Some nations are actively pursuing technologies that carry the potential for weaponization, which may make space the location for future international conflicts.
Science fiction has always portrayed aliens as the most dangerous thing to encounter in space, but the truth is potentially more frightening. Congestion and competition are increasing in orbit as more nations seek to explore the vast reaches of space. Some nations are actively pursuing technologies that carry the potential for weaponization, which may make space the location for future international conflicts.
Two new reports released on April 14 highlight the possibility of future space aggressions. The Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published their annual analysis of global anti-satellite weapons. These weapons are based on open-source information.
SWF’s Global Counterspace Capabilities Report says that concerns about future space conflicts are not just for militaries and intelligence services. “The public should be as aware of the developing threats and risks of different policy options as would be the case for other national security issues in the air, land, and sea domains,” the report read. It covered countries that have conducted debris-causing anti-satellite tests (the United States, Russia, China, and India) and countries that are developing such technologies (Australia, France, Japan, Iran, North Korea, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.)
CSIS’s Space Threat Assessment 2023 is the sixth edition published by the organization’s Aerospace Security Project, a resource for policymakers to access developments in foreign counter-space weapons. Due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this year’s report provided an in-depth look into Russia’s employment of counter-space weapons. “Space capabilities, including commercial satellites, played a highly visible and compelling role in Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion,” the report stated.
According to SpaceNews, counter-space technologies include “ground-based and orbital weapons capable of destroying or disabling satellites in orbit.” The pursuit of such technologies is a problem because they pose a potential threat to the entire world. A space conflict would have catastrophic consequences and interfere with nations’ abilities to use space for peaceful reasons.
John Raymond is a former four-star chief of the US Space Force and contributed to the CSIS Space Threat Assessment 2023. He told SpaceNews that the space domain is “undergoing a significant and rapid transformation. The number of objects in space continues to soar, the value of the global space economy is at an all-time high, and, unfortunately, the threat to the domain is real and concerning today.”
Raymond says that Russia and China pose the most significant space threat to the US military. “Over the past year and a half, there has been regular testing and use of reversible non-destructive capabilities as well as a destructive test that created a debris field, jeopardizing safe operations and indicating that the domain will continue to become more contested,” Raymond said. Russia in particular has been using electronic jamming to interfere with US Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.
Years ago, the United States and Russia were the only countries with active space programs and only a few nations owned space weapons. Now, the country count jumps by one or two per year. Tools and weapons to harm enemy satellites in space will continue to be invented and refined as more countries become more reliant on space applications.
Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson, authors of the SWF report, said that the space domain is going through significant changes as countries and commercial entities get involved in space. They also believe that there’s a good side to the increase in space interest. The resulting global innovations and benefits could help all the Earth’s residents.
Whenever governments or commercial entities expand their territories, there are always risks and benefits. Space is no different. Long dubbed “The Final Frontier,” those who delve into space to enhance their military or commercial capabilities must also figure out ways to protect what’s theirs.
According to the SWF report, the resulting counter-space technologies can be used to “deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems.” Space weapons are nothing new, but the circumstances surrounding their use continue to evolve. There are “greater potential consequences from their widespread use that could have global repercussions well beyond the military, as huge parts of the global economy and society are increasingly reliant on space applications.”