Tag Archives: space planes

Everything Moving in Space Is a Weapon? Yes.

Kosmos 2542, a Russian satellite that was launched in November 2019, was “like Russian nesting dolls”. Eleven days after its launch it disgorged another satellite, labelled Kosmos 2543. Then, on July 15th, Kosmos 2543 itself spat out another object, which sped off into the void.  Merely a “small space vehicle” to inspect other satellites, said the Russians. Nonsense, said the Americans; it was a projectile. The intentl.. was to signal Russia’s ability to destroy other nations’ satellites….In January 2020, America complained that Kosmos 2542 and 2543 had tailed a spy satellite in an “unusual and disturbing” way (American satellites have also sidled up to others in the past). 

Anti-satellite weapons are not new. During the cold war, America and the Soviet Union developed several ways to blow up, ram, dazzle and even nuke each other’s satellites. The countries conducted two-dozen anti-satellite tests between them. Ten were “kinetic”, involving a projectile physically striking a target. But new competitors, and new technologies, mean anti-satellite warfare is a hot topic once again. China has conducted ten tests over the past 15 years, including a kinetic one in 2007 that created a great deal of space debris. India conducted its first kinetic test in 2019. America, Russia and China have all manoeuvred their satellites close to others, sometimes provocatively so. New methods of attack are being tested, including lasers and cyber-attacks.

Some satellites, such as America’s GPS constellation, blur the distinction between military and civilian assets. Over the past decade, America’s armed forces have put payloads on three commercial satellites, and plan to pay Japan to host others on its own navigation satellites….Then there is the question of what counts as an attack. Michael Schmitt, a law scholar, and Kieran Tinkler, a professor at the us Naval War College, say it is unclear whether jamming a civilian satellite would violate the general prohibition on attacking civilian objects. Blowing up a military one, meanwhile, might or might not constitute an indiscriminate (and hence illegal) attack, depending on whether it could have been disabled by other means and how much debris was produced.

Perhaps the biggest difference between space war and terrestrial war is how long the consequences can last. Much of the debris from China’s 2007 test, for instance, will still be in space at the turn of the next century. The more debris, the greater the likelihood of accidental collisions with other satellites, which generates more debris in turn. Enough debris could lead to a chain reaction known as Kessler syndrome, which could render entire swathes of near-Earth space unusable for decades…

Space Junk

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 requires states to consult each other on actions that “would cause potentially harmful interference”, though the rule has rarely been heeded. Most countries accept that, in wartime, a body of existing laws known as international humanitarian law would apply, as on Earth—something America confirmed in its “Spacepower” doctrine, published on August 10, 2020. International humanitarian law is based on principles such as distinction (between combatants and civilians) and proportionality (between civilian harm and military advantage). But how to apply such ideas in a place with few humans is not always obvious.

The Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) is being spearheaded by McGill University, in Montreal, and a separate Woomera Manual by the University of Adelaide. Both hope to publish their documents 2020…

Russia and China would like a formal treaty banning all weapons in space. Both are keen to prevent America from deploying space-based anti-missile systems which might threaten their own nuclear forces. America and its allies resist this. They argue that it is impossible to define a space weapon—anything that manoeuvres in orbit could serve as one—and that it would be easy to cheat. The European Union has instead proposed a voluntary code of conduct. Many non-Western countries would prefer a binding treaty…. Though most are not space powers, many are likely to become so in the future, so their buy-in is important.

Excerpts from Satellite warfare: An arms race is brewing in orbit, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

If You Control Space, You Control Everything: Space as War Domain

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is looking to classify space as a domain for warfare in an attempt to deter China’s growing military power.  If NATO’s proposal succeeds, the international alliance could move forward with the development and use of space weapons.  According to NATO diplomats, the international organization is preparing to release an agreement that will officially declare space as a war domain. This means that aside from land, air and sea, space could also be used for military operations during times of war.

Although NATO’s partner countries currently own 65% of the satellites in space, China is reportedly preparing to launch a massive project that involves releasing constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit.  China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC)  is planning to put in orbit 150 or more Hongyun satellites by 2023. Some of these satellites will provide commercial services like high-speed internet while others would be controlled by the Chinese military. These militarized satellites can be used to coordinate ground forces and to track approaching missiles.

“You can have warfare exclusively in space, but whoever controls space also controls what happens on land, on the sea and in the air,” according to Jamie Shea, a former NATO official. “If you don’t control space, you don’t control the other domains either.”

Excerpts from Inigo Monzon , NATO Prepares For Space Warfare By Militarizing Low Earth Orbit, International Business Times, June 24, 2019

Hypersonic Weapons

Payloads on hypersonic aircraft, whether they are weapons or sensors, could reach their destination within minutes, rather than hours, said Mark Lewis, former chief scientist of the Air Force and now director of the Science and Technology Institute at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research-and-development center.  Hypersonic speed is generally defined as beginning at Mach 5, which is the point where aerodynamic heating caused by the speed of the vehicle cutting through the atmosphere becomes a factor.

The Air Force concluded its successful X-51 WaveRider program in 2013. The final test had the missile-like aircraft flying at Mach 5.1 for about 200 seconds.  Meanwhile, the Army is testing the advanced hypersonic weapon, a missile designed for vertical launch. It suffered a failed test seconds after takeoff in August 2014, but that was caused by a faulty booster, not the missile or hypersonic technology itself, Lewis noted….

Hypersonic technology could be seen as a follow-on to stealth, Lewis said. Even if an aircraft has that kind of technology, it doesn’t mean it is invisible, he said. Adversaries are growing better at spotting stealthy aircraft, he said. Speed might compensate for that, he said. “If I can fly really fast, it makes it harder to act against me. It doesn’t make it impossible. But it makes it harder.”

Top Air Force leaders are indicating that they want to move hypersonic technology to the next level.  Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Secretary Deborah Lee James in the document “America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future,” said hypersonic development was number one on the service’s list of top five technology priorities.  [T]the Air Force sees hypersonic weapons as a potential means to break through anti-access/area-denied battlefields where adversaries have robust defenses….

The Air Force will team with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on two new hypersonic programs, he said. The first will be a cruise missile called HAWC, the hypersonic air-breathing weapons concept. The other is called tactical boost glide, which will accelerate an aircraft to Mach 5 plus speeds, then let it glide to its target.

Similarly, space planes could deliver payloads in minutes. The reusable space plane concept has been proposed many times over the years, and received a new lease on life when DARPA awarded three contracts to Boeing, Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman to study the idea of a two-stage launch system that could rapidly place 3,000 to 5,000 pounds into orbit. The Air Force has never given up on that idea, as evidenced by the new DARPA initiative, Lewis said.  Space planes have been talked about for decades, Lewis said. There have been many starts and stops in developing the concept, he added.

NASA’s space shuttle was originally conceived as a vehicle that could rapidly lift payloads into space at low cost, and be flexible and responsive. It never lived up to that promise.

The DARPA experimental spaceplane (XS-1) program envisions a reusable aircraft that could be launched from a mobile platform, and return 10 times within 10 days. It would employ a reusable first stage that would fly to Mach 10 at a suborbital altitude. At that point, one or more expendable upper stages would separate and deploy a satellite into low-Earth orbit.  While a space plane in low-Earth orbit could potentially be used as a weapon, it would more likely be employed as a means to rapidly replace satellites that have been damaged in a space war, or to place sensors over regions where there are currently no assets, Lewis said….

Meanwhile, more akin to the space shuttle than the DARPA concept for the space plane, the Air Force continues to use the X-37B, a top-secret orbiter that also glides to Earth. One has been in orbit since October 2012. The Air Force has repeatedly denied that it has, or is intended to be, weaponized. What its exact mission is remains classified

Excerpts from Stew Magnuson, Hypersonic Weapons Can Defeat Distance, National Defense Magazine, Nov.  2014