Going where no US president had gone before, Donald Trump recently signed an executive order to create the sixth branch of the US military — the Space Force — with the vice president later giving a deadline of 2020 for it to become operational. Like all Trumpian pronouncements, it was met with groans, jokes, invective and some pretty amazing memes.
There have been complaints that this is an unnecessary waste of money and that the US Air Force already has a Space Command and space force.
There has also been much hand-wringing about how this will lead to the militarisation of space, but the fact is that space — like any other area we can get our warlike little hands on — is already militarised and has been for some time now.
The race started in 1950 with the launch of Sputnik by the USSR, which was quickly followed by the Soviets sending the first dog, and then the first man and woman into space.
This threw military planners in the US scrambling to find countermeasures. One proposal was Project Horizon, which envisaged the building of a military base on the moon.
The Soviets took a more pragmatic approach, launching Polyot-1, the first ‘suicide’ spaceship which was designed to approach enemy spy satellites and explode, destroying them with shrapnel.
Even sci-fi genre was the Soviet’s Almaz space station — a habitable space base designed for reconnaissance and surveillance, but that was also equipped with a cannon to fire at enemy satellites.
As late as 1987, the USSR tried and failed to launch the unmanned Polyus spacecraft that was equipped with a carbon dioxide laser and designed to destroy America’s anti-missile Strategic Defence Initiative satellites.
Plans were drawn up by both sides to actually place nuclear weapons on select satellites as well but thanks to detente and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, these plans were never realised.
Conventional weapons, however, are another matter and the US — starting with the Obama administration — has repeatedly refused to back the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space treaty which would ban the placement of conventional weapons in space.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently railed against this refusal, accusing the US of “nurturing plans to militarise outer space [and deploy] weapons in outer space”.
He’s not wrong, given that the US recently launched the secretive X-37B unmanned spaceplane, which can remain in orbit for a year (ironically, the use of orbiting spacecraft as surveillance and weapons platforms was proposed by Soviet scientists decades ago), and that there is a real possibility that conventional hypersonic missiles (currently in development) could be placed on US military satellites. That’s a frightening prospect for any potential target country, given that the speed of these missiles renders them impossible to intercept.
Adding to the potential orbital bombardment arsenal is the modern version of the Cold War Project Thor, which envisaged massive tungsten rods being fired from sub-orbit with devastating velocity. On the ground, these ‘rods from God’ would impact like a nuclear weapon, without all the pesky fallout.
Given how the US dominates orbital space, it is no surprise that both Russia and China are railing against its refusal to back the treaty, but this does not mean that those nations are not scrambling to develop countermeasures — not space weapons per se, but weapons based on earth that can target space platforms.
These include ground-based anti-satellite ballistic missiles, and the ‘directed energy weapons’ (including lasers) which could be used to damage or destroy sensitive space-based equipment.
In order to offset America’s massive satellite surveillance networks, lasers are also being developed to effectively ‘blind’ those satellites. This doesn’t mean that China and Russia are not vying for space-based weapons platforms of their own, but that they are prioritising less expensive countermeasures rather than trying to match the US in a field in which the latter already enjoys a massive lead.
In the event of a conflict, the space theatre will be further complicated by the fact that many space technologies are dual use and that manoeuvrable satellites can easily be fitted with or turned into weapons even if their actual purpose was far more benign. Similarly, advanced ballistic missile defence systems also have the latent ability to target satellites, should the need arise.
What this means is that in any future conflict, the lines will be further blurred, thresholds will be lowered and paranoia may lead to disastrous miscalculation.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, as advances in space (and military) technology do indeed trickle down to us on earth as well, and the global positioning system that helps us get around is just one such example.
And then, of course, there’s the promise that if the real ‘khalai makhlooq’ (alien beings) show up, we may have a surprise or two in store for them.