When President Donald Trump said last month that one day the U.S. might have a ‘Space Force’, his critics saw an opportunity to poke fun at the president’s choice of words.
But the reality, according to military and intelligence experts, is that space is destined to be the next theater of war -- regardless the ridiculous sound of Trump’s futuristic remarks.
Unlike the images conjured by Trump’s terminology -- those of spacecrafts and laser guns -- the first steps toward space war will likely be along the lines of satellite disruption, according to Michael Schmitt, professor of public international law and a space war expert at University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.
These days, a frontline space war soldier is most likely to be a state-sponsored hacker sitting at a computer terminal sending rogue commands to confuse or shut down an enemy’s satellites.
“I am convinced beyond a scintilla of doubt… It’s going to happen,” says Schmitt.
And why is it inevitable?
Space war is inevitable because today’s modern militaries use space for everything, from spy satellites to a soldier on a mountaintop using satnav to figure out exactly where he or she is. “The reliance upon space is truly extraordinary in contemporary conflict,” says Schmitt. And in any war, one side will seek to deprive the other of their ability to function. In this day and age, that means attacking the satellites.
China and Russia appear to be first to the game, both making great gains in their space programs in the past decade or so:
In May 2014, the Russians launched a mysterious satellite that was seen to be manoeuvring in orbit. Some thought it was the Russians testing a future space weapon because such orbital gymnastics are exactly what would be expected from an attack satellite designed to approach another and put it out of operation. Indeed, the Russians have a history of testing such spacecraft.
The Chinese have demonstrated other military space options, too. In 2007, they destroyed one of their own weather satellites using a missile launched from Earth. The FY-1C satellite was at an altitude of 865km and was hit by the missile travelling at 8km/s. The satellite disintegrated into an estimated 150,000 pieces of space debris.
Schmitt believes the world must take preventative measures to ensure the technology doesn’t get ahead of the laws -- such as occurred in the cyber realm, creating massive headaches as the world plays catch-up.
Schmitt is far from alone in his assessment.
As reports released this week from the Secure World Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies show, [Russia and China] have been quite active in recent years, posing a significant threat to the United States. Though much of the foreign nations’ activities in space are secret, the reports are an attempt to spotlight some of the publicly known activities to create a clearer picture of the threats the United States could face in space.
“There is strong evidence that Russia has embarked on a set of programs over the last decade to regain some of its Cold War-era counterspace capability,” according to the Secure World Foundation.
Unlike China, Russia “is actively employing counterspace capabilities in current military conflicts,” including with Ukraine, the report said.
Last year Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) said the United States has “lost a dramatic lead in space that we should have never let get away from us”, adding that has led to a “sense of urgency to get after this.”
[T]he clock is ticking. With international tensions on the rise, and seemingly daily escalations in the audacity of cyber-attacks, it may only take the smallest trigger to start attacking the satellites. Schmitt has a clear warning: “We cannot wait until it starts happening to then try to figure out what the law is. By then, it will be too late.”