Star Wars—Fiction or reality?
Gigantic space stations glide through space at the speed of light. Stationed on board are large crews—some humans, some extraterrestrials. Equipped with numerous advanced weapons systems, they battle with other space stations or fight to conquer entire planets. “Star Wars” has for decades been part and parcel of the science fiction genre in both books and films. It is, however, light years away from reality.
Yet even serious experts like US strategist George Friedman, former head of the private intelligence and forecasting company “Stratfor”, predicted in 2012 that, by 2050, the United States would have three “battlestars” orbiting Earth in outer space to ensure its global dominance. These space stations would serve as command platforms and be equipped with multiple missiles and anti-satellite weapons. Turning his attention to Japan, Friedman imagined the technologically advanced country would be trying to attack the “battlestars” with its own stealth missiles, approaching undetectable by radar from positions on the far side of the Moon. Friedman’s vision: “Just as the first half of the 20th century was the introduction of air power, the first half of the 21st century will be the extension of the currently primitive state of space power. The creation of a new sphere of warfare represents historical continuity.“ Such prophecies are, however, highly controversial, especially because manned space travel remains extremely expensive and difficult. Nevertheless, it is true that space has already begun to play a growing role in wars on Earth. The further militarization of space is a real possibility in view of the technological developments and military strategies of, in particular, the world’s leading space power, the United States.
Is space being militarized?
So far, at least, space has remained free of active weapons. There are currently no systems in orbit that could attack targets in space or on Earth. Nevertheless, space has already been militarized in the sense that satellites are of decisive importance for spying and reconnaissance, for detecting missile launches, for navigating precision weapons and for rapidly communicating between military units. This applies in particular to the United States with its desired capability of taking and coordinating military action in every part of the world. Alongside Russia and China, other states such as India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, as well as European countries like Germany, France and the United Kingdom, are also deploying satellite technology with military applications. These technologies and satellites are often “dual use”, i.e. combining civil and military functions.
The military systems stationed in space have so far exclusively served to support and optimize combat operations on Earth. In this sense, they only have “passive” functions and do not strictly count as “weapons”.
It, however, makes them potential targets. Not only the United States but also Russia and China already have the capability to shoot down satellites in space with Earth-based missiles, thus crippling important satellite-dependent systems, including communications. Indeed, there are other states that already possess or are developing missile technology that in principle will be capable of knocking out satellites from Earth. Moreover, the nuclear-weapon powers have long had to the capability to detonate nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and thus destroy all the satellites in a wide radius around the detonation point. The United States and the Soviet Union performed such tests back in the period 1958 to 1962. The reason why such weapon systems have not been put in orbit is that they would cause too much “collateral damage” through the unavoidable destruction of one’s own satellites.
Although the Soviet Union, later Russia, developed missile defence systems limited to protecting Moscow, these systems are thought to include missiles equipped with nuclear devices designed to destroy an incoming missile by means of a nuclear explosion in space.
Military strategies for space
Novel technologies are creating new options for the military operations in space. Military leaders and the politicians responsible for national security in all the world’s major powers envisage a key role for space in any future wars. The United States, as the world’s leading technological and military power, is far ahead of all the other nations in this respect. And the United States is determined to preserve this lead. This stance was summed up by Gregory L. Schulte, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, as follows: “We are acting to protect our strategic advantage in space” [(cited in Cheryl Pellerin (American Forces Press Service): “DOD Space Program Broadens Industry, Foreign Partnerships”, Washington, 19. July 2011.). The National Space Strategy, a document adopted by US President Barack Obama in 2010, declares that the security of US-American satellites is integral to the national interests of the United States. Demanding effective deterrence of any attack on those satellites, it says that America must, “if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them” (President of the United States of America. 2010. National Space Policy of the United States of America, p. 7). A military strategy document drawn up by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013 defines their objective as “space control” through “offensive and defensive operations”, which can mean “operations to ensure freedom of action in space for the United States and its allies and, when directed, deny an adversary freedom of action in space.”
Space militarization: Research programmes and technologies
For the United States and, probably after a certain delay, other space powers, a number of technology options can be considered when developing active space weapons. Research into these weapons is already taking place. Most of them are intended as dual-use technologies.
Microsatellites and nanosatellites: Intensive work is being done on improving the manoeuvrability of satellites and on developing smaller and lighter satellites. This can be useful when, for instance, it comes to avoiding the increasing amount of space junk orbiting the Earth or at least minimizing the surface on which it will impact. Yet technologies of this kind can also be deployed as “killer satellites” that can smash enemy satellites through kinetic impaction or explosive charge, blind them or even manipulate them in some way.
Spaceships: Unmanned, reusable spaceships will make it possible to release satellites in space, repair them with the help of robots, collect defective models and return them to Earth. Yet this type of spaceship can equally be used to destroy other satellites, hijack them and release its own killer satellites. The United States has conducted several successful trials with its unmanned space plane X-37B. In 2012, it was successfully returned to Earth after 469 days in space. Significantly, this advanced R&D project was not commissioned by America’s civil space agency NASA but by the US Air Force.
Laser weapons: Ground-based laser weapons are already capable of causing temporary disruption to satellites. The United States has also tested air-based laser weapons against aircraft and missiles. The US programme for installing laser guns on aircraft was, however, wound up in 2012 after sixteen years and costs exceeding five billion US dollars. To fire such a weapon from a launch pad over a considerable distance one would need lasers that are “20 to 30 times more powerful” than the currently available chemical lasers, explained Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the time. The concept was, he said, simply not feasible (Center for Strategic and International Studies: “Missile Defense Umbrella?” 2009). The US military is, however, examining whether such laser weapons could not be deployed on unmanned aircraft for use against missiles as they take off. In principle, Earth-based or space-based laser weapons could one day also be capable of destroying satellites and approaching missiles.
Research continues on active space weapons. New technologies create new military options. But for the foreseeable future we cannot envisage the “Star Wars” scenario that is so popular in science fiction. Many research projects commissioned under SDI have been quietly shelved. They flowed from the visions of space strategists but were neither technologically nor financially feasible. An arms race in space is nevertheless a possibility once inhibitions have been dropped and active weapon systems are stationed in space. Preventive arms control—involving bans and confidence-building measures—might, however, put a stop to such a dangerous development.
Sources and further information
- Friedman, G. (2009). The next 100 years: A forecast for the 21st century. Doubleday.
- Neuneck, G., & Rothkirch, A. (2006). Weltraumbewaffnung und präventive Rüstungskontrolle. Osnabrück. (German)
- Petermann, T., Coenen, C., & Grünewald, R. (2003). Aufrüstung im All Technologische Optionen und politische Kontrolle (Studien des Büros für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag). Berlin. (German)
- Project Ploughshares. (2013). Space Security Index 2013. Executive Summary. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
- President of the United States of America. (2010). National Space Policy of the United States of America. Washington, DC.
- US Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2013). Joint Publication 3-14. Space Operations. Washington, DC.