The world has come a long way since the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957. The entire planet now depends on space for economic, military, diplomatic and civilian uses and it is hard to imagine living without the benefits that space systems offer. Space warfare strategist Paul Szymanski discusses the susceptibility of these space-based systems to attack in a ‘space war’, how we might avoid such a war and, if it starts, how we can end it.
Imagine how the US Navy would support its carrier battle groups many thousands of miles away without long-range satellite communications; space-based surveillance to detect approaching threats; weather satellite forecasting of sea states and cloud cover over potential targets; and the Global Positioning System (GPS) for accurate weapons delivery.
Currently, there are thousands of artificial satellites orbiting the Earth, with plans to launch thousands more in the near future, and naturally this has a knock-on effect for space warfare (the diagram at the foot of page 62 illustrates the complexity of the military space infrastructure and the difficulties in defending it from multiple avenues of attack).
Graphic representations of space objects and debris (2021).
Although it would seem advisable to limit the ability of adversaries to attack a nation’s space assets, a treaty banning all space weapons is simply a fantasy of the well-intentioned. Moreover, the verification of any such treaty would be next to impossible, because outer space is way too vast to be able to understand everything that is going on to any reasonable level of confidence. Firstly, very few countries have space surveillance sensors that can form even a small picture of what satellites are up there and what their capabilities are and, secondly, to verify a space treaty the United Nations would have to possess an extensive world-wide network of sensors, which would be very expensive to build and maintain, and would ultimately be imperfect anyway.
Consider a thought-experiment to illustrate the issue: imagine telling someone to take a basketball and hide it somewhere on Earth and then challenge anyone to find it. Modern satellites can now be the size of a basketball, while space offers a potential ‘hiding-space’ thousands of times the size of the Earth. Radars cannot reliably scan such great volumes and the primary manner in which space objects are detected is through optical telescopes.
Over the past decades, there has been extensive research on stealth satellites with low radar and optical signatures. NASA, for example, has recently invented a carbon-nanotube-based optical absorber that renders a satellite near pitch-black to optical space sensors. In fact, simply making sure that any solar reflections are directed back into space by correctly orienting flat sections of a satellite can, without optically absorptive materials, achieve brightness signatures down to 18th magnitude. The US space surveillance network, the largest in the world, routinely ‘loses’ satellites all of the time, as the figure on page 63 illustrates.
Although it would seem advisable to limit the ability of adversaries to attack a nation’s space assets, a treaty banning all space weapons is simply a fantasy of the well-intentioned
An additional space treaty problem is how to define an anti-satellite (ASAT) system. Any innocent-looking ‘test’ satellite can have true ASAT capabilities hidden inside, such as on-board kinetic projectiles or a low-weight, low-power cyber weapon. Even a simple satellite can manoeuvre to ramming speed to take out a satellite, if it has on-board radar or optical systems to track a target and fine manoeuvring jets for impact accuracy.
Even a small laser on a satellite can damage sensitive optical components such as Earth-oriented optical imagery sensors, Earth limb sensors or space-oriented star sensors. The laser does not have to be high-tech if employed at short-range, and even consumer lasers that anyone can own have sufficient power (at 7.5 watts) to damage nearby sensitive satellite components.
Complexities of outer space warfare
Another issue is the hidden ASAT. It would not take much to hide a small ASAT inside one of the massive exhaust cones of 1960s-era space boosters that remain in orbit. These boosters have already completed half of their Hohmann transfer orbits, so a hidden ASAT would not require much additional fuel to attack many different space targets. And it is unlikely that any nation would be willing to manoeuvre their ‘inspector satellites’ to conduct reconnaissance on these thousands of boosters.
In addition, there is a vast region of space between geostationary orbit and the Moon that is not routinely tracked by terrestrial space surveillance sensors. It takes more manoeuvring propellant to reach geosynchronous orbits than to send a spacecraft around the Moon, so one could easily place an ASAT into a trans-lunar orbit to perform a surprise attack on critical space assets in lower orbits. This is such a threat issue that the United States Space Force (USSF) is now considering ‘Moon Patrols’.
Example statistics of ‘lost’ space objects by orbital altitude and RADAR cross section (RCS).
Another technique to obscure potential threat satellites is to occupy unusual orbits. High inclination Molniya-type orbits, used by Russia due to its high latitudes, are especially difficult to track. In addition, a zero-degree inclination low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite would not pass within current space surveillance sensor networks, yet can become a universal ASAT through relatively low delta-v manoeuvres that simply change orbital altitude at the right time to knock out other satellites.
If an ASAT system employs low-thrust electric engines, Kepler’s orbital equations do not apply and space surveillance networks cannot adequately track and identify which space objects are which. For example, the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite was placed in such a low orbit, in order to measure the Earth’s gravity field, that it continuously used its electric thrusters for two and a half years. All a threat satellite would have to do is employ electric thrusters just before the start of a space conflict to totally confuse any space surveillance tracking networks, inducing multiple unknown tracks in the space object catalogue databases.
In addition, a threat satellite can manoeuvre outside a space surveillance network coverage area (such as over Antarctica) and become a misidentified Uncorrelated Target (UCT) to space command systems. Combine this with a change in attitude or deployment of ‘balloons’ and the satellite becomes even more uncorrelated with the baseline catalogue, since it no longer has a known orbital track and radar/optical cross section.
The author’s own state-change threat-detection algorithms have seen satellites enter into geosynchronous graveyard orbits and ‘play dead’, while their orbital elements actually improve with time, showing that they are still controlled and not really deactivated. How many satellites up there are really faking their demise and, in fact, have war-reserve modes that can be activated later? And how about faking a satellite’s ‘death’ by purposely blowing up part of it to create a debris field where a remaining ASAT section can hide but be listed as ‘space junk’? How many discarded boosters have unannounced and undetectable missions as they continue to orbit the Earth for many years? There are more questions than answers.
There has been some talk about orbital ‘keep-out zones’ to try to sort out whether a satellite is a threat or not. However, it is difficult to sort out which space objects may be threats, and one cannot assume that just because an object makes a close approach to a critical satellite it is a real threat, because orbital dynamics assures that some objects will always have close temporary neighbours. Also, there are military ‘choke points’ in space, in the same conceptual manner as on terrestrial battlefields. The space situation map views of these space choke points, organised according to altitude and inclination, help to illustrate the issue.
To verify a space treaty the United Nations would have to possess an extensive world-wide network of sensors, which would be very expensive
The space ‘choke points’ are critical orbits that must be defended or at least monitored against ASATs that might congregate there as jumping off points for optimised space attacks. Of course, these are not fixed points like on Earth, but regions of orbital space that allow minimisation of fuel and manoeuvring duration for attacks against critical adversary targets. The points would be different for each conflict theatre of operations, and possibly for each perceived current conflict escalation level.
Assuming that an adversary would attack a country’s space assets before initiating conflict on Earth, in order to take out its orbital eyes and ears, and that the accumulation of a potential adversary’s ASATs at these key orbital choke points can be detected, a terrestrial war could potentially be avoided before it even started. But does this mean that adequate intelligence monitoring of adversary space force dispositions can prevent war on the ground?
Orbital space choke points would not be fixed points like on Earth, but would be different for each conflict theatre of operations, and perhaps for each perceived current conflict escalation level.
How space wars start
Like any wars in the past, both modern and ancient, conflict can be initiated through miscalculation and/or misperceptions. This all depends on senior leaders’ conceptions and/or fears of the threats posed by space systems to their countries’ national security or even their own political futures and, of course, the perception of national populations.
What will people think when another country begins attacking their space systems? Will they be aghast at the prospect since they have been led to believe by propaganda in the ‘peaceful uses of space’? Will they even be aware that a space war has occurred, since satellites are very far away and generally cannot be directly viewed or imaged?
One could be Machiavellian about space wars and take the view that few if any human casualties would occur in a space war. Possibly the country losing a space war would give up and not even begin to fight on Earth, since without space capabilities they would be unlikely to be successful in prosecuting a terrestrial conflict, thus saving lives on the ground.
The author believes that space attacks are very similar to ‘actions’ that have occurred in the past with cyber weapons. The use of both space and cyber weapons can easily be hidden from the general public and have the politically advantageous property of being easily denied. Indeed, most ASAT’s will not have nation-of-origin logos and will probably be constructed from widely-available parts.
Many ‘experts’ in the Space Domain Awareness (SDA) and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) fields live in fantasy worlds, in the belief that they fully understand the origin and threat status of all space objects. Even senior space leaders at the very highest level (NRO, NSA, JCS, CIA, USSF, etc.), and especially those from the NASA ‘peaceful attitudes culture’, believe they know all there is to know about these issues. However, such false beliefs form the foundational basis for miscalculations and misperceptions in space wars, and will result in conflict escalation, as they did in past terrestrial wars. Moreover, space ends up worse for these misperceptions due to the remote nature of satellites and lack of experience of extensive space conflicts.
Compounding all of this is the rapidity with which space wars can be initiated and completed. A simulation performed by the author some years ago, that pitted 100 random satellites against another 100 random satellites in widely different orbital regimes, saw 95 percent of ‘attacks’ completed within 24 hours (without any orbital placement optimisations). Thus major space wars could be completed before the attacked country knew it was under attack or in time to implement countermeasures. Would the attacked country even know who attacked them?
Let’s say the United States is at war against China in the Western Pacific Ocean. If some US satellites start failing, is this due to natural causes (e.g. solar flares or micrometeorites) or hostile intent? One can assume that China attacked these satellites, but perhaps it was Russia or North Korea or Iran who did it simply to provoke. Senior US leadership might pause to assess the situation and verify before taking counter actions, but if they wait too long a space war could be ‘lost’ before they could do anything about it.
The danger is that any strategy of ‘self-deterrence’, which assures losing the overall space-terrestrial conflict, creates a hair-trigger for space conflicts, much like the hair-trigger for nuclear war. Does the country that attacks first in space always win the space war, even if they are weaker ‘on paper’ with regard to space weapon systems? Perhaps space war simulations and military exercises can begin to answer these fundamental questions.
Optimised attack orbital regimes that avoid adversary space sensor networks.
Notional orbital attack computer graphic displays.
Notional orbital attack display with attack sequencing marks.
There is a vast region of space between geostationary orbit and the Moon that is not routinely tracked by terrestrial space surveillance sensors
Due to the global nature of satellite systems, and the difficulties in detecting and adequately assessing potential threats, conflict escalation control is of utmost importance. An additional factor is that space warfare is very political, meaning that it can be difficult to understand worldwide reactions to major space wars.
Certainly, smaller space ‘incidents’ can be kept from the general public, as has been occurring for the last few decades (for example, Russia’s use of GPS and satellite jammers to try to disrupt space communications during the recent conflict in eastern Ukraine had a major impact on the establishment of the US Space Force.).
There are many issues for space conflict escalation control. One is to what degree conflicts in space can be linked to terrestrial-based wars: can a contest of wills between countries be initiated and resolved entirely in space, or would one country arbitrarily escalate a space conflict by counter attacking on Earth? Can space attacks be considered like cyber-attacks that do not necessarily lead to resultant physical combat?
In any analysis, it should be noted that the perceived level of aggression in any conflict is open to a vast array of interpretations and misperceptions, which can accidently lead to conflict escalation. This is particularly true for countries of differing cultures and historical sensitivities to past military conflicts.
How to end a space war
Wars are all ultimately about politics. It might be assumed that when the initial reasons for the start of the conflict are resolved, the war comes to an end. However, this is not necessarily so, because the original aims that initiated the war might change with time, particularly if people get too incensed by the conduct of the war and its perceived atrocities.
So, what are possible aims or goals for initiating a war in space? They are more easily established for traditional terrestrial conflicts and include regaining lost territory, destroying an adversary’s ability to wage further war and forcing major political realignments in leadership. But many of these traditional tenets of war do not necessarily apply to space conflicts.
Notional orbital attack situation display.
Notional orbital attack situation display.
Notional orbital attack detection display.
Due to the right of free passage in space already established by international agreements and tradition, how does one hold on to space ‘territory’? Is it similar to the law of the sea where no country can control open oceans outside its economic zones? And if there are space weapons to neutralise, how does a country or the United Nations verify any adherence to space disarmament treaties?
One could be Machiavellian about space wars and take the view that few if any human casualties would occur
The United States Joint Publication 5-0 (JP5) ‘Joint Operation Planning’ discusses how to develop conflict success criteria that are designed for terrestrial conflicts, though still applicable to conflicts in outer space. This is part of the significant contribution of JP5 to military planning.
However, before any warfare planning is initiated, the criteria that would satisfy war aims and goals (‘conflict termination criteria’) must be defined, and all subsequent planning then flows from these foundational criteria. A sample set of recommendations for possible space war termination criteria – of the 50 developed by the author - are included in the adjacent panel, which designates the opposing sides as ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’.
Many questions about space wars remain: how they start, how they end and how to avoid them in the first place. It is hoped that this article and the table of termination criteria opposite will help with what promises to be a long discussion.
About the author
Paul Szymanski has 47 years’ experience in space warfare policy, doctrine, strategy, tactics, simulations, resilience, threat assessment, long-range strategic planning and battle management. In addition, he has supported multiple United States military services (Air Force, USSF, Army, Navy, Marines, NATO), civilian agencies (NASA, DARPA, FEMA), and others including the Pentagon, Space and Missile Systems Center and Air Force Research Lab. This gives him a unique perspective in understanding divergent issues associated with the range of DoD procurement processes.