THE most damaging war the world has ever seen could be about to start. And it won’t happen on Earth.
Three leading superpowers: Russia, China and the US are reportedly developing, testing and deploying sophisticated weapons in outer space in advance of a military attack that could see the first great conflict between sparring superpowers in 70 years. A conflict that Popular Science described as “A New Cold War in the Void of Space”.
And there’s no rules in this free-for-all space race. Rogue, cosmic cowboys reign supreme.
While physical damage on Earth would be minimal in a space war, our entire way of living could be at threat.
Satellites in space control everything from mobile phone towers to ATMs and power grids. Even farmers use GPS to work their paddocks.
While they’re a long way from Earth, the US military admits this technology we’ve come to rely on is a “sitting duck” — easily visible and hard to manoeuvre from enemy attack.
WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
According to Reuters, Earth’s orbit “is looking more and more like the planet’s surface — heavily armed and primed for war”.
At least 1,200 satellites that are orbiting Earth for various uses, including navigation and communication, are also being primed for “planetary surveillance”, Scientific American reports.
The satellites circle the globe communicating messages from the likes of the US military, 80 per cent of which is done through civilian satellites.
While the US remains the “undisputed king of the hill” as the “most heavily armed space power”, China and Russia are keen to claim their own territory, working to destroy US satellites and replace them with their own.
It comes more than a year after US Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee Jamesadmitted: “We need to be ready”.
“We must prepare for the potentiality of conflict that might extend from Earth one day into space”, James told the Space Symposium.
“We need to get our heads around the fact that space might not always be a peaceful sanctuary.
“Knowledge is power and we need ever improved eyes in the sky,” she said.
HOW IS THE BATTLE FOUGHT?
These destroyers go by the name of “inspection” satellites, who, according to Reuters, “lurk in orbit, possibly awaiting commands to sneak up on and disable or destroy other satellites”.
But as harmless as these “assassin spacecraft” may look, “with the proverbial flip of a switch”, an inspection satellite, ostensibly configured for orbital repair work, could become a robotic assassin capable of taking out other satellites with lasers, explosives or mechanical claws.
The destruction of these resources can come in many forms, both on the ground and off. From tampering with antennas, destabilising orbits, or hijacking transmissions.
So powerful are these planetary satellites, its enemies are blasting co-ordinated rockets from warships and ground installations, set on a one-way collision course to destroy “enemy spacecraft”.
WHY IS THIS SUCH A BIG DEAL?
In space, satellites equal surveillance, and placement equals power.
The concern is, if our leading superpowers are warring over conflict areas such as the South China Sea and Ukraine, similar battles for space are expected to be fought from space.
But such a conflict could “cripple” humankind’s advances into the universe and send the war screaming back down to Earth.
“The US must prepare for battles high above Earth whether it likes it or not,” said Air Force Space Command Commander General John Hyten.
WHICH SUPERPOWER REIGNS IN SPACE?
The United States own at least 500 satellites alone, as many as the rest of the world’s satellites combined. It is believed 100 of those US satellites are used for military purposes.
It denies it is placing actual weapons in space, yet Air Force Space Command Commander General John Hyten said during a press conference last year: “We have a responsibility to defend against all threats. That’s what our job is. … There is no doubt we have seen threats appear in the last decade, and we have to be prepared to respond to those threats.
“It’s that simple.”
Russia’s interest in the space race is no big secret — generated by the Cold War — but China has emerged as a universal powerhouse, launching 130 spacecrafts and satellites into orbit in recent years. These include spy satellites and plans to launch its own space station Tiāngōng in 2022.
THE HISTORY BEHIND THE MODERN SPACE RACE
Despite a 1967 agreement by the US and Russia expressly banning the use of antiballistic-missile weapons in space, the Outer Space Treaty has been largely ignored since 2002, when President George W. Bush withdrew to deploy interceptor missiles that would protect the United States from “rogue” attacks by enemy countries like North Korea.
In 2007, China angered the space community after sending a missile to blow up one of its defunct satellites, leaving a debris field of over 3000 pieces to float in space like garbage.
In 2013, they struck again, launching a rocket that reached 6,250 miles into orbit.
“The Chinese have continued to test [anti-satellite weapons] since the year 2007,” US Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said.
“There have been additional tests that didn’t destroy a satellite since that time. The testing has continued so that is an ongoing concern, something that we are watching.”
WHAT IS THE US DOING ABOUT IT?
In May this year, the US Air Force announced a $5 billion program in the upcoming defence budget, aimed to fund offensive and defensive systems to protect themselves in space.
This month, the Pentagon announced it was “developing war plans and an operations centre to fend off Chinese and Russian attacks on US military and government satellites” in the next six months.
“The ugly reality that we must now all face is that if an adversary were able to take space away from us, our ability to project decisive power across transoceanic distances and overmatch adversaries in theatres once we get there … would be critically weakened,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work told the GEOINTsymposium in June.
“If Russian soldiers are snapping pictures of themselves in war zones and posting them in social media sites, we want to know exactly where those pictures were taken.”
Space, according to Mr Work, must now “be considered a contested operational domain in ways that we haven’t had to think about in the past.
CAN THE UN INTERVENE?
Unfortunately attempts to deal with the issue through diplomacy have done little to ease tensions.
In late July, a European Union-drafted code of conduct for space nations failed to see the light, thanks to opposition from Russia, China and several smaller space territories like Brazil, India and South Africa. It is set to put back the debate within the UN General Assembly by years, if ever.
“The bottom line is the United States does not want conflict in outer space,” Assistant Secretary Frank Rose told Scientific American.
“But let me make it very clear: we will defend our space assets if attacked.”