Welcome back to Looking Up, Stanford Student Space Initiative’s column on our future beyond Earth! The general public has been talking about the idea of a space force a lot recently — but may not realize the military already has a presence in space. This week, we detail both the nature of military involvement in space and some problems with the current situation.
1) Today, all military space missions are involved in ground support in one form or another. Whether a spy satellite, nuclear early warning system or communications linkage, every military satellite in orbit today is designed to support missions on Earth. While some people have proposed space-to-space weapons, refueling platforms or other space-focused projects, none yet exist. Imagine if the Air Force only operated communications, control and spy aircraft with no bombers, fighters or even fuel tankers. That’s what force structure in space looks like right now.
2) Most satellite constellations use a few expensive nodes, which makes them highly vulnerable to attack. The GPS system, for example, functions off of only 31 Air Force satellites in geosynchronous orbit. This brings some cost advantages but means that if someone decides to start shooting those satellites down, the GPS system fails very quickly.
3) Speaking of shooting down satellites, anti-satellite weapons are proven and fairly widespread technology. The U.S. developed several anti-satellite systems back in the Cold War, and the U.S. Navy still regularly uses satellites with degrading orbits as target practice. Russia developed their own comparable systems around the time the U.S. did, and China tested their first anti-satellite missile back in 2007. That Chinese test actually spread some 3,500 large pieces of debris over the nearby region of space, which led to the plot of the hit movie Gravity and brings us to…
4) Kessler Syndrome, the space version of mutually assured destruction (MAD). When satellites get blown up, the debris lingers, making the nearby regions of space very dangerous to move through. If entire satellite constellations were destroyed, massive bands of space would quickly become unusable for everyone.
5) Finally, entanglement presents a little-discussed but potentially disastrous problem. For cost reasons, many satellites that are used for nuclear command and control (C2) are also used for more mundane military communications. If Country A attacks those satellites because of their conventional role, but Country B perceives that as an attack on their nuclear C2 capabilities, the logic of strategy may lead Country B to escalate to nuclear weapons. At the very least, they may strike back at Country A’s own nuclear C2, which may force Country A to escalate in turn — all because the same satellites that talk to, say, a drone over Yemen also run vital communications with nuclear submarines.
So, what policy recommendations do we have?
1) Switch to large constellations of small satellites. The world is full of CubeSat designs of various sizes or even modular and cheap mid-size satellites like the Altair or Aquila designs. Those small designs are perfectly fine for many military tasks: Just few years ago, France launched the Spirale system, a demonstrator for a nuclear early-warning system using only two 120 kg orbiters. Switching to large flocks of small satellites makes the networks more redundant, cheaper to upgrade and less tempting targets for attack.
2) Develop independent nuclear and conventional satellite networks to avoid the risk of entanglement. While the odds of entanglement leading to accidental nuclear war are moderate at worst, the consequences are so serious that it’s worth working to avoid it. This used to be a cost-prohibitive idea, but now that low-cost satellites and dropping launch prices are a reality, it’s now just a sensible precaution.
We expect these trends to hold true for the next 15 years or until the next great power war — whichever comes first. After that, we expect changes in technology and politics to drastically alter the space arena.
This article is part of the Stanford Space Initiative’s column “Looking Up.”