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Pleaides satellite
The Pléiades satellites are supporting French military actions in Mali, part of the proliferation of military space capabilities beyond the US and the former USSR. (credit: CNES)

Proliferating military space power in 2013 and beyond

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A decade ago, when Jeff started The Space Review, military space power largely belonged to the world’s major powers, especially the United States. Post-Soviet Russia maintained a barebones military space capacity and the French and the Chinese were rapidly developing their own arrays of national security space systems. Other nations such as Israel, India, and Japan were just beginning to develop their own indigenous space systems.

To see how real space power works in 2013, one only has to look at the way it has supported France’s military intervention in Mali.

Today, not only are military space systems ubiquitous, but they have become such an integral part of all military, peacekeeping, and diplomatic operations that they are taken for granted. The propaganda value of space activities is lower than it has ever been. North Korea’s launch may have been part of an extensive missile development program, but the effort by the Pyongyang regime to impress the world with their technology fell flat. Iran’s monkey-in-space likewise did nothing to enhance the Islamic Republic’s reputation for engineering prowess, except amongst its already existing admirers.

To see how real space power works in 2013, one only has to look at the way it has supported France’s military intervention in Mali. While both France and its Islamist enemies make use of satellite navigation and satellite communications, France, with its own extensive space based intelligence system and with support from the US and from the European allies, has crushing space power superiority.

In particular, the Mali operation gives France a chance to highlight its new Pléiades civil/military imagery satellites. These were launched into polar orbit in December 2011 and December 2012. They provide France with an advanced multispectral and sub-meter imaging capability. It will take a while, but eventually we will find out just how effective these satellites have been in support of this war in the remote Sahara.

Irregular forces such as Al Qaeda have learned (at least to some extent) to deal with their lack of space power. They know when most spy satellites will be overhead and they can normally take precautions. Some military spacecraft, such as America’s X-37 unmanned space vehicle, seen able to hide in orbit. Their ability to stay hidden is certainly useful, but both amateur skywatchers and professional military men and women in places like China and Russia are not doubt doing all they can to develop ways of detecting stealthy and maneuverable US spacecraft.

China and Japan are now confronting each other over the Daiyou/Senkaku Islands between the Chinese mainland and Okinawa. Japan has just launched a new pair of quasi-military reconnaissance satellites and China has turned on the first, experimental signal from its Beidou satellite navigation system. In both cases the space systems are obviously of military utility, but neither nation has an incentive to say so clearly.

No one should be surprised if, soon, both China and Japan release satellite pictures of their ships confronting each other. An effort by either China or Japan to use evidence from space to bolster their claim that the other side is acting provocatively would be both a dramatic move in the propaganda war and a minor provocation in and of itself.

There have been reports that China may be preparing a new test of an anti-satellite weapon, or as some sources claim, a missile defense test disguised as an anti-satellite test. In any case China has the capacity to shoot a satellite out of the sky. Would they use such a capacity against Japan’s space assets? In the near term it’s highly unlikely, but for the Beijing government the mere threat is a useful way to force the Japanese and the Americans to take their capability into consideration.

The China-Japan confrontation is just one example of the way that military space forces are now integrated into just about every single actual or potential war that is taking place on our planet. From Israel versus Iran to South Sudan versus Sudan to the ongoing India-Pakistan tensions or even the confused, nasty, and largely ignored fighting in the Eastern Congo, space forces play an essential role.

Warfare in space, or from Earth to orbit, is also a new fact of life. Already there have been reliable reports that some space systems are being jammed. A few years ago Iran made an effort to interfere with US broadcasting satellites from a base in Cuba. China has reportedly fired lasers at US spy satellites. The US has tested so-called “counterspace systems” that can jam target satellites in low Earth orbit. Primitive space weapons are available to any nation that can put a payload into orbit.

One important aspect of what was recently called “asymmetric warfare” is that the weaker side is constantly looking for original and unexpected ways to use its few advantages in order to embarrass or humiliate the stronger side.

It’s only a small step from these supposedly “non-destructive” systems to active space weapons. Governments that thrive on confrontation, such as North Korea, now have every incentive to use their space launch capability to attack the space assets of their enemies. If this does happen, it will present interesting problems for nations like the US that make extensive use of space for military and economic reasons. Since no one would be killed in such an attack, would it be an act of war requiring a violent response? Would a limited diplomatic or economic response just look weak?

Even if a rogue state attempted and failed to shoot down a US or allied satellite, the subsequent political turmoil, confused official statements by governments and international organizations, fevered consultations, and media posturing would make it all worthwhile for a government like the one in Pyongyang that thrives on confrontation and negative publicity. One important aspect of what was recently called “asymmetric warfare” is that the weaker side is constantly looking for original and unexpected ways to use its few advantages in order to embarrass or humiliate the stronger side. An unexpected anti-satellite attack is a perfect example of this kind of highly political warfare.

In the national security guidelines issued by President Obama as part of his June 2010 National Space Policy, the Secretary of Defense is instructed to “develop capabilities, plans, and options to deter, defend against, and if necessary, defeat efforts to interfere with or attack US or allied space systems.” Unfortunately, we may perhaps soon find out just how much attention the administration paid to this presidential instruction.