A silent military contest is unfolding in orbit above planet Earth as international powerhouses fight to develop and protect their own vital satellites.
Satellite warfare sounds a lot like a science fiction novel or a classic piece of James Bond cinema; however, it is very much a new normal driven by the rising demand and declining cost of space-based services.
Space is no longer a one-horse race – the historic victories of the United States of America’s space program over the Soviet Union during the Cold War are already long gone.
Earth’s orbit has become decidedly crowded with independently launched spacecraft from China, the US, Iran, Israel, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the European Space Agency, as well as more than 50 countries and multinational organisations with space assets.
Satellite launch services, communications, and navigation are now readily available among international players and commercial aerospace operators. That monumental leap in technology now presents an opportunity to develop and utilise anti-satellite weaponry against a rapidly increasing number of “targets” in orbit (more than 8,300 active satellites as of 3 January this year).
Further obscuring the lines between military and civilian application is the development of dual-use technology where equipment such as robotic arms can be used to inspect and repair decommissioned satellites or alternatively for more secret strategic intent (hacking, destruction or obstruction purposes).
The US has already outlined its own goals to prevent the militarisation of space in the Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellites report, published by the US Department of Defense in September 2023.
“In addition to developing counterspace weapons to threaten US use of space, China is developing and rapidly growing its ability to leverage space to enhance its own combat power to fight and win a modern military conflict,” the report said.
“Increasingly sophisticated and proliferated space-based ISR networks and improved command and control systems increase the precision and accuracy of missile systems the PRC would employ to deter and counter US forward presence and operations, especially in the Western Pacific.
“To preserve US freedom of operations and support deterrence, the United States must be prepared to deny adversaries the ability to utilise space capabilities and services to attack the Joint Force and prevent the United States from advancing critical national security objectives.
“The department will leverage a breadth of options across all operational domains to do so. As potential adversaries increase their use of space-based services to support their combat capability, operations to deny hostile use of space could reduce an adversary’s ability to conduct attacks against the United States and its allies and partners.
“Joint Force space operations could deny an adversary’s space and counterspace capabilities and services using a variety of reversible and irreversible means, reducing the effectiveness and lethality of adversary forces across all domains.
“Operations to deny adversary hostile use of space could originate in any domain and target on-orbit, ground, cyber, and/or link segments to reduce the full spectrum of an adversary’s ability to exploit the space domain.”
What is the risk and threat from space-based weaponry?
Warning bells started ringing in December 2018 with the release of the Competing in Space unclassified report detailed by the US National Air and Space Intelligence Center.
The 25-page report outlined developing trends in the space domain and growing challenges posed by foreign space assets.
“Both China and Russia are developing new space capabilities to achieve military goals and reduce their reliance on US space systems,” the report said.
“Through military reforms, China and Russia have organised new military forces devoted to the employment of space and counterspace capabilities and regularly integrate them into military exercises.
“Meanwhile, these countries continue to develop, test, and proliferate sophisticated anti-satellite weapons to hold US and allied space assets at risk.”
The report also outlined that military and civilian systems currently used by the United States and allies are heavily dependent on space-based capabilities including communications, early warning, surveillance and navigation satellites, and that efforts were already underway by adversaries to outmanoeuvre or deny those capabilities.
In addition, the report detailed that those disruptive efforts were not being mitigated by international agreements or legal frameworks.
“Over the past decade, international forums have pursued legal frameworks for responsible conduct in space. To date, the international community has not achieved a global consensus on new laws or norms despite efforts to increase transparency in space operations, avoid deliberate debris-generating events (eg, anti-satellite weapon tests, orbital collisions), and prevent the placement of weapons in space,” the report said.
“China and Russia continue to endorse a draft ‘Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects’.
“While this draft promotes ‘no first placement’ of weapons in space, it fails to address a variety of anti-satellite weapons and lacks meaningful verification mechanisms.
“Furthermore, despite publicly insisting that space is a peaceful domain, these competitors are continuing development of several anti-satellite weapons.”
What are the likely forms those anti-satellite weapons might take?
Space-based anti-satellite systems could likely utilise techniques such as radio frequency jammers, directed energy, lasers, chemical sprayers, net or grappling equipment, microwave devices or good ol’ fashion kinetic impact or kinetic kill vehicles.
Grappling satellites are nothing new in the aerospace technology industry. A Chinese Shijian-21 space debris mitigation satellite rendezvoused and docked with a non-operational Chinese Beidou-2 G2 navigation satellite in December 2021.
The Shijian-21 then towed the weather satellite out of its geostationary orbit and released it into a disposal orbit, according to tracking data from US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron.
In April 2018, academics from the University of Adelaide, UNSW Canberra, University of Exeter, and University of Nebraska College of Law evaluated the likelihood of space-based conflict.
“Conflict in outer space is not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’,” said Professor Melissa de Zwart, then-University of Adelaide dean of the Adelaide Law School.
“However, the legal regime that governs the use of force and actual armed conflict in outer space is currently very unclear.
“The few international treaties that deal with outer space provide very little regulation of modern space activities, including both military and commercial uses of space.
“Therefore, we need to cast our gaze more widely in our approach to determining what laws are applicable in space.”
Those legal frameworks still remain unclear in 2024, as a “No first placement of weapons in outer space” document featuring four draft resolutions and a draft decision currently sits before the United Nations assembly.
In reality, the international rule book is still being written well after the horse has bolted. A new space race to develop anti-satellite warfare and satellite protection is already here and it’s only getting started.
Adam is a journalist who has worked for more than 40 prestigious media brands in the UK and Australia. Since 2005, his varied career has included stints as a reporter, copy editor, feature writer and editor for publications as diverse as Fleet Street newspaper The Sunday Times, fashion bible Jones, media and marketing website Mumbrella as well as lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Woman’s Weekly, Men’s Health and Loaded. He joined Momentum Media in early 2020 and currently writes for Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.
Receive the latest developments and updates on Australia’s space industry direct to your inbox. Subscribe today to Space Connect here.