The military importance of space

2009-10-19

in Bombs and rockets, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, Security

Cluster of security cameras

Given that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not yet particularly autonomous, for the most part, they are generally operated remotely by people. Apparently, the transmission system and encryption used between UAV operators in Nevada and the drones they are piloting in Afghanistan and Pakistan introduces a 1.7 second delay between commands being given and responses being received. As a result, take-off and landing need to be handled by a team located within the theatre of operations, since these activities require more nimble responses. The Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system being considered by the US Navy will require much more dynamic communication capabilities, of the sort that can probably only be conveniently provided from orbit.

This is just one example of the way in which the operation of armed forces – and especially the American armed forces – is increasingly dependent on their capabilities in space. From communications to intelligence to navigation, satellites have become essential. That, in turn, makes the capability to interfere with satellites highly strategic. The umbrage taken by the US and others to the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test is demonstrative of this. The test also illustrates the major dangers associated with creating debris in orbit. If enough such material was ever to accumulate, it could make the use of certain orbits hazardous or impossible. The 2009 Iridium satellite collision is a demonstration of how debris clouds can also arise from accidental events, which will become both more common and more threatening as more and more assets are placed in orbit. That crash created about 600 large pieces of debris that remain in Low Earth Orbit.

In the next few decades, we will probably see a lot of development where it comes to the weaponization of space, including (quite probably) the placement of offensive weapons in orbit, the proliferation of ground-based weapons that target satellites, and the deployment of weapons intended to counter those weapons (a significant secondary purpose for ballistic missile defence technologies

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Antonia October 20, 2009 at 6:14 am

Anywhere essential commercial and communications networks depend on is automatically strategically important and so is any rich, unexploited source of energy and minerals, quite apart from the military hardware and tactics tied into orbital technologies. Space is essentially underexploited territory, with an extremely localised band of commercial and national satellites already critical to modern systems, so it is going to be focused on, as it seems on the verge of a pioneers landgrab.

By an large militaries aren’t getting the funding and don’t have the governmental remit to actually do the landgrabbing themselves – terrestrial priorites win out during budget bickering. Also, military exploitation of space is highly likely to destabilise terrestrial international relationships faster than the space advantage can come be manifested and nations usually like stability unless they’re sure they’re going to win the melee.

Even non-military national exploitation of space is likely to trigger strategic sensitivities and diplomatic scrambling, but where outside the military would the funding come from?

Commercial enterprises are more likely to fund the basic infrastructure for commercial mining and energy production etc, especially international scientific research and private collaborations between academics and industry.

Current treaties are very restrictive of commercial exploitation of space, despite the fact that the majority of space exploitation at the moment is commercial (satellites get away with it for some reason) – even militaries predominantly use commercial communications satellites.

I’m not sure we’ll see the placement of offensive weapons in orbit but its important to bear in mind that a lot of non-weapon material in space could be used as a weapon, just because of weight and location. All manner of energy harvesting or debris-clearing units could become ‘weapons of offense’ which could be used as a loophole for the weaponisation of space or could hamper debris-clearing solutions or solar energy exploitation if its argued that their potential aggressive use means they should be banned.

Antonia October 20, 2009 at 6:18 am

Retargeting ground weapons to space is likely, however given orbital installations very nature, if used no one nation is likely to gain much advantage from the ensuing tit-for-tat (many nations can effectively take out satellites and many satellites are used by multiple nations), especially as the debris generated could not be well controlled and collateral damage on falling would be hard to deal with politically, while what remained up there could render satellites non-viable for decades while clear-up (if any) took place.
Only nations underexploiting existing satellite -mediated communications and systems would benefit.

Milan October 20, 2009 at 8:30 am

Most of that seems to depend on launch costs falling significantly in the future, which I think is more unlikely than likely in the long run. Yes, there will be technological improvements. That said, I think fuel prices will increase substantially in the long-term. As such, orbital solar and/or mining may never become viable, compared with their terrestrial counterparts.

The intermittency issue with ground-based solar can be mitigated by using concentrating solar facilities to heat molten sodium, then using the reserve heat to run turbines at night. Alternatively, there are energy storage options like pumped hydroelectric storage, compressed air, etc.

It seems quite plausible that the depletion of fossil fuels (and/or the worsening effects of climate change) will sharply restrict space travel for a long time.

Milan October 20, 2009 at 8:30 am

For the most part, militaries are less vulnerable to high costs than commercial ventures are.

. October 20, 2009 at 8:35 am
. August 5, 2011 at 3:15 pm

The military uses of space
Spooks in orbit
The other space programme

DESPITE its strong inheritance of military DNA (much of it, somewhat counterintuitively, coming from the American navy), NASA is a civilian agency, set up that way in deliberate contrast to the military-run Soviet space programme. In practice, the distinction is not always so clear-cut: NASA has done plenty of work for the Pentagon. But America’s armed forces maintain a separate space programme of their own, largely out of the public eye. Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, it is thought that the military space budget has matched or exceeded NASA’s every year since 1982.

All the signs are that it is roaring ahead. The air force’s public space budget (as opposed to the secret part) will increase by nearly 10% next year, to $8.7 billion, with much of it going on a new generation of rockets. Bruce Carlson, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive outfit that runs America’s spy satellites, announced in 2010 that his agency was embarking on “the most aggressive launch schedule…undertaken in the last 25 years”.

Much of the money goes on satellites—spy satellites for keeping tabs on other countries, communications satellites for soldiers to talk to each other, and even the Global Positioning System satellites, designed to guide soldiers and bombs to their targets, and now expanded to aid civilian navigation.

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