There was always a strange disconnect between space and the battlefield in Star Wars. Things whizzed around amongst the stars, zapping each other with handy, colour-coded laser beams, and people, droids and sentient teddy bears milled about on the ground, shooting at the enemy (or in the third case, chasing them with sticks) unaided. Not much that happened above the planets in the galaxy far, far away seemed to have a big effect on the ground war (with the obvious exception of the Death Star), and barring a lone shield generator in Return of the Jedi, the same was true vice versa.
But in the galaxy closer to home, at least, the heavens are becoming progressively more important to the wars we fight on the surface. The Cold War nightmare of superweapons in space never came to pass, thanks to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which barred signatories from dangling weapons of mass destruction over the cities of their adversaries from satellites. But what filled the void was no less significant: an entire warfighting doctrine that was, especially for the West, increasingly dependent on unimpeded access to a globe-spanning satellite network.
Take drones, for example. The US has thrown billions at its various unmanned aerial vehicle programmes – from the Predators in the early years of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the Reapers that now stalk enemies wherever a conflict flares up. All are operated from ground stations – usually on different continents – via satellite.
Or take the GPS satellite network. That same system that leads you down bendy roads on the Christmas exodus also guides not just troops on the ground, but the GPS-guided bombs Western militaries in particular use to precision-target enemies. Without the GPS network, reliably hitting an IS stronghold – rather than the hospital next to it – becomes substantially more difficult. Even if the weapons can be targeted using backup redundancy systems, developed militaries rely on satellites to provide surveillance and communications. It’s no use being able to see the target if you can’t communicate its position to your pilots.
Satellites, then, are a linchpin of modern warfighting.
So what’s the problem?
In a word: vulnerability.
“We are more vulnerable in the West, because we rely on satellites a lot,” says Bhupendra Jasani, visiting Professor at King’s College London’s War Studies Department. “The Russians and the Chinese probably don’t [have such a reliance], simply because of their capabilities. Even now, if you compare [the US] with the Russian ability to see objects [from space], the Americans can see a ten centimetre object from 200km, which the Russians may not be able to do – their optics are not that good. And the Chinese [optics even] less so.”
The difficulty is that Russia and China both know this, and in a space war scenario would see Western reliance on satellites - whatever its benefits - as an exploitable advantage. As with cyber-warfare, the irony is that the countries that are the best networked are also the most vulnerable. And while it would be comforting to think that things like drones were protected through well defended military satellite networks, the truth is more unsettling.
“The Chinese have, with their doctrine on information warfare, identified that the US’ dependence on network-centric warfare is very much dependent on space-based assets,” says Elizabeth Quintana, senior research fellow and director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “Not just military space-based assets, but commercial ones as well. Various US officials have said in the past that 80 per cent of their military capability was based on commercial SATCOM [satellite communications]. I have heard very recently a senior US DOD official say that 90 per cent of its military capability is now dependent on commercial satellite communications.
“Suffice it to say that the majority of US [military] communications are conducted over commercial networks.”
Traditionally, exploiting this vulnerability has meant developing anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles. During the Cold War, the US and Russia both demonstrated their ability to shoot down satellites with ground-launched missiles (and in the US case, with missiles launched from fighter jets flying at high altitude). In 2007, China upset every spacefaring nation in the world by demonstrating its own ASAT missile, which it used to destroy one of its own weather satellites, creating a cloud of around 950 pieces of debris, posing a persistent threat to future space ventures. The launch was intended as a warning, a demonstration of capability – but the real lesson was just how devastating the long-term consequences of a full-scale attack on a satellite network could be for everyone.
How to break a satellite
If you absolutely have to destroy another country’s satellite today, ASAT missiles are still your best bet. Jasani tells us that the US, at least, has the capability to destroy every significant satellite in both the Russian and Chinese military arsenal. But ASATs are also the products of a different time, when the world was more concerned about avoiding nuclear annihilation than whether or not delivery men could get Google Maps to work. Blowing up satellites – particularly if two warring counties are doing it at once – would have a potentially catastrophic impact on developed nations’ civilian populations. The resulting whirlwind of orbiting shrapnel could create a domino effect, destroying satellite after satellite, turning space into a perpetually shifting minefield.
But while it’s comparatively difficult (or at least expensive) to destroy a satellite from Earth, it’s potentially much easier if you already have your own hardware in space.
Putting something into space is no longer the challenge it was. The US and Russia have been doing it since the late-50’s. Universities are doing it. Richard Branson is doing it. And that creates a problem: how can you tell which objects being blasted into space really are just science experiments, or weather satellites, or vanity projects, and which are weapons?
In practice, you can’t, for two reasons. One: countries that launch things into space are often secretive about their payloads. The US, for example, has been sending its two X-37B space planes regularly into orbit, while maintaining a distinct caginess about what either is actually doing. Russia and China both regularly send satellites into orbit, which occasionally do suspicious things. Without any system of mutual inspection, as you might have with WMD (inspectors can’t just pop up into space and have a look), everyone more or less has to take everyone else’s word for it that their operations in space are benign.
Two: straightforward weapon platforms aren't the pressing issue. The trickier problem is one of what’s called ‘dual-use’ technology – something that has a perfectly legitimate, peaceful use in day-to-day life, but which could potentially be used for something nasty. For example, some technologies from agriculture or the biosciences designed to cultivate crops or make medicine might also be used to produce biological weapons. If you suspect a state of buying your legitimate technologies for these sorts of nefarious purposes (agricultural and medical ambitions aside), you probably shouldn’t sell it to them.
But in space, almost everything is dual-use. A repair robot with an extendable arm could just as easily use its arm to bend a broken antenna back into place as it could tear a functioning one clean off. You might not even need the arm – if you really need to crash another country’s communications satellite, you could, in a pinch, just redirect one of yours into its path and let physics do the rest. Of course, if questioned, your official explanation would be that your space robot is up there doing repairs, or something else useful, like removing orbital debris. But in a conflict, with a bit of ingenuity, that same device could be turned into a weapon.
“Both the Russians and the Chinese have conducted tests manoeuvring satellites, which has got the US very worried,” Quintana says. “You could feasibly argue that they are demonstrations of debris removal. You could also feasibly argue that they are demonstrations of ASAT capabilities. And maybe they are both. It may be that it is a debris removal capability, clearly just demonstrated to scare the others. ‘Don’t mess with us because we could also mess with you’.”
So Why Won’t It Happen?
Well, never say never. You might not make to the end of this paragraph before the sky lights up and the world goes dark. But there are some good reasons to be optimistic that won’t happen.
One reassuring factor is that the more other countries develop their militaries, the more dependent on networks they become as well. China is developing its own drone programme, and so is Russia, which will both presumably be dependent on satellites to operate. And the more their (and our) economies and business interests develop, the more everyone will rely on satellites to further their economic ambitions. In the event that countries were to start knocking out each other’s satellites on a large scale, the consequences across the board – for everyone – would be disastrous.
It would also be expensive in the short term. Getting things into orbit – peaceful or otherwise – still isn’t cheap, which is why only a handful of countries regularly do so. And if you want to blow up a network of many satellites today (as you would have to in a first strike, to ensure other satellites couldn’t pick up the slack), launching small satellites or missiles into orbit is the only practical way to do that – arming satellites with their own weaponry just isn’t financially or technologically feasible on a grand scale. We are, happily, a long way from a Death Star.
“I don’t think [a large first strike] would be financially too costly [if you’re] thinking about kinetic energy weapons and the air-based or ground-based lasers,” says Jasani. “It’s viable. But if you say, ‘I’m going to put an [ASAT] weapon [permanently] in orbit’, we are then getting into very expensive and very complicated technology. So my guess is that in the foreseeable future, what we are going to focus on are the kinetic energy weapons and possibly lasers that could blind satellites or affect, for example, the solar panels. That kind of technology will be delivered in the foreseeable future, rather than having lasers in orbit [like] the Star Wars kind of thing.”
But there’s another, possibly even more persuasive reason that a kinetic war in space may not happen: it’s just so much easier – and less damaging – to mess with satellites without getting close to them.
“Jamming from the ground is not difficult,” says Quintana. “If you look at the Middle East, pick a country where there’s a crisis and the chances are that the military in that country has tried to jam a commercial satellite to try and avoid satellite TV channels broadcasting anti-government messages.”
“My guess is that by the time we are ready for space warfare, I think you may not be banking on your hit-to-kill ASATs, but more on [non-destructive] high-energy laser-based systems,” Jasani agrees. “[Space debris] affects all sides, not just the attacked side. The attacking side will have its own satellites in orbit, which might be affected by the debris [of its own attack].”
And if you really need to remove an enemy’s satellite coverage, you can always try to flatten or hack the control stations on the ground, leaving the satellites talking with no-one to listen.
“I don’t think physically blowing things up from the ground is something that people are looking at again,” says Quintana. “Countries and governments try to find means other than physical conflict to achieve their strategic ends. So as space becomes more commercial and more civilian and as more scientific satellites go up, then you’ll find that states will not seek to directly attack each other, but will seek other means.
“It may just be that they will try to cyber-attack the satellites and take them over, which has been done in the past. It’s much easier to physically or cyber-attack the ground control station than it is to attack the satellite itself - so why would you not look to do that as a first port of call and achieve the same ends?”
Ultimately, then, what might keep us safe from a war in space isn't the horror of explosives in orbit, but a question of cost and convenience.