Militarisation of space

Militarisation of space
A ground-based interceptor, designed to destroy incoming ICBMs, is lowered into its silo at the missile defence complex at Fort Greely, Alaska, July 22, 2004.

The militarisation of space is the placement and development of weaponry and military technology in outer space.



Acquisition of high grounds for military advantage has been a perennial feature of military campaigns. For thousands of years, military tacticians have exploited the concept of "capturing" or "keeping" the high ground in military campaigns.[citation needed] Fortifications were built on high points, with walls that enabled archers to rain down deadly volleys. Mobile towers served as siege weapons. Ships were equipped with crow's nests that facilitated long-range reconnaissance. Hot air balloons were lofted by Napoleon, during the American Civil War, and the first World War to observe troop movements. Aircraft were initially seen as useful for high level reconnaissance, which was quickly followed by aerial battles.

Aircraft revolutionised warfare during the twentieth century, leading to "command of the air" as a key strategic concept.[citation needed] The U.S. had already begun its Discoverer space program, now known as Corona, when Francis Gary Powers' U-2 aircraft was shot down in the 1960 U-2 incident. The quest for safer observation from space gained momentum.[citation needed] Initial attempts for control of the environment of space were led by both the US and the Soviet Union. They planned for controlling the realm of space with nuclear and conventional devices such as anti-satellite weapons (ASATs).[citation needed] The militarisation of space began in the 1960s, and has now evolved into a key military capability for space-faring nations, potentially giving decisive military advantage.[citation needed] Militarisation of space is the next step in this quest to gain higher ground.[citation needed] The idea of placing weapons in space can be found first in 20th century science fiction stories.

One needs to define "militarisation" of space. Does militarisation mean placing weapons in space, or does it include orbiting capabilities that are used by the military such as GPS navigation, communications, and reconnaissance? If the latter definition applies, then space has been militarised for over 50 years already since the first Discoverer/Corona satellite launched in 1959.

While military activities have certainly taken place in space (since the launch of Sputnik by the Russian military), and space is an operating location for many military spacecraft (such as imaging & communications satellites) or a temporary transit medium for weapons (such as ballistic missiles), it must be pointed out that permanent stationing of operational weapons in space has yet never been conducted.[citation needed]

World War II and the V-2 rocket

Main articles: World War II and V-2 rocket.

As early as 1927 members of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) ("Spaceflight Society") had started experimenting with liquid-fuelled rockets. Rockets using a solid propellant had been used as weapons by all sides in WWI, and as a result, the Treaty of Versailles forbade solid fuel rocket research in Germany. By 1932 the Reichswehr started taking notice of their developments for potential long-range artillery use, and a team led by General Walter Dornberger was shown a test vehicle designed and flown by Wernher von Braun[citation needed]. Although the rocket was of limited ability, Dornberger saw von Braun's genius and pushed for him to join the military.[citation needed]

Von Braun did so, as eventually did most of the other members of the society. In December 1934 von Braun scored another success with the flight of the A2 (A for Aggregat) rocket, a small model powered by ethanol and liquid oxygen, with work on the design continuing in an attempt to improve reliability.[citation needed] Many different liquid fuels had been developed, but the German military specifically encouraged the use of ethanol as a rocket fuel because Germany had always been hampered by a shortage of crude oil-based fuels.[citation needed] Throughout WWII, a wide variety of military rockets were fueled by ethanol that were derived primarily from potatoes.

By 1936 the team had moved on from the A2 and started work on both the A3 and A4. The latter was a full-sised design with a range of about 175 km (109 mi), a top altitude of 80 km and a payload of about a tonne. This increase in capability had come through a complete redesign of the engine by Walter Thiel. It was clear that von Braun's designs were turning into real weapons.

The A3 proved to be problematic, and a redesign was started as the A5. This version was completely reliable, and by 1941 the team had fired about 70 A5 rockets. The first A4 flew in March 1942, flying about 1.6 km and crashing into the water. The second launch reached an altitude of 11 km before exploding. The third rocket, launched on October 3, 1942, changed things by following its trajectory perfectly. It landed 193 km away, and became the first man-made object to enter space. Production started in 1943 on the wonder weapon Vergeltungswaffe 2 (reprisal weapon 2), or the V-2 as it became better known, at the insistence of Goebbels' propaganda ministry.

The Cold War

The Syncom satellites set major milestones in space communications, Syncom 2 was the first geosynchronous satellite, Syncom 3 was placed in the first geostationary orbit.

During the Cold War, the world's two great superpowers — the Soviet Union and the United States of America — spent large proportions of their GDP on developing military technologies. The drive to place objects in orbit stimulated space research and started the Space Race. In 1957, the USSR launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.

By the end of the 1960s, both countries regularly deployed satellites. Spy satellites were used by militaries to take accurate pictures of their rivals' military installations. As time passed the resolution and accuracy of orbital reconnaissance alarmed both sides of the iron curtain. Both the United States and the Soviet Union began to develop anti-satellite weapons to blind or destroy each other's satellites. Laser weapons, kamikaze style satellites, as well as orbital nuclear explosion were researched with varying levels of success. Spy satellites were, and continue to be, used to monitor the dismantling of military assets in accordance with arms control treaties signed between the two superpowers. To use spy satellites in such a manner is often referred to in treaties as "national technical means of verification".

The superpowers developed ballistic missiles to enable them to use nuclear weaponry across great distances. As rocket science developed, the range of missiles increased and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) were created, which could strike virtually any target on Earth in a timeframe measured in minutes rather than hours or days. In order to cover large distances ballistic missiles are usually launched into sub-orbital spaceflight. An intercontinental missile's altitude halfway through delivery is ca. 1200 km.

Test of the LG-118A Peacekeeper missile, each one of which could carry 10 independently targeted nuclear warheads along trajectories outside of the Earth's atmosphere.

As soon as intercontinental missiles were developed, military planners began programs and strategies to counter their effectiveness.


Early American efforts included the Nike-Zeus Program, Project Defender, the Sentinel Program and the Safeguard Program. The late 1950s Nike-Zeus Program involved firing Nike nuclear missiles against oncoming ICBMs, thus exploding nuclear warheads over the North Pole. This idea was soon scrapped and work began on Project Defender in the 1960s. Project Defender attempted to destroy Soviet ICBMs at launch with satellite weapon systems, which orbited over Russia. This program proved unfeasible with the technology from that era. Work then began on the Sentinel Program which used anti-ballistic missiles (ABM) to shoot down incoming ICBMs.

In the late 1950s United States Air Force considered dropping an atomic bomb on the Moon to display U.S. superiority to the Soviet Union and the rest of the world (Project A119). In 1959, a feasibility study of a possible military base on the Moon (Project Horizon) was conducted. In 1958, a plan for a 21-airman underground Air Force base on the Moon by 1968 was developed (Lunex Project).

The Safeguard Program was deployed in the mid-1970s and was based on the Sentinel Program. Since the ABM treaty only allowed for construction of a single ABM facility to protect either the nation's capital city or an ICBM field, the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex was constructed near Nekoma, North Dakota to protect the Grand Forks ICBM facility. Though it was only operational as an ABM facility for less than a year, the Perimeter Acquisition Radar (PAR), one of Safeguard's components, was still operational as of 2005. One major problem with the Safeguard Program, and past ABM systems, was that the interceptor missiles, though state-of-the-art, required nuclear warheads to destroy incoming ICBMs. Future ABMs will likely be more accurate and utilize hit-to-kill or conventional warheads to knock down incoming warheads. The technology involved in such systems was shaky at best, and deployment was limited by the ABM treaty of 1972.

In 1983 American president Ronald Reagan proposed the "Strategic Defense Initiative" — a space-based system to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear missiles. The plan was ridiculed by some as unrealistic and expensive, and Dr. Carol Rosin nicknamed the policy "Star Wars", after the popular science-fiction movie franchise. The late astronomer Carl Sagan, amongst others, pointed out that in order to defeat "Star Wars" the Soviet Union had only to build more missiles, allowing them to overcome the defense by sheer force of numbers.[citation needed] Proponents of the "Star Wars" policy champion the strategy of technology for hastening the Soviet Union's downfall. According to this viewpoint, Communist leaders were forced to either shift large portions of their GDP to counter perceived "Star Wars" weapon systems or watch as their expensive nuclear stockpiles were rendered obsolete.

United States Space Command (USSPACECOM), a unified command of the United States military was created in 1985 to help institutionalize the use of outer space by the United States Armed Forces. The Commander in Chief of U.S. Space Command (CINCUSSPACECOM), with headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado was also the Commander in Chief of the bi-national U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (CINCNORAD) and for the majority of time during USSPACECOM’s existence also the Commander of the U.S. Air Force major command Air Force Space Command. Military space operations coordinated by USSPACECOM proved to be very valuable for the U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The U.S. military has relied on communications, intelligence, navigation, missile warning and weather satellite systems in areas of conflict since the early 1990s, including the Balkans, Southwest Asia and Afghanistan. Space systems are considered indispensable providers of tactical information to U.S. war-fighters.

As part of the ongoing initiative to transform the U.S. military, on 26 June 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that U.S. Space Command would merge with USSTRATCOM. The UCP directed that Unified Combatant Commands be capped at ten, and with the formation of the new United States Northern Command, one would have to be deactivated in order to maintain that level. Thus the USSPACECOM merger into USSTRATCOM.


The Soviet Union was also researching innovative ways of gaining space supremacy. Two of their most notable efforts were the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) and Polyus orbital weapons system.

FOBS was a Soviet ICBM in the 1960s that once launched would go into a low Earth orbit whereupon it would de-orbit for an attack. This system would create a path to North America over the South Pole, striking targets from the opposite direction from which NORAD early warning systems are oriented. The missile was phased out in January 1983 in compliance with the SALT II treaty.

The SALT II treaty (1979) prohibited the deployment of FOBS systems:

Each Party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy:
(c) systems for placing into Earth orbit nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapons of mass destruction, including fractional orbital missiles;

On May 15, 1987, an Energia rocket flew for the first time. The payload was a prototype orbital weapons platform Polyus (also known as Polus, Skif-DM or 17F19DM), the final version of which according to some reports could be armed with nuclear space mines and defensive cannon. The Polyus weapons platform was designed to defend itself against anti-satellite weapons with recoilless cannon. It was also equipped with a sensor blinding laser to confuse approaching weapons and could launch test targets to validate the fire control system. The attempt to place the satellite into orbit failed.

Post-Cold War

A Lightweight Exo-Atmospheric Projectile (LEAP), which attaches to a modified SM-2 Block IV missile used by the U.S. Navy

As the Cold War ended with the implosion of the Soviet Union the space race between the two superpowers ended. The United States of America was left as the only superpower on Earth with a large concentration of the world's wealth and technological advancement. Despite the United States' new status in the world, the monopoly of space militarisation is in no way certain. Countries such as China, Japan, and India have begun their own space programmes, while the European Union collectively works to create satellite systems to rival those of the United States.

The USSR Space Forces were established as the Ministry of Defense Space Units in 1982. In 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated. The Russian Armed Forces were established on 7 May 1992, enabling the creation of Russian Space Forces later that year on 10 August. In July 1997 the Space Force was dissolved as a separate service arm and incorporated to the Strategic Rocket Forces along with the Space Missile Defense Forces, which previously were part of the Troops of Air Defense. The Russian Space Forces were officially reborn on June 1, 2001 as an independent section of the Russian military.

Post Cold War space militarisation seems to revolve around three types of applications. (The word "seems" is used because much of this subject matter is inconclusively verifiable, due to the high level of secrecy that exists among the great powers with regard to the details of space sensing systems.) The first application is the continuing development of "spy" or reconnaissance satellites which began in the Cold War era, but has progressed significantly since that time. Spy satellites perform a variety of missions such as high resolution photography (IMINT), communications eavesdropping (SIGINT), and covert communications (HUMINT). These tasks are performed on a regular basis both during peacetime and war operations. Satellites are also used by the nuclear states to provide early warning of missile launches, locate nuclear detonations, and detect preparations for otherwise clandestine or surprise nuclear tests (at least those tests or preparations carried out above-ground); this was the case when, in 1998, India and Pakistan both conducted a series of nuclear tests; in addition, a nuclear-detection satellite of the Vela type was also reported to have detected a nuclear detonation in the Indian Ocean in 1978 that was believed to be a South African nuclear test in what was famously called the Vela Incident. Early-warning satellites can also be used to detect tactical missile launches; this capability was used during Desert Storm when America was able to provide advanced warning to Israel of Iraqi SS-1 SCUD missile launches.

Spy satellites

Types of spy satellites

Global Positioning Systems

The second application of space militarisation currently in use is GPS or Global Positioning System. This satellite navigation system is used for determining one's precise location and providing a highly accurate time reference almost anywhere on Earth or in Earth orbit. It uses an intermediate circular orbit (ICO) satellite constellation of at least 24 satellites. The GPS system was designed by and is controlled by the United States Department of Defense and can be used by anyone, free of charge. The cost of maintaining the system is approximately US$400 million per year, including the replacement of aging satellites. The first of 24 satellites that form the current GPS constellation (Block II) was placed into orbit on February 14, 1989. The 52nd GPS satellite since the beginning in 1978 was launched November 6, 2004 aboard a Delta II rocket. The primary military purposes are to allow improved command and control of forces through improved location awareness, and to facilitate accurate targeting of smart bombs, cruise missiles, or other munitions. The satellites also carry nuclear detonation detectors, which form a major portion of the United States Nuclear Detonation Detection System. European concern about the level of control over the GPS network and commercial issues has resulted in the planned Galileo positioning system. Russia already operates an independent system called GLONASS (global navigation system), the system operates with 24 satellites that are deployed in 3 orbital planes as opposed to the 4 GPS is deployed in.[1] The Chinese "Beidou" system provides China a similar regional (not global) navigation capability.

Military communication systems

The third current application of militarization of space can be demonstrated by the emerging military doctrine of network-centric warfare. Network-centric warfare relies heavily on the use of high speed communications which allows all soldiers and branches of the military to view the battlefield in real-time. Real-time technology improves the situational awareness of all of the military’s assets and commanders in a given theatre. For example, a soldier in the battle zone can access satellite imagery of enemy positions two blocks away, and if necessary e-mail the coordinates to a bomber or weapon platform hovering overhead while the commander, hundreds of miles away, watches as the events unfold on a monitor. This high-speed communication is facilitated by a separate internet created by the military for the military.[citation needed] Communication satellites hold this system together by creating an informational grid over the given theatre of operations. The Department of Defense is currently working to establish a Global Information Grid to connect all military units and branches into a computerized network in order to share information and create a more efficient military.[citation needed]

Military spaceplanes

It was revealed that Soviet officials were concerned that the US Space Shuttle program had such military objectives such as to make a sudden dive into the atmosphere to drop bombs on Moscow and these concerns were part of the motivation behind pursuing their own Buran program.[2]

The NASA uncrewed spaceplane project X-37 was transferred to the US Department of Defense in 2004. It is unclear what its military mission would be. The X-37 is akin to a space version of Unmanned aerial vehicle.

Weapons in space

Space weapons are weapons used in space warfare. They include weapons that can attack space systems in orbit (i.e. anti-satellite weapons), attack targets on the earth from space or disable missiles travelling through space. In the course of the militarisation of space, such weapons were developed mainly by the contesting superpowers during the Cold War, and some remain under development today. Space weapons are also a central theme in military science fiction and sci-fi video games.

Terrestrial-type weapons in space

Soviet Union, and later Russian cosmonauts have regularly carried small arms (handguns) on spacecraft, as part of the special emergency kit included in landing capsules. [3] The weapon was included to protect the cosmonauts from wild animals after re-entry if the capsule landed in a wilderness area and could not be quickly retrieved. United States Astronauts are also provided a firearm for similar use.

The Russian space station Salyut 3 was fitted with a 23mm cannon, which was successfully test fired at target satellites, at ranges from 500 m to 3000 m.

Space warfare

Space warfare is combat that takes place in outer space, i.e. outside the atmosphere. Technically, as a distinct classification[citation needed], it refers to battles where the targets themselves are in space. Space warfare therefore includes ground-to-space warfare, such as attacking satellites from the Earth, as well as space-to-space warfare, such as satellites attacking satellites.

It does not include the use of satellites for espionage, surveillance, or military communications, however useful those activities might be. It does not technically include space-to-ground warfare, where orbital objects attack ground, sea or air targets directly, but the public and media frequently use the term to include any conflict which includes space as a theater of operations, regardless of the intended target. For example, a rapid delivery system in which troops are deployed from orbit might be described as "space warfare," even though the military uses the term as described above.

A film was produced by the U.S. Military in the early 1960s called Space and National Security which depicted space warfare.[4] From 1985 to 2002 there was a United States Space Command, which in 2002 merged with the United States Strategic Command. There is a Russian Space Force, which was established on August 10, 1992, and which became an independent section of the Russian military on June 1, 2001.[citation needed]

Only a few incidents of space warfare have occurred in world history, and all were training missions, as opposed to actions against real opposing forces. In the mid-1980s a USAF pilot in an F-15 successfully shot down the P78-1, a communications satellite in a 345-mile (555 km) orbit.

In 2007 the People's Republic of China used a missile system to destroy one of its obsolete satellites (see 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test), and in 2008 the United States similarly destroyed its malfunctioning satellite USA 193. To date, there have been no human casualties resulting from conflict in space, nor has any ground target been successfully neutralised from orbit.

International treaties governing space limit or regulate conflicts in space and limit the installation of weapon systems, especially nuclear weapons.

Space treaties

Treaties are agreed to when all parties perceive a benefit from becoming a signatory participant in the treaty. As mutually assured destruction (MAD) became the deterrent strategy between the two superpowers in the Cold War, many countries worked together to avoid extending the threat of nuclear weapons to space based launchers.

Outer Space Treaty

The Outer Space Treaty, considered by the Legal Subcommittee in 1966. Later that year, agreement was reached in the General Assembly. The treaty included the following principles:

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
  • the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental activities;
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

In summary, the treaty initiated the banning of signatories' placing of nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, installing them on the moon or any other celestial body, or to otherwise station them in outer space. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed the treaty and it entered into effect on October 10, 1967. As of January 1, 2005, 98 States have ratified, and an additional 27 have signed the Outer Space Treaty.

Note that this treaty does not ban the placement of weapons in space in general, only nuclear weapons and WMD.

Space Preservation Treaty

The Space Preservation Treaty was a proposed 2006 UN General Assembly resolution against all space weapons. Three countries, most notably the United States of America, abstained from voting on most provisions of this treaty [5] because the proposed treaty did not do enough to clearly define what is meant by a "space weapon", and therefore was open to wide interpretation and impossible to verify whether it was being violated.

National Missile Defense (NMD)

The logo of the Missile Defense Agency

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War defense spending was reduced and space research was chiefly focused on peaceful research. American military research is focused on a more modest goal of preventing the United States from being subject to nuclear blackmail or nuclear terrorism by a rogue state.

On 16 December 2002, US President George W. Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive which outlined a plan to begin deployment of operational ballistic missile defense systems by 2004. The following day the US formally requested from the UK and Denmark use of facilities in RAF Fylingdales, England and Thule, Greenland, respectively, as a part of the NMD Program.[6] The administration continued to push the program, despite highly publicised but not unexpected trial-and-error technical failures during development and over the objections of some scientists who opposed it. The projected cost of the program for the years 2004 to 2009 was 53 billion US dollars, making it the largest single line in The Pentagon's budget.

Missile Defense does not station weapons in space, but is designed to intercept incoming warheads at a very high altitude which requires the interceptor to travel into space to achieve the intercept. These missiles are both land based and sea based.


  • "Control of space means control of the world." — Vice President Lyndon Johnson, 1961
  • "It's politically sensitive, but it's going to happen. Some people don't want to hear this, and it sure isn't in vogue, but — absolutely — we’re going to fight in space. We're going to fight from space and we're going to fight into space. That’s why the US has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms. We will engage terrestrial targets someday — ships, airplanes, land targets — from space." — Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Command (1994–1996), Joseph W. Ashy
  • "The competition between military forces is moving towards outer space ... this is a historical inevitability and a development that cannot be turned back"; "The air force will extend its reach from the sky to space, from defence of Chinese territory to attack [of threats] as well. We will improve the overall capability to strike a long-distance target with high precision, fight electronic or internet warfare with back-up from space ... and deliver our military strategic assets." — General Xu Qiliang, head of China's air force, 2009[7]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Sak, Anatoly (November 20, 2008). "Buran - the Soviet 'space shuttle'". BBC News. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ PBS Nova Program “Astrospies” , Broadcast February 12, 2008:
  5. ^ United Nations General Assembly Verbotim Report meeting 67 session 61 page 6 on 6 December 2006 at 15:00 (retrieved 2007-09-17)
  6. ^ Lennon, Alexander T.J. Contemporary Nuclear Debates, (Cambridge:MIT Press)1999, pp. 101-109.
  7. ^ Chen, Stephen; Greg Torode (3 Nov 2009). "China 'to put weapons in space'". SCMP. Retrieved 4 Nov 2009. 

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