When historians of the future chart humanity’s military misadventures in space, they might conclude they began in earnest last month. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the world’s big powers are ploughing serious resources into weaponry, systems and, in the case of the United States, a new military branch intended to fight outside Earth’s atmosphere.
On March 22, India announced the highest profile test of an anti-satellite weapon in more than a decade. Earlier in the month, the Pentagon announced a 20-percent uplift in military space spending as part of its 2020 budget, asking the US Congress for $14.1 billion.
While the lion’s share of that will go on the US Air Force and other existing agencies, next year should also see the first personnel join the initial headquarters of a new US Space Force. Proposals unveiled on March 1 show $2 billion earmarked for the fledgling military service over the next five years, going from a few hundred personnel next year to 15,000 by 2025.
The idea of a new military service was widely mocked when US President Donald Trump suggested it in a speech a year ago. But while snide “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” references still pepper articles on the subject, it increasingly feels like an idea whose time has come. Indeed, talk of its creation may well have further spurred a growing arms race.
An arena for international cooperation for decades, wider space policy is now also a matter of international rivalry and political posturing. On March 26, US Vice President Mike Pence told the National Space Council that Washington was in a new space race with Moscow and Beijing, pledging to put Americans back on the moon within five years. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed his country’s anti-satellite test elevated it to the rank of “space superpower”.
It’s enough to worry diplomats everywhere, particularly in countries whose economies depend on space and satellites but now fear being left behind, or are suffering damage from the acts of others. The European Union called last week for a new arms treaty that, among other things, would manage the risk of orbital debris.
The US military Space Surveillance Network already tracks some 20,000 items in low Earth orbit larger than a softball that could damage the satellite networks on which the world increasingly depends. Some 3,000 of those stem from a single 2007 Chinese test strike on an old weather satellite. This is one reason such tests have become taboo, particularly in higher orbits.
India says its scientists worked hard to minimise debris, conducting the strike at a much lower altitude, so that any debris would fall back to us within weeks although some experts said it could take much longer. The Indian test took place at a similar height to a 2008 US missile strike on a malfunctioning reconnaissance satellite, an operation which US officials said was necessary to avoid the dangers of an uncontrolled re-entry.
International distrust is invariably high when it comes to such sophisticated, high-tech weapons, and Russia and China have always had suspicions that the 2008 US strike concealed an anti-satellite missile test.
Other nations may also have continued to test such weapons without fanfare. In 2016, Mallory Stewart, who was at the time Deputy Assistant Secretary for Emerging Security Challenges and Defense Policy at the US State Department, told an event in Washington that China had conducted further anti-satellite tests in 2010, 2013 and 2014 but had minimised the debris.
While there seems little doubt India shot down a satellite last month, it’s true focus may have been testing systems to shoot down Pakistani and other enemy ballistic missiles, some experts suggest.
That would not be a huge surprise. Missile defence – specifically, shooting down Russian ballistic missiles in the event the Cold War turned hot – was at the heart of the Ronald Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, the costly programme some credit with bankrupting Russia and ending the Cold War. Since the 1960s, long-range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles have maintained the balance of terror between the world’s big powers, and any system that could reliably block their flight could upend the global balance.
While much remains secret about subsystems, what is not in doubt is that they are getting better. Israel’s “Iron Dome” rockets have shown remarkable success against small missiles fired from Gaza, and the next generation of defence rockets aim to do the same against Intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The speeds and distances required to intercept missiles or satellites are vast – one reason the US Strategic Defense Initiative was eventually abandoned. But US worries over states such as Iran and North Korea, and technical breakthroughs in rockets, sensors and crunching data, are changing that. On March 25, the US Missile Defense Agency, whose mission has long been to develop effective missile defence for the US mainland, announced the most successful kill so far of a ballistic missile by ground-based interceptors.
Both Moscow and Beijing have long relied on their ability to inflict nuclear horror on the United States – and vice versa – and the thought they might lose the ability to do so clearly alarms them. Many see such worries at the heart of Russia’s recent development of a host of new weapons which Moscow hopes could beat any US interceptors. They range from ultra fast hypersonic cruise missiles to the giant Sarmat-2 rocket, which some reports suggest is able to strike any point of the planet from any direction to evade US missile defences.
They also include Moscow’s “doomsday” Poseidon underwater drone, which the Kremlin says could unleash nuclear warheads at the continental shelf to produce tsunamis, something US missile defences would be powerless to stop.
New weapons have already shredded one Cold War arms control deal, the intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement that both Washington and Moscow withdrew from last year. If the race for ever more powerful weapons now extends beyond the sky, there is no telling where it might end.