International | August 13, 2017 at 8:00 am

Space Standoff: Uncertainty in Militarized Space



Space is dangerous and expensive. It’s also a mission-critical asset to a modern military force where precedence and collaboration between rivals is scant.

National space programs are immensely expensive investments of capital and manpower. For all the private benefits a space program provides, military interest and nationalism have driven extraterrestrial innovation. Defense budgets are initially allocated staggering funds to begin space projects, and the major difference between a rocket being a peaceful mission or a weapon is whether the payload is a crew capsule or a nuclear warhead. In the Cold War, the capabilities and interests of the Soviet Union and the United States were mutually understood to be rough military parity and no desire to initiate conflict. However, evolving national interests in the 21st century have blurred the line between civil and military space and have made our mutual understandings of the field much murkier.

Satellites serve as an incredible force multiplier and source of power projection. Military satellites are used to spy on rivals, monitor weather to plan attacks, guide precision munitions, provide communications links, and detect missile launches. Despite their cost, satellites are indispensable to any state with a global presence or powerful rivals, and their loss can be a critical blow to an integrated military. Furthermore, given the small size of some satellites and the extraordinary secrecy of some military space development, it can be difficult to estimate an opponent’s space arsenal. Historically, the United States and the Soviet Union were the most prolific users of satellite technology, and today only three nations have the capabilities and interests to field complete military constellations: the United States, Russia, and China. For these three, space doctrine and anti-satellite capability are of paramount operational importance. If they existed, negotiated protocols could serve the interests of all three. Unfortunately, the secrecy of military space technology has prevented such agreements, leaving each nation to anxiously consider the possibly ploys of its peers.

The Lumbering Bear: Russia

Russia is the primary heir of the Soviet Union’s space technology and infrastructure, inheriting research from military projects including Almaz, Buran, and Polyus. Despite cooperation agreements with both on various projects from the International Space Station to the Chinese Shenzhou station, Russia still presents an enigmatic and defensive space policy. Although Russian space relations are more relaxed than those of their Soviet predecessors, they could not be described as outwardly friendly. Collaborations on the ISS and provisions of launches on Soyuz rockets to the United States have been peppered with political battles which continue to spur their own military space initiatives.

During the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the United States blacked out the warzone on its GPS satellites, hence preventing Russia from using precision guided munitions or effectively communicating between military units. Embarrassed by this vulnerability, Russia accelerated its development of GLONASS, its own satellite positioning system, to ensure independence from the American GPS network; GLONASS is the most expensive project of the Russian Federal Space Agency. Additionally, Russia was believed to have tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2016, a challenge to the United States amidst tensions following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s espionage in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. However, despite criticisms from both American and Russian politicians, American companies continue to import RD-180 and RD-181 rocket engines from Russia with the blessing of the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Senate even amended a recent sanctions bill to guarantee their importation.

Russia has been fairly proactive with its military organization of space; the Russian Space Forces (KVR) were originally formed in 1992. After two decades of reorganization, dissolution, and reformation, the KVR was finally established in 2015 as one of three branches within the Russian Aerospace Forces, a service of the Russian military on par with the Russian Ground Forces and Russian Navy. Despite its frequent bureaucratic shuffling, Russia has put great focus on the importance of its space forces and their role within the military. The KVR stands at 150,000 troops in opposition to the U.S. Air Force Space Command’s 38,000. Russia has recognized the centrality of space weapons in modern warfare and taken the structural reforms to integrate them, yet its modern capabilities still lag the United States and in some respects even China. Given heightened Russo-American tensions in the past few years, Russia can only be expected to expand its space arsenal to keep pace with its chief rival.

The Ascendant Dragon: China

Only within the past few years have Chinese space capabilities become notable. China, like the United States, has had continuity of government for the entirety of its space program, and due to the Sino-Soviet split and strict U.S. sanctions, China has developed its space assets almost entirely independently. Without the rich heritage of Apollo or Sputnik, China has been playing catch-up in the space arms race for decades. However, its Long March rockets, Tiangong space stations, and Chang’e lunar missions demonstrate that China’s nationalistic and militaristic interests in space are moving in lockstep with its growing ambitions in the Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa. As China makes its own leaps in space technology, it has also encountered the political and organizational quandaries of managing a space program faced by the United States and Russia.

Chinese foreign relations in space are most colored by its relationship with the United States. If Russian policy towards the American space program is described as unfriendly, then U.S. policy towards China can be described as nothing short of hostile. Recent legislation in the United States prevents any Chinese nationals from visiting a NASA facility without a special waiver, and any potential technology transfers to China are strictly prohibited by additional export controls on top of International Traffic in Arms Regulations. The United States has completely barred China from boarding the ISS out of concerns of espionage.

This stalwart exclusion encourages China to continue independent development of its own assets in ways that oppose U.S. interests. For example, China recently completed its BeiDou navigation constellation in 2016, a network it has touted to be more accurate than the U.S. GPS network. It comes complete with its own military bandwidths and has been alleged to play a part in North Korea’s missile program. China has also launched several spy satellites, ostensibly civilian “earth observation” satellites, which would serve to track U.S. fleet movements in the now contested Pacific; China recently surpassed Russia in the number of satellites in orbit. Finally, in 2007, China successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon which inadvertently created 150,000 particles of space debris and prompted a retaliatory American anti-satellite weapon demonstration.

While China has focused on giving structure to its space program, its initiatives face organizational challenges on account of China’s communist and authoritarian government. China made most of its early aerospace developments under the military auspices of the People’s Liberation Army and didn’t transfer control to a civilian agency until 1990. Even today, the civilian space companies are highly secretive state-run enterprises led by the Chinese Communist Party. In 2015, the Strategic Support Force was instantiated as a full branch of the PLA with space forces specifically under its command. However, specifics of its operations are mostly unknown to those outside the PLA.

China’s greatest organizational problems, however, may be the nation’s sensitivity about its image and poor accountability. China is using space to project its nationalist vision of technological success. However, space is difficult, and missions fail, but Chinese state media has hesitated to demonstrate that fact. Several Long March launch failures have gone entirely unreported, and in 1996, a Chang Zheng 3B rocket veered off the launch pad and into the nearby village of Xiachang, completely obliterating the village. Chinese state media has yet to address the civilians killed in the accident. The number killed varies from the official state account of six technicians to foreigner estimates of up to several hundred local villagers. The latter count would make it the deadliest launch accident in aerospace history.

The Eagle Ahead: The United States

Given the global scale of its military and its historical experience, the United States is easily the single greatest developer and user of space technology; the United States has a staggering amount advanced  satellites and manages the ubiquitous GPS network. The United States extensively imaged the Soviet Union with spy satellites after the shootdown of Gary Powers in 1960, stunned the world with GPS-guided munitions in the First Gulf War, and continues to use satellite links to control its Reaper drones in conflicts in the Middle East. In 2011, General Kevin Chilton declared, “Space is not just a convenience. It’s become a critical part in every other domain.” Modern developments include the closely-guarded X-37B orbital drone, theorized to be a completely autonomous orbital laboratory, and U.S. capabilities to launch anti-satellite missiles from aegis missile systems off of missile frigates. The breadth and depth of U.S. military space capability far eclipses that of China and Russia, and these developments are mostly independent of its successful civilian programs under NASA which include Apollo and a slew of probes, orbital telescopes, and space stations.

Despite its many programs and their centrality to America’s modern military strategy, the United States has had a somewhat incoherent method of organizing its space assets. The Air Force has assumed most space operations and maintains the Air Force Space Command as a unit, but space commands and units have also been phased in and out of the Army and Navy due to space’s central importance. United States Space Command was founded as a unified combatant command in 1985 but was merged with United States Strategic Command in 2002. The House Armed Services strategic subcommittee has introduced a measure this year to create a Space Corps as a separate uniformed branch under command of the Secretary of the Air Force, akin to the Marine Corps and the Navy. The past few decades has seen more than a handful of structural reforms as space capability has moved across branches and commands, and the recent House proposal is only the most recent iteration of the confused debate as to where they belong. Space is important, but the United States, as far ahead as it may be, is unsure of how to prioritize or organize it among its other national security interests.


It is within this complex network of capabilities and relationships that these three states play the space game. China, reviled by the United States and with little support from Russia, turns to Europe for technical support in extending rising Chinese influence to orbit. Russia, engaging in cyber warfare with the United States and strong-arming its neighbors, continues to cooperate with the U.S. on the ISS and rocket sales. The United States, armed with an exceptional technological lead but hobbled by institutional clutter, still continues its military primacy.

When it comes to the actual deployment of space weapons, the strategic threat of permanently crippling offensive satellite weapons is minimal. Laura Grego, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the HPR, “Cyberweapons are the weapon of choice to interfere with another country’s satellite. I haven’t heard of anyone stealing command and control,” but actors can “deny use of satellite based assets,” including critical data. As the Stuxnet cyberattack and recent Russian espionage have demonstrated, cyber weapons can be effective unattributed tools, and elegant methods like the aforementioned would be perfect, albeit extremely difficult, attacks for interfering with space systems.

Only the three states discussed here have demonstrated a satellite shootdown, so an offensive action on a satellite via a missile or laser has clear agency and would be immensely damaging diplomatically. Besides starting a war, the debris created from destroying a satellite prevents all nations from safely using space. The debris from the Chinese ASAT test to this day still threatens the ISS and may last for over fifty years. Like nuclear weapons, the unique environment of space encourages deterrence, for no state would dare risk the diplomatic hazards or imperil its own space interests.

However, there has been little discussion on acceptable use of military satellites or protocols for avoiding accidents, as there was never a significant need for it before. Space is getting more crowded, and there are a finite number of orbital slots. Although NORAD closely tracks all satellites, one can imagine the diplomatic disaster and near catastrophe if two military satellites inadvertently collide. The current approach by all parties is to continually analyze their opponents and attempt to one-up one another. It would be advantageous for all parties at this point to reassess international limits and protocols for military spacecraft to avoid any costly misunderstandings. Grego explained that the UN Outer Space Treaty was signed 50 years ago, and its anniversary be a good opportunity for the space powers to see if there is anything else which can be done diplomatically to use space well into the future.

There are some holes in the Outer Space Treaty as it stands: while it prohibits maintaining weapons of mass destruction in space, it allows orbital kinetic weapons which use the vast potential energy of orbit to destroy a target on impact. Military installations are banned on celestial bodies but not in orbit. Going into the 21st century, it would be reasonable to consider discussion of these prohibitions. Furthermore, other limits or negotiations constraining distances between satellites and communications protocols could at least nominally provide space powers with legal security from rivals while still maintaining the full capacity of their military assets. Prohibiting certain activities allows states to avoid designing for such contingencies, accelerating satellite development and deployment for all.

China, Russia, and the United States all offer unique interests, heritage, and structure in their approaches to militarized space. However, their challenges are identical: how to create robust and secure space infrastructure while developing the capabilities to protect it as well. The current climate is leaning towards mostly independent development and security through deterrence. While this simple system of staying in one’s own lane bodes well for general stability, it forgoes agreements and channels which could avert disaster through misunderstanding or accident.

Image Credit: Johnson Space Center/Wikimedia Commons

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