ensure Space Stability.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

U.S. Space Force:

https://www.spaceforce.mil/

U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency 2019 ‘Challenges to Security in Space’ report:

https://www.dia.mil/Portals/27/Documents/News/Military%20Power%20Publications/Space_Threat_V14_020119_sm.pdf

United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space:

https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/copuos/index.html

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