Are military satellites the next big thing?
On a late October Saturday, France launched its Ariane 5 rocket. Carrying their state-of-the-art Syracuse 4A satellite to be used for military communications, the prominence of military presence in space was once again amplified. It might seem surprising to some that such a tactical military move is out there in the open. However, launching a colossal vessel complete with power to travel over 60 miles into space is rather hard to keep secret.
In fact, it’s thought that about one-tenth of the satellites currently in orbit are of a military nature. And with such accessible and vocal information about countries’ military missions up above, major powers are battling for dominance in space. As more space-based assets are being used to fulfil defence strategies, it’s got us thinking about the real space race. Elon Musk, eat your heart out.
May the space force be with you
The US recently introduced the world’s first Space Force. A significant move in itself, made even more notable due to it being the country’s first new military service in the last 70 years. Its mission? To provide freedom of operation for the US in, from, and to, space, ranging from space security to information mobility. The US Space Force Act also details the service’s duty ‘protect the interests’ and ‘deter aggression’ in/from/to space. Which leads us to question, just exactly how aggressive are these threats in space?
Rumours are rife about the Russian-based KB Arsenal’s suspected work on a nuclear-powered military satellite. Known as ‘Ekipazh’, it’s believed to be equipped with a nuclear power source which could give it capacity to perform electronic warfare from space. And we begin to piece together why other countries are keen to enforce their powers up above…
Public knowledge states that there’s over 300 military satellites in space, with the US owning roughly half. Russia and China follow behind, with around 75 and 70 respectively. As of 2020, the UK had launched 7 military satellites. Due to the secretive nature of defence work, these figures must be taken with a pinch of salt. What’s more, some satellites serve both military and civilian use, so their exact nature can’t be defined. And as more satellite projects are launched thanks to a combination of technology advancements and increased funding, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint the exact number in orbit.
The ‘big brother’ era
In short, and without making it sound too obvious, military satellites are artificial satellites that are employed for… You guessed it, military purposes. Their functions stretch from gathering intelligence to operational navigation to enabling military communications. Naturally, such functions are also carried out at ground-level, but the global coverage of the satellite is the primary pull.
It’s not news that we’re living in a world increasingly becoming more ‘Big Brother’. We’re almost constantly being watched by someone, or something, with our movements growingly tracked and monitored. Whether that be by the military or by commercial or non-governmental bodies, ‘spy’ technology is advancing.
Employing satellite technology to garner intelligence from opposition’s communications networks is highly advantageous. For a start, it’s far more difficult for enemies to interfere with satellites than it is with their counterparts on the ground. Essentially, you can’t cut the comms wires connecting satellites to ground-level users, because, well, there isn’t one. So, satellites that are deployed for communications-monitoring purposes can freely scour thousands of mobile calls, picking up information being radiated from phone towers. ‘Space’ military personnel connected to the data being sourced from up above, can track and listen to communications traffic, regarding secretive intelligence or terrorist activities to name but a few.
The future scope of space missions
And the scope for space-related military actions is getting even more futuristic, and arguably more daunting. As we gain an upped capacity to launch more satellites, concerns are being voiced about congestion in space. With over fifty years of sending items into orbit, space ‘junk’ is becoming a serious global problem. As countries increase their spatial presence, there’s growing potential for international conflict.
Could satellites knock into one another? What’s the true threat of collision? What happens if they actually crash? Are they robust enough to survive? Whose fault is it? What happens to the intelligence?
Theoretically speaking, space debris can cause damage to satellites. Be it ‘naturally’ occurring debris or debris caused by a collision, the risk is very much there that essential communications networks could be taken down. Such accidents, however, may not be quite what they seem.
Planning satellite crashes offers opportunity; it’s been suggested that smaller ‘spy’ satellites could be hidden among debris. Known as ‘virtual satellites’, parts, including amplifiers, processors, and sensors have the potential to be launched separately, then connect wirelessly. Some thoughts can be both terrifying and astounding…
Space-led military armies are no longer just concepts restricted to the cinema screen. As boundaries are pushed, defence strategists around the globe are investing more into their space assets. And it doesn’t seem like we’ll be coming back down to Earth any time soon.
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