With so many armed conflicts underway on Earth, the prospects of a war in space have received less attention in recent years. But that doesn’t mean preparations for a potential battle over cosmic resources have ended. The United States and China continue to develop their capacities to protect critical satellites while shooting those of their enemies out of orbit, while Russia lags further behind in third place. Most frontiers in human history have ultimately served as battlegrounds, and space — “the final frontier” — is unlikely to prove an exception.
A day without space…..
All around us, thousands of spacecraft cross the skies — so many that congestion in space is now a real problem. On a clear night you can see some of them, small starlike points of light cruising silently across the sky. These are a small fraction of the vast networks of satellites that provide a vital part of the nervous system of our civilised, connected society: all electronic financial transactions must be timestamped using the precision timing capabilities that only GPS can supply; our food and commodity supply chains are coordinated using the same technology; electronic devices, including the one on which you are reading this, would fail, as it too depends on GPS. One single day without space would be catastrophic.
And that’s just the normal, day-to-day world. From a military perspective, reconnaissance and communications (which are closely linked) are almost entirely dependent on space assets. The GPS system which underpins much of modern life was originally developed to assist precision targeting. It is still operated by the US Military and is one of the main functions of the new US Space force (founded by then-President Donald Trump in 2019). We saw in Ukraine the absolutely vital function fulfilled by Elon Musk’s Starlink system, possibly the single most important factor in Ukraine’s success up to now, as it has allowed Ukrainian units to communicate after the destruction (by cyber-attack) of their Viasat system early in the war.
Space as domain of conflict
All of this brings us to space as a battleground. NATO has considered space as the fifth ‘domain’ of combat (in addition to land, sea, air, and cyber) since 2019. In 2015, Russia renamed its air force the ‘Aerospace Force’ (VKS), and France – a major European space power – similarly renamed its air force to the ‘Air and Space Force’ in 2020. All major states are gearing up to protect their cosmic assets and to destroy those of their enemy.
Some of their preparations have been truly dangerous, with China (2007) and Russia (2021) using missiles to destroy old satellites of their own in order to demonstrate their capability to attack the satellites of others. These are called ‘direct ascent’ operations. The debris from these strikes produce clouds of debris that will remain in orbit for decades and that constitute a danger for all space-users. And should full-scale war arrive, the West’s space assets will face the threat of Chinese and Russian missiles and lasers, along with a specialized form of attack satellite that can approach and damage — or even literally take apart — enemy spacecraft. This kind of attack is called a ‘rendezvous and proximity’ operation. You can see an amusing but actually quite accurate depiction from the Netflix show “Space Force” here.
Where Russia’s relative capacity to wage war in space is declining, China’s is catching up quickly. Still, neither potential adversary is capable of posing the same level of threat to the United States that the United States is capable of posing to them. present a critical threat, but nowhere near as much a danger as the US presents to them. America is still by far the world’s most powerful space-faring nation, and it is conducting a major effort to defend and strengthen its space networks.
Taking war to the Moon
Both major space powers — the U.S. and China — have their sights set well beyond near-Earth orbit (and this is where things really move more into the realms of science fiction). Both countries are making plans for what to do on the moon, and they are also getting ready to use the space between Earth and Moon (‘cislunar’ space) as a potential theatre of conflict.
The first question is, of course, why are we spreading our conflicts to the moon? Can’t we leave the moon free of our local, petty, mass-casualty disputes? The answer to the first question is straightforward: resources. The moon is a vast repository of valuable minerals and chemicals that are very rare on Earth. These will be mined and exploited. The second question is essentially philosophical. The fact is that the moon is a frontier, and frontiers have, almost without exception in human history, become areas of chronic conflict. (Antarctica, protected by the Antarctic Treaty until 2057, offers a rare exception, but in the present international environment, there is little hope of reaching a similar legal or quasi-legal arrangement which will bind all nations.)
Both the U.S. and China are planning moon bases which will require energy from the moon itself, and it is very clear what the most important commodity on the moon will be – water. Scientists estimate that there are billions of tons of water embedded deep within lunar rocks. This is especially the case at parts of the lunar South Pole, and strategists already have their eyes on particular craters — especially Shackleton, which is always shaded from the sun. Vast infrastructure will be required to extract this water. It is here that China and the U.S. are likely to establish their first moon bases, and it is here where the potential for conflict may be highest.
Of course, like all bases, those on the moon will need resupplying from Earth, and those supply routes will need to be defended. America is already considering what they are calling the ‘Cislunar Highway Patrol System’ to ensure the safe passage of these resupply craft against attack by any potential enemy.
And the moon is only the beginning. The famous Astronomer Neil de Grasse Tyson once said that the first trillionaire will be made in space, and the source of their wealth will be minerals from asteroids. In other words, we stand at the brink of a new phase of space exploration: the age of space traders. It is a situation ripe with all the potential for piracy and resource-driven organized conflict that we have seen on Earth for thousands of years. Unfortunately, it looks that we will be taking our Earthly habits of war into the Cosmos.