Captain Kirk ordering a torpedo barrage against a Klingon warship; rebel X-wing pilots firing their cannons into the Death Star; Han Solo nimbly dodging imperial fighters’ laser fire as he flies around asteroids—space warfare has been lighting up cinema and TV screens for decades. But it’s not just a sci-fi movie trope anymore: The U.S. Space Force chief, General John Raymond, warned a few weeks ago that war in Earth orbit could happen in the near future, and that if it does, the toll on Earthly civilization would be steep.
“We want to deter that from happening. However, if deterrence fails, a war that begins or extends into space will be fought over great distances at tremendous speeds,” said General Raymond, chief of space operations, in an online presentation for the 2020 Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference.
He announced new measures the nascent Space Force is undertaking to be better prepared. These include plans for a new acquisition system for adopting emerging private-sector space technologies more efficiently; and new international partnerships with government and military agencies of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom for coordinating satellite surveillance operations and sharing satellite data.
“I am not confident that we can achieve victory or even compete in a modern conflict, without space power,” he said. “Today the Space Force is answering that call to compete, forging a warfighting service that is always above.”
Lasers, Plasma Guns, and More
You might be wondering: What would a war in space entail? What, exactly, is General Raymond worried about?
It won’t be quite like the movies. Don’t count on space fighter pilots suiting up and conducting sorties in Earth orbit, or a super-armed space station blowing up planets at will. And while light sabers may look cool, the Space Force has not made any plans for outfitting its personnel with them.
But don’t rule out space-based missiles. The same goes for spacecraft-wrecking laser cannons and battle robots. Credible intel suggests that China, Russia, and other adversaries have been working on each of these and more.
Chinese Space Presence
In 2016, China launched the Aolong-1, a robotic spacecraft with a moving arm, ostensibly to clean up orbiting space debris by grabbing it and flinging it back down to Earth. But a Chinese researcher quoted by the South China Morning Post suggested that space-junk removal may not be the Aolong-1’s only purpose: In wartime, it could grab and toss enemy nations’ satellites, as well.
A 2018 report published by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission described a few more tools in China’s anti-satellite arsenal:
- “Directed energy” weapons—i.e., lasers. China test-cased this capability in 2006, when it beamed a “range-finding” laser into space and actually blinded a U.S. satellite caught in the beam’s path.
- “Radio frequency weapons” that beam high-powered microwaves at satellites to fry their electric components. These could be fired from armed satellites in space or from ground arrays down on Earth.
- “suicide satellites” that deliberately crash kamikaze-style into enemy satellites.
Satellites will be a focal point in any near-future space war, since they’re instrumental to military and civilian life down on Earth. A Chinese attack that disables U.S. military satellites could immobilize U.S. forces, sabotage their communications with each other, and blind them to Chinese forces’ movements. And a successful hit on a civilian satellite could wipe out Internet access and communications networks across hundreds of miles of U.S. territory.
Incidentally, China now has more satellites in orbit than any nation on earth except the United States: 363 to our 1,327 as of March 2020, as reported by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Russian Menace
China isn’t the only one who could do our satellites harm. In July of this year, U.S. Space Command detected a Russian satellite, Cosmos 2543, conducting an “on-orbit weapons test.” A mysterious object that looked like a missile ejected from the satellite and zinged past another Russian satellite. It would take no major stretch to imagine this projectile being lobbed at a U.S. spacecraft and rendering it kaput.
Russia is also developing the capability to shoot down satellites via airplane-mounted lasers, according to a 2018 report by Russian news agency Interfax. The report said that aircraft equipped with this laser would work in tandem with ground systems as an interconnected “anti-satellite complex.”
Not all space weaponry needs to be up in space. In 2007, China test-launched a ballistic missile, the SC-19, from a ground system here on Earth. The missile successfully hit a retired Chinese weather satellite up in orbit. Successful tests of another anti-satellite missile, the DN-3, took place in 2018. In the last two years, the Chinese military has been training specialized units to use these and other anti-satellite missiles against enemy space hardware, and U.S. intelligence warns that they are now capable of targeting U.S. satellites up in space.
Many existing ballistic missiles made for missile attacks down on Earth’s surface can be repurposed into space-bound anti-satellite ones, according to U.S. defense experts, who say that it all it takes is some body modifications and software reprogramming. They expect China to upgrade much of its existing ballistic missile inventory for this very purpose.
Ground systems can also strike satellites with cyber-attacks. A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report published in 2019 warns that China and Russia are both developing “jamming” attacks that flood a target satellite’s sensors with radio signals. These attacks don’t necessarily destroy the satellite, but they can temporarily shut down its communications with the ground, causing major interruptions to GPS or any other network systems interfacing with it.
Meanwhile, in Iran
Even Iran could pose threats to U.S. space assets. While Iran reportedly doesn’t have the technology needed to launch space-based missiles or deploy armed space satellites, the Iranian government has been investing substantially in developing GPS jammers and cyber-attack capabilities to bring down U.S. satellites, according to the DIA. Some intelligence suggests Iran might already have a laser capable of disabling satellites. And if such a system doesn’t exist, there’s no guarantee Iran won’t develop it in the future.
The United States has avoided all-out war with China, Russia, and (for the most part) with Iran for the last 67 years, and we could very well keep the peace for many more years to come. U.S. defense officials certainly hope so. But they know that a workable national security strategy calls for us to prepare for all possibilities, including—especially—the worst-case ones. We must be ready to defend our nation and its interests from all potential threats. And in years to come, that will include threats from space.