Outer space is a battlefield – the Americans said some time ago, and created a brand new service branch of the armed forces – US Space Force. A similar path is also followed by other countries: from China through Russia and India to Great Britain or France. Are we to witness star wars in the future?
The logo of the new formation clearly relates to the Starfleet emblem in the Star Wars movie. The Starfleet soldiers are called ‘guardians’ – the galaxy guardians. Their ranks derive from the Navy, and not from the Air Force. In the movie, interstellar armies have naval commanders and admirals. “The PR atmosphere around the US Space Force is strongly set in pop culture. It’s a way to make this service attractive, because in reality it’s not that spectacular,” says Rafał Kopeć, PhD, the Institute of Security Sciences at Pedagogical University in Cracow, a coordinator for the cooperation program between the university and the United States Strategic Command.
We should however add that for the Americans this formation is of fundamental significance. Sufficient to say, establishing a brand new service branch of the armed forces – and that is the status of the US Space Force – was decided for the first time since 1947. In December 2019, President Donald Trump emphasized that outer space becomes “the newest theatre of war.” “In the face of serious threats to our national security, the American advantage in the outer space is absolutely necessary,” he continued.
Race from the Beginning
“This is a little step for a man, but a huge step for humankind,” said American astronaut Neil Armstrong, when on July 21, 1969 set his foot on the Moon as the first man in history. This sentence immediately became symbolic, and perfectly reflects the specificity of the Space Race in the Cold War. The USA and the Soviet Union were generously spending their money on it, and consecutively, the limits of human potential were systematically and consequently pushed.
For the superpowers, the conquest of the outer space was of not only prestigious but mainly useful significance. Sending the space rockets into outer space, they would test new technologies which could be then useful in the conflicts here on the Earth. Part of rivalry was the announced in 1983 the US Strategic Defense Initiative, which very soon was called “star wars.” It assumed that the Americans would deploy the anti-missile launchers on their territory and the platforms with laser guns in outer space. The system was to intercept nuclear enemy missiles, and destroy them outside the Earth’s atmosphere. “The program proposed by Ronald Reagan’s administration was adopted, although not without restraint. The Americans for years were developing their military space technologies, and at the same time they strongly supported the so-called idea of sanctuary. This way, outer space was to remain free from direct military operations. The United States simply had advantage in satellite support of military activities on the Earth, so in their best interest was to provide security in space infrastructure. A large group of American politicians thought that increasing military rivalry in yet another dimension is rather useless,” says Rafał Kopeć, PhD.
The collapse of the Soviet Union stopped the rivalry in outer space. The Americans ceased to treat it as an area of military significance, and soon focused on the war on terror. Before long, there was yet another twist. 2007 was an important turning point, when China, using its SC-19 ballistic missile, shot down a damaged Fengyun-1C weather satellite at the altitude of 800 km. It was the sign that the United States now had a rival who was ready for expansion into outer space, and who on top of that was intensively working on the anti-satellite missile (ASAT). Soon, China had its Strategic Support Force – a new service branch responsible for cyberspace, but also for outer space. The Space Race was launched again. “The American and Chinese rivalry is ongoing, but despite that I wouldn’t call it the Cold War rhetoric. It’s much more complex,” says Radosław Pyffel, an expert at Sobieski Institute. “Military issues very strongly intermingle with the economic ones, and interested in outer space, apart from the USA and China, also are many other countries, which are ready to enter various, sometimes surprising, alliances, in order to reach their economic goals also in this area. That’s why holding to the perspective of the Cold War when assessing the present situation in outer space can be as much useful as it can be tricky,” he adds.
For Big and Small
A number of those willing to accentuate their presence in outer space is growing with every new year. What’s more, the activity is also seen in the states which only several or several dozen years ago could have hardly be suspected of such aspirations. In March 2021, sending a scientific mission out to the circumterrestrial orbit was announced by Saudi Arabia. It will use the help of China; both countries have even signed a proper contract. Several satellites for Earth observation, including one of its own design, had already been launched by Nigeria.
Poland has also adopted the National Space Program. The plan is to develop satellites and devices they can carry up to the space. The priority tasks for 2021-2026 include building the MikroGlob System of Earth Satellite Observation as well as the National Satellite Information System (NSIS). “The goal of the first one is to develop a constellation of satellites, which will observe the Earth with optical devices, and in the future – radars. The second one is for processing thus collected information in the proper way. The NSIS will not only use the data from our own satellites, but also from the European Copernicus system and from commercial satellites,” declares Grzegorz Wrochna, Prof., President of the Polish Space Agency (Polska Agencja Kosmiczna, PAK). The implementation of these systems will be beneficial not only for multiple sectors of economy, but also for the army. The network of satellites will help for example in collecting intelligence data. The observation of outer space will also allow for early warning against any threats which could be triggered by, e.g., objects falling down to the Earth. “Our system of space security will operate autonomously, but at the same time this will be our input in allied cooperation, particularly within the European Union,” emphasizes Professor Wrochna.
The interest in exploration and strategic use of outer space among the smaller states is the result of a technological leap, which started about a decade ago. “Space technologies are now significantly cheaper. Today, not only government agencies work on these technologies, but also private companies who can sell them or be joined in cooperation,” notices Marek Czajkowski, Prof. UJ, the Department of National Security at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. The smaller states do not think about a space army yet. The bigger ones, just as the USA, openly say that rivalry in extraterrestrial space is now also of military dimension. Just as the USA, they also practically express it. Russia, as long as ten years ago, formed the Russian Aerospace Forces. Some time ago, the Space Defense Agency was also established in India, and in December last year, France decided to transform its air force into the French and Space Force. “Nowadays, aviators must look up higher, further, into outer space, a new confrontation zone of strategic location,” emphasized General Philippe Lavigne, the Chief of Staff of the new formation. In the spring this year, the UK Space Command was established, and several months ago, the Bundeswehr Space Command in Kalkar-Uedem.
Soon, in Germany, there will be one more such center. Several months ago, the defense ministries of NATO states made a decision on establishing the Space Center in Ramstein. Each of these institutions defines its goals in a similar way – it wants to properly care about their own satellites. As of May 1, 2021, on the circumterrestrial orbit, there are over 4,000 active civil and military devices. They are responsible for, among others, communication, navigation systems, and collecting weather and intelligence data. Any interference of their work can bear serious repercussions for the functioning of public institutions, armies, entire states and alliances. The risk is getting greater. First of all, due to the increasing volume of space junk, such as damaged or inactive satellites, or worn out modules of multi-stage rockets. Second, due to the purposeful activity of other states. “The activity of satellites can be disturbed by, for example, hacker’s attacks or by blinding their sensors,” explains Marek Czajkowski, Prof UJ. Space forces are to monitor the situation, collect data about potential threats, and if need arises – actively counteract them. France announced that until the end of the decade, it will acquire patrol satellites capable of deterring potential aggressors with the use of laser-beam weaponry.
Still, all above efforts are close to nothing when compared to what the United States and China are doing in space.
Star Wars? Not Really
At this point, I would describe the model of rivalry in space as 1+2,” explains Rafał Kopeć, PhD. The United States are still a leader, as their total planned spending exclusively on space activity related to security two years ago amounted to 24 billion dollars, and since then another six billion dollars was added. Equally much they spend on civil programs, although the spending limit here is not quite clear. The Americans plan to renew the flights to the Moon, and in a longer perspective, send a human out to Mars. “In the second group, in my opinion, there are China and Russia. The first state is developing really fast, so fast it will probably soon catch up with the USA in many aspects, while Russia focuses on maintaining its capabilities, and with every upcoming year, it loses its distance to the best ones,” Kopeć emphasizes. The Chinese long ago sent into extraterrestrial space the crew mission. Yang Liwei was the first to go. In July last year, the first independent mission of China to Mars started. Several months ago, onto the surface of the Red Planet landed the Chinsese rover, Zhurong, which took a series of images later transferred to the Earth. “Each year, China increases its budget on various space programs. For the Chinese, it’s an extremely important part of rivalry for world leadership. At the same time, they realize they have to hurry. Xie Tao, CEO of Chinese Commsat, which is to participate in the recently announced StarNet satcom constellation project competitive towards American StarLink, said that such investment must be conducted without delay, as the low-Earth orbit is becoming increasingly crowded. All the above opens new fields for global conflicts,” emphasizes Rafał Kopeć, PhD.
The power states all agree that they are not aiming at the militarization of outer space, but at the same time, they are expanding systems for warfare in circumterrestrial space. “This is actually nothing new,” admits Kopeć. “The United States introduced anti-satellite weapon as early as in the Cold War, but on a small scale. Within the frames of Program 437, anti-satellite weapon was developed on the basis of the Thor ballistic missiles being withdrawn from service. During 1964– 1972, two missiles were kept in readiness for launch in the base at Johnston Island in the Pacific. The Americans were however aware that this tool was not perfect. A detonation of a missile with nuclear warhead would probably destroy their satellites too. The Soviets since the 1960s had been testing the orbital weapon – satellite equipped with a homing system and a splinter warhead. They also introduced several such charges into service,” he adds. Today, the United States have at their disposal incomparably more anti-satellite weapon resources. Such tasks can be done by, for instance, SM-3 missiles deployed on the ships. In 2008, the missile launched from USS Lake Erie cruiser destroyed a damaged USA 193 radar reconnaissance satellite. The tests on new kinds of anti-satellite warfare are carried out by China and Russia, and even India: in March 2019, the missile launched by its army reached the satellite at the altitude of about 300 km over the surface of the Earth. “India has proved today that we are the space power,” announced Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Are the star wars becoming a real perspective? Experts say that probability of military confrontation in space is so far very low. “Technological potential is one. But much more important issue in this context is developing proper strategy and the attempt to answer the question: Does it actually pay off?,” explains Marek Czajkowski, Prof. UJ. Outer space as warfare environment is directly related to the Earth. From here the new forces operate, and the satellites launched out to space are to deliver information and service earthly systems. “It’s hard to imagine that any state decides to equip its forces with weapon capable of destroying enemy force operating on the Earth. The cost of building such systems would be incommensurate with the advantages. Satellite can be an easy target,” emphasizes Marek Czajkowski, Prof. UJ. It is also hard to imagine that space powers decide to launch an attack with the use of anti-satellite weapons. “Here, an obstacle is the fear of the so-called Kessler Syndrome,” notices Rafał Kopeć, PhD. “Satellite crushes could act as avalanche. Space debris caused by such attack would hit other objects, which then would be falling apart, too. A country which would decide to launch such attack, would have to be aware of potential damage of their own equipment,” he adds. The circumterrestrial orbit would become one huge, difficult to clean up, junkyard. There would be no way any new devices could be placed on the orbit, and this would paralyze not only the functioning of forces using satellite reconnaissance systems, but also daily life on the Earth. No power state can allow that. “The states will continue to test new types of weapon, but any confrontation will not go beyond hacking or blinding enemy devices,” convinces Marek Czajkowski, but then adds: “Of course, this can change soon.”
The power states are getting bolder with every new goals. The Chinese repeatedly say they tend to permanent presence on the Moon and in the circumlunar space. The Americans also intend to place their base on the Moon’s orbit. In the future, they will most probably want to acquire some raw material from space, for example develop mining industry. “It’s not out of the question that a development of new areas in space economy will lead to space colonization,” explains Kopeć. The Americans do not rule out the idea that in the future, it may be necessary to define security zones outside the Earth, which will be supervised by individual countries. “This obviously evokes numerous discussions, because The Outer Space Treaty clearly states that outer space is not subject to national appropriation,” reminds Kopeć. The exploration of more and more remote areas will probably lead to the autonomization of outer space as an operational space. When it happens, soldiers will probably colonize combat spaceships flying between the galactics. Sounds like a science-fiction story? That’s exactly how the stories about a man landing on the Moon must have sounded some hundred years ago.
Co-Author: Magdalena Miernicka
Rafał Kopeć, PhD, the Institute of Security Sciences at Pedagogical University: “The Americans for years were developing their military space technologies, and at the same time they strongly supported the so-called idea of sanctuary. This way, outer space was to remain free from direct military operations.”
Grzegorz Wrochna, Prof., President of the Polish Space Agency (PAK): “Our system of space security will operate autonomously, but at the same time this will be our input in allied cooperation.”
The Space Race
As the beginning of the outer space exploration one may consider the year of 1944, when the tested by Germany V2 rocket went beyond the so-called Kármán line, i.e. the agreed borderline between earthly atmosphere and outer space. It stretches at the altitude of 100 km. The rocket went up 76 km higher. In 1946, within the frames of American RAND military project, a report was developed on building an experimental spaceship going around the Earth. The authors of the report were convinced that this fact would affect the USA’s future more seriously than the invention of atomic bomb. However, the Soviets were first. In October 1957, they launched on the circumterrestrial orbit an artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1. This date is often recognized as the start of the Space Race between the two superpowers. The Americans soon responded with their Corona program. It was about placing in outer space intelligence satellites, which were photographing the territories of communist states.
Another breakthrough point was in 1961, when the first human, Yuri Gagarin, journeyed into outer space. Four years later, other Soviet cosmonaut – Alexei Leonov – became the first person to conduct a spacewalk. Finally, in 1969 another barrier of human possibilities was broken by the Americans who sent a team mission to the Moon. The first to set his feet on the Silver Globe was Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 Commander. A moment later, Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot, did the same. After them, on the Moon landed five more American missions – the last one in 1972. At the same time, the work was ongoing to develop a weapon capable of hitting targets on the Moon. The first tests on ASAT were conducted in 1958, when during a simulated attack the Americans launched from aircraft the Bold Orion ballistic missile onto Explorer 6 satellite.
autor zdjęć: Shutterstock, Nicholas Pilch / US Air Force, European Space Agency