Space warfare

Space warfare

Space warfare is combat that takes place in outer space, i.e. outside the atmosphere. Technically, as a distinct classificationFact|date=August 2008, it refers to battles where the targets themselves are in space. Space warfare therefore includes "ground-to-space warfare", such as attacking satellites from the Earth, as well as "space-to-space warfare", such as satellites attacking satellites. It does not include the use of satellites for espionage, surveillance, or military communications, however useful those activities might be. It does not technically include "space-to-ground warfare", where orbital objects attack ground, sea or air targets directly, but the public and media frequently use the term to include any conflict which includes space as a theater of operations, regardless of the intended target. For example, a rapid delivery system in which troops are deployed from orbit might be described as "space warfare," even though the military uses the term as described above.

A film was produced by the U.S. Military in the early 1960s called "Space and National Security" which depicted space warfare. [ [ PBS Nova Program “Astrospies” , Broadcast February 12, 2008:] ]

From 1985 to 2002 there was a United States Space Command, which in 2002 merged with the United States Strategic Command. There is a Russian Space Force, which was established on August 10, 1992, and which became an independent section of the Russian military on June 1, 2001.

Only a few incidents of space warfare have occurred in world history, and all were training missions, as opposed to actions against real opposing forces. In the mid-1980s a USAF pilot in an F-15 successfully shot down the P78-1, a communications satellite in a 345 mile (555 km) orbit. In 2007 the People's Republic of China used a missile system to destroy one of its obsolete satellites (see 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test), and in 2008 the United States similarly destroyed its malfunctioning satellite USA 193. To date, there have been no human casualties resulting from conflict in space, nor has any ground target been successfully neutralized from orbit.

International treaties governing space limit or regulate conflicts in space and limit the installation of weapon systems, especially nuclear weapons.


Early efforts to conduct space warfare were directed at space-to-space warfare, as ground-to-space systems were considered to be too slow and too isolated by Earth's atmosphere and gravity to be effective. The history of active space warfare development goes back to the 1960s when the Soviet Union began the Almaz project, a project designed to give them the ability to do on-orbit inspections of satellites and destroy them if needed. Similar planning in the United States took the form of the Blue Gemini project, which consisted of modified Gemini capsules that would be able to deploy weapons and perform surveillance.

One early test of electronic space warfare took place in 1963 when the United States exploded a ground-launched nuclear weapon in space to test the effects of an electromagnetic pulse. The result was a deactivation of many then-orbiting satellites, both American and Soviet. The deleterious and unfocused effects of the EMP test led to the banning of nuclear weapons in space in the Outer Space Treaty of 1968. (See High altitude nuclear explosion.)

Through the 1970s, the Soviet Union continued their project and test-fired a cannon to test space station defense. This was considered too dangerous to do with a crew on board, however, so the test was conducted after the crew had returned to Earth.

Space warfare strongly influenced the final design of the United States Space Shuttle. The distinctive delta wing shape was needed if the shuttle were to launch a military payload towards the Soviet Union and perform an immediate de-orbit after one rotation to avoid being shot down. [ Draper, Alfred C.; Buck, Melvin L.; and Goesch, William H. "A Delta Shuttle Orbiter." Astronautics & Aeronautics. 9 (January 1971): 26-35.] Verify source|date=January 2008

Both the Soviets and the United States developed anti-satellite weaponry designed to shoot down satellites. While early efforts paralleled other space-to-space warfare concepts, the United States was able in the 1980s to develop ground-to-space laser anti-satellite weapons. None of these systems is known to be active today; however, a less powerful civilian version of the ground-to-space laser system is commonly used in the astronomical technique of adaptive optics. China successfully tested a ballistic missile-launched anti-satellite weapon on January 11, 2007 (see: 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test). This resulted in harsh criticism from the United States of America, Britain, and Japan.

Theoretical space weaponry

Ballistic warfare

In the late 1970s and through the 1980s the Soviet Union and the United States theorized, designed and in some cases even tested an astonishing variety of bizarre and exotic weaponry designed for warfare in outer space. Space warfare was seen primarily as an extension of nuclear warfare, and so many theoretical systems were based around the destruction or defense of ground and sea-based missiles. Space-based missiles were not a target due to the Outer Space Treaty, which banned the use, testing of or storage of nuclear weapons outside the Earth's atmosphere. Systems proposed ranged from measures as simple as ground and space-based anti-missiles to railguns, space based lasers, orbital mines and other such futuristic weaponry. Deployment of these systems was seriously considered in the mid-1980s under the banner of the Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as Star Wars). If the Cold War had continued, then many of these systems could have seen deployment: the United States got as far as developing working railguns, and a laser that could destroy missiles at range, though the power requirements of both were phenomenal, and the ranges and firing cycles utterly impractical.

Electronic warfare

With the end of the Cold War and continued development of satellite and electronics technology, attention was focused on space as a supporting theatre for conventional warfare. Currently, military operations in space primarily concern either the vast tactical advantages of satellite-based surveillance, communications, and positioning systems or mechanisms used to deprive an opponent of said tactical advantages. Accordingly, most space-borne proposals which would traditionally be considered "weapons" (a communications or reconnaissance satellite may be useful in warfare but isn't generally classified as a weapon) are designed to jam, sabotage, and outright destroy enemy satellites, and conversely to protect friendly satellites against such attacks. To this end, the US (and presumably other countries) is researching groups of small, highly mobile satellites called "microsats" (about the size of a refrigerator) and "picosats" (approximately 1 cubic foot (≈900 cm^3) in volume) nimble enough to maneuver around and interact with other orbiting objects to repair, sabotage, hijack, or simply collide with them.

Kinetic bombardment

Another theorized use involves the extension of conventional weaponry into orbit for deployment against ground targets. Though international treaties bar the deployment of nuclear missiles outside the atmosphere, other categories of weapons are largely unregulated. Traditional ground-based weapons are generally not useful in orbital environments, and few if any would survive re-entry even if they were, but as early as the 1950s, the United States has toyed with kinetic bombardment, i.e. orbiting magazines of non-explosive projectiles to be dropped onto hardened targets from low-earth orbit. Kinetic weapons have always been widespread in conventional warfare—bullets, arrows, swords, clubs, etc.—but the energy a projectile would gain while falling from orbit would make such a weapon rival all but the most powerful explosives.Fact|date=October 2008 A direct hit would presumably destroy all but the most hardened targets without the need for nuclear weapons. Such a system would involve a 'spotter' satellite, which would identify targets from orbit with high-power sensors, and a nearby 'magazine' satellite to de-orbit a long, needle-like tungsten dart onto it with a small rocket motor. Though a common device in science fiction, there is no publicly-available evidence that any such systems have actually been deployed by any nation.

Practical considerations

Space warfare is likely to be conducted at far greater distances and speeds than terrestrial combat. The vast distances involved pose difficult challenges for targeting and tracking, as even light requires a few seconds to traverse ranges measured in hundreds of thousands of kilometers. For example, if attempting to fire upon a target at the distance of the Moon from the Earth, the image one sees reflects the position of the target slightly more than a second earlier. A projectile weapon will take at least a few seconds to cross that distance, and even a laser will need a measurable amount of time. Additionally, the distance means that an error of even a fraction of a degree in the firing solution could result in a miss by thousands of kilometers. When attempting to hit a target moving at the tremendous speeds involved in space travel--a geostationary satellite moves at a speed of 3.07 km/s whereas objects in low earth orbit can move at up to 8 km/s--the difficulty is magnified.

Regardless of one's reasons for going to war, at present those reasons are not likely to suggest major targets located in space. Most of the main theoriesClarifyme|date=October 2008 which attempt to explain human proclivity for warfare—psychological, sociological, demographic, economic, political, or otherwise—would not indicate space as a likely location of conflict until a significant population is engaged in large-scale activity thereFact|date=August 2008. Until then, space warfare is likely to take a supporting role to conventional, terrestrial warfare.

Aside from applications such as communications, reconnaissance, GPS, and the like, which would be difficult or impossible without satellites, there do not appear to be any major advantages to basing weapons systems in space. The main reason is simply cost. Space warfare that involves humans being deployed in space to fight each other is not currently practical because of the difficulty and cost of sustaining human life in space, especially over long periods of time. Fact|date=August 2008

Additionally, there are few things that could be accomplished by space warfare that any nation wealthy enough to finance can accomplish far more cheaply through conventional meansFact|date=August 2008. Raising any significant mass beyond Earth's gravity will always require a large amount of energy, and the cost increases with mass. For example, though kinetic bombardment potentially offers the ability to strike any target anywhere in the world within minutes, both the United States and Russia, possibly the only nations with the resources and facilities necessary to implement such a system, have sufficiently long-range supersonic bombers that the same target could already be destroyed in a matter of hours at a mere fraction of the cost.

Possible warfare over space

Most of the world's communications systems rely heavily on the presence of satellites in orbit around Earth. Protecting these assets might seriously motivate nations dependent upon them to consider deploying more space-based weaponry, especially in conflicts involving advanced countries with access to space. Even without the further militarization of space, a future conflict conducted largely on the ground through conventional means might well be sparked by actions conducted entirely in space.

Relatedly, though no infrastructure or economic interests exist at the moment to warrant the occupation of terrain on other terrestrial bodies within the Solar system, or to occupy orbital trajectories in outer space, some futurists have predictedWho|date=August 2008 that should such infrastructure be deployed, space-faring nations may go to war for control of extraplanetary resources. Such a conflict could easily involve warfare both within and outside the earth's atmosphere. One suggestedFact|date=August 2008 point of conflict is the helium 3 resources in the south polar region of the Moon. Russia has already stated its intention of developing this resourceFact|date=August 2008, and the Chinese lunar mission is scheduled to land in that area in 2024.

Space warfare in fiction

Space warfare is a topic often touched upon in science fiction, with a wide range of realism and plausibility, from stories based on anticipated future technology and tactics, to fantasy or historically based scenarios that happen to take place in a science-fiction background. Some portray a space-borne military will be similar to an Air Force, whereas others depict a more naval analog. Still others suggest forces more like marines: highly mobile forces engaged in interplanetary and interstellar warfare but with most of the actual conflict occurring in terrestrial environments.

Both kinetic energy and directed energy weapons are often portrayed, along with various military space vessels. The Lensman series by E. E. Smith is an early example, which also inspired the term Space Opera due to the grandiose scales of the stories. The Ender's Game series by Orson Scott Card is a notable example in that it makes conjecture as to what sort of tactics and training would be required for war in outer space. Other science fiction authors have also delved into the tactics of space combat, such as David Weber in his Honorverse series as well as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their Mote in God's Eye series. A more recent example would be Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe, which explores combat at relativistic speeds. Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers is perhaps one of the best-known and earliest explorations of the "space marine" idea.

The fictional worlds in which space warfare occurs are far too numerous to list, but popular examples include Star Trek (in all of its various incarnations), Star Wars, Babylon 5, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate SG-1 & Atlantis and many comic book franchises. Video games have frequently touched the subject, with the Wing Commander franchise serving as a prototypical example. Note that very few games attempt to simulate an environment with realistic distances and speeds, though Independence War and both do.


Further reading

* Hobbes, D (1986) "An Illustrated Guide to Space Warfare" Salamander Books Ltd. ISBN 0-86101-204-6
* Macvey, John W. "Space Weapons, Space War" New York:1979 Stein and Day (written by a professional astronomer)

See also

*Joint Functional Component Command for Space and Global Strike (US Strategic Command)
*National Missile Defense
*Orbital bombardment
*Orbital weaponry
*Space weapon

External links

* [ Encyclopedia Astronautica's article on the Almaz]
* [ "The Next Battlefield May Be in Outer Space," New York Times Magazine: August 5, 2001]
* [ Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space]

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