SYDNEY – Humans have fought on land, water, and in the air. Space is a new warfighting domain, but one that is indispensable to the daily operations of ordinary life. From geolocation services to banking, shopping, communication, weather forecasts, time-synchronisation, etc., modern societies rely on the services space provides. Thus, it stands to reason that preserving the freedom of action in space, which is inspired by the freedom of navigation at sea, is a strategic priority for modern nations. With this in mind, the United States Space Force, now the sixth branch of the American military, recently unveiled a document detailing its policy objectives. Though there is no precedent for conflict in space, the plan outlines an articulate and flexible approach to project power in space.
The ultimate high ground
One hundred and fifty kilometres above sea level, the Earth’s atmosphere becomes so thin that moving objects no longer encounter aerodynamic drag. This area is known as Low-Earth Orbit. Past this point, human beings can take advantage of orbital spaceflight. This physical dimension has three unique characteristics. First, objects in Low-Earth Orbit move at a constant, immense speed, circling the entire planet in as little as ninety minutes. Secondly, the near-vacuum of space allows signals to be sent and received with minimal obstruction. Thirdly, orbital spaceflight grants the ability to conduct surveillance across the entire globe without entering foreign territory.
What is physically and technically possible changes entirely upon entering Low-Earth Orbit, and when capabilities change, the rules of engagement must change as well. More than anywhere else, action within the physical realm of space depends on telecommunications networks, which are composed of nodes and links. The nodes of the network are the satellites in space, as well as assets on the ground, including launch sites, control centres, tracking stations, and antennas. The links are the transmission pathways that connect the nodes. When synchronised, these space networks become powerful military tools, assisting missile warning systems, conducting surveillance on adversaries, and providing data to unmanned aerial weapons systems, like drones and smart bombs.
However, these advantages are attenuated by a set of vulnerabilities. Just as satellites can view most of the Earth’s surface, they are themselves exposed to ground-based anti-satellite weapons. Additionally, the signal pathways that networks rely on are susceptible to jamming and disruption. Still worse. Both these technologies are relatively cheap to obtain and pose an asymmetric threat to the interests of spacefaring nations. By damaging nodes or disrupting transmissions, an adversary can neutralise the space assets of a technologically superior state.
Protecting the skies
The United States Space Force is tasked with defending America from such threats. A policy document, published in 2020, expressed this mission in terms of three “cornerstone responsibilities”; preserving American freedom of action in space, enabling joint lethality and effectiveness between military branches, and providing military leadership with independent options. The US Space Force aims to amplify America’s “national spacepower”, which it defines as being “the totality of a nation’s ability to exploit the space domain in pursuit of prosperity and security.” In other words, the space doctrine seeks to expand American hegemony into space. It calls for the recognition of space as an independent “warfighting domain”, which can also be used to compliment airpower, land-power, and sea-power to achieve geopolitical ends. The US Space Force argues that by achieving these goals, Washington can maintain a stable and freely accessible space order.
All important areas of human activity are subject to war, and the exact form warfare takes is moulded by the features of the physical battlespace. Spacepower itself is said to have military, informational, economic, and diplomatic aspects. However, the Space Force doctrine is focused on the dynamics and applications of military and informational spacepower. Physical violence, while not absent, is less critical to spacepower projection than it is in other domains. Rather, in the foreseeable future, the US Space Force will primarily be engaged in the business of collecting and interpreting information before passing it up, down, and across the chain of command and to other military departments. Given the lack of any direct sensory input, the US Space Force must use data to construct a mental image of the physical battlespace.
So, while we will not see dogfights in space with lasers and spaceships, the offensive use of information systems holds significant coercive potential. By disrupting information flows, a combatant could potentially render a state unable to defend itself against physical attacks. The threat of such systems being used could also deter adversaries from interfering in American space networks for fear of provoking a counteraction. However, as the US Space Force doctrine notes, maximising American spacepower relative to other countries may not be ideal. Other nations will want to maintain relative power projection in space so that they can monitor events. So, the bigger the American footprint in space, the more other nations will feel compelled to get involved as well.
But regardless of whether a state is spacefaring or not, the capacity to project power across space will have significant implications in the way governments behave. The legal overflight capabilities offered by space have immense strategic value. From orbit, a satellite can obtain information about and respond to events in a hostile country without establishing a physical presence or triggering hostile counteractions.
States contemplating hostile actions must also modify their behaviour or expend resources to conceal it. Additionally, surveillance satellites placed in Geosynchronous Orbit can permanently monitor a particular section of the Earth’s surface, preventing surprise missile attacks or other hostile actions. It is also easier for satellites in orbit to monitor other satellites, as their line of sight is not obscured by atmospheric weather events. All this makes space a truly independent warfighting domain. And, even though the United States Space Force was met with controversy by the public, as a distinct military branch, it is absolutely necessary.
The final part of the American doctrine addresses the Space Force’s organisational culture, emphasising the importance of calculated risk-taking, learning from mistakes, and combat-readiness. The fact that the data specialists of the US Space Force bear little resemblance to science fiction space troopers should not detract from the function they perform. At heart, they are soldiers who must outwit enemies and secure victories should other deterrents fail. So, while technical skills are essential, they must be complemented by a sophisticated understanding of the nature of war.
A leap into the dark
Overall, the concept of spacepower is useful in explaining space capabilities, but space policy must also content with geopolitical realities. Orbital spaceflight is no longer the privilege of global superpowers, and a doctrine rooted in American exceptionalism may not meet a receptive international audience. Moreover, creating an independent military branch with a “warfighting culture” may serve to push American space policy in a militaristic direction. If anything, this will only motivate rival powers such as China and Russia to expand their own space capabilities. For example, China seeks to portray an alternative vision to the US-led global order, and space exploration is one part of that strategy. Washington’s 2011 ban on Sino-American aerospace cooperation, which arose over intellectual property disputes, has done little to slow down Beijing’s space program. The country has been able to establish its own GPS equivalent, known as BeiDou, and in 2019 was able to land its own probe on the far side of the moon to collect geological samples.
Additionally, Beijing and Moscow recently announced a joint plan to build a lunar research base. Though these plans are not warlike in nature, Beijing’s rapid progress in the realm of spaceflight, fueled by its increasing economic power, is a call for concern in Washington. But even if China cannot match the US spaceflight capabilities, raising the costs of the American space program may be sufficient by itself. Offensive options, such as anti-satellite weapons, are far easier to obtain than defensive options and are well within reach of smaller nations. A successful anti-satellite weapons test carried out by Beijing in 2007 on a redundant weather satellite showed that China has already developed this capability. Russia has also developed truck-mounted laser weapons, known as “Perevsets”, which can allegedly “dazzle” enemy satellites, rendering their surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities useless. Space superiority may, therefore, not be enough for the United States to neutralise ground-based threats to its satellite network. It is likely that over time, we will see an expanding arsenal of space-based weapons.
Finally, the global dimension of orbital spaceflight means that some problems will require cooperation to manage. Orbital space-lanes like Low-Earth Orbit and Geosynchronous Orbit are becoming increasingly congested due to a proliferation of satellites. For comparison, there are currently over 6,000 satellites circling the planet, and this number is expected to more than double in the next seven years. Some global organisations, such as the International Telecommunications Union, already help allocate and regulate spots in Geosynchronous Orbit, but as outer space becomes increasingly crowded, more communication and cooperation will be needed to manage space traffic. Just as we have insurances, tariffs, laws, search and rescue operations, etc., regulating shipping traffic on Earth, similar institutions will need to be set up in outer space.
The increased use of space also brings with it a build-up of orbital debris, which can damage and destroy space assets and impose significant risks for future spaceflight. For example, China’s anti-satellite weapons test in 2007 increased the amount of space debris in Low-Earth Orbit by 25 per cent; nobody is looking to repeat such provocative actions in the current geopolitical climate. Therefore, unless Washington is prepared to manage every single problem by itself, some degree of cooperation will be necessary.
All in all, the underlying nature of warfare remains constant, but the precise form it will take in the future cannot be fully known. Nevertheless, the doctrine of spacepower provides the US Space Force with a foundational approach to preserving American space interests while also allowing room for lessons gained through experience. Over time, new space-based technologies may undermine the current assumptions; new ground-based technologies may render the doctrine obsolete altogether. Alternatively, successful diplomacy may prevent space competition from escalating to the point of war. In any event, the militarisation of space will pose many challenges. Adaptability will be crucial because while the nature of war remains the same, the forms of warfare are constantly changing.
Watch it on YouTube
- Propelling satellites in to space – USSF
- AEHF-6 Launch – USSF
- The SBIRS GEO-5 satellite enters a vacuum chamber at Lockheed Martin’s Sunnyvale, California, production facility to begin Thermal Vacuum testing – USSF
“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”
· ‘Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens’, by Joan Johnson-Freese (Routledge, 2017)
· ‘Spacepower: Doctrine for the Space Forces’ (United States Space Force, August 2020)
· ‘China and India challenging old duopoly to create a new space order’ (ABC News, March 2021) https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-20/china-india-elon-musk-space-race/100013440
· ‘Donald Trump’s Space Force launched, marking US’s first new military service since 1947’ (ABC News, December 2019) https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-21/donald-trump-officially-launches-space-force/11821384
· ‘Space Force: Inside America’s newest military branch’ (TIME, July 2020) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmSdl4yheeg
· ‘Who owns our orbit: Just how many satellites are there in space?’ (World Economic Forum, October 2020) https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/10/visualizing-easrth-satellites-sapce-spacex/
· ‘The Space Force unveils “Spacepower”, its plan to conquer space’ (Gizmodo, August 2020) https://gizmodo.com/the-space-force-unveils-spacepower-its-plan-to-conquer-1844689378
· ‘Why defining the boundary of space may be crucial for the future of spaceflight’ (The Verge, December 2018) https://www.theverge.com/2018/12/13/18130973/space-karman-line-definition-boundary-atmosphere-astronauts
· ‘Issue briefs: Satellite Jamming’ (CSIS, April 2019) https://ontheradar.csis.org/issue-briefs/satellite-jamming/
· ‘Russia and China to build lunar space station’ (BBC News, March 2021) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-56342311
· ‘Peresvet: A Russian mobile laser system to dazzle enemy satellites (The Space Review, June 2020) https://www.thespacereview.com/article/3967/1