India’s Anti-Satellite Test: What Happens When We Weaponize Space?

So India blew up a satellite last week…

And so it begins.  The weaponization of space.  There are a lot of things to digest from this event, and I’m going to try to stay as apolitical as possible on this one.  Instead, let’s just look at what extending destructive military operations into the space around Earth could look like in the not-too-distant future.

There are two main articles I’m drawing off for this post.  In the first, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine gave a speech condemning the action on the part of the Indian government for both creating “60 pieces of orbital-debris big enough to track,” and for creating a risky precedent – the weaponization of space.

The other article asserts that the line has already been crossed.  It discusses the fallout from just this stage of space warfare – the part where we blow up each others’ satellites.  Mostly it deals with the geopolitical realities between India, Pakistan, and China and whether or not the move is defensive, offensive, or deterrent in nature.

So where are we now?

As stated above, India blew up one of its own satellites last week, presumably to prove to its neighbors that it could.  Why is that even important?  What is India hoping to do, anyway, knock out Chinese or Pakistani cable TV?  How is that going to help them?

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Well, it turns out…

Satellites: They’re not just for TV anymore! 

NASA Communications Relay Satellite in orbit.

NASA Communications Relay Satellite in orbit.

Okay, I know most of you know that, but let’s just take a moment to enumerate just some of the myriad modern systems that rely on satellites.

  • Communications systems
    • So that cable TV I joked about? Well, the whole idea for those networks of satellites came from military communications development.  Terrestrial radio communications could only go so far and were often impeded by either line-of-sight obstruction or unfavorable atmospheric conditions.  The military began using satellites for communications.  They received a signal on one side of the earth and transmitted it to another part of the globe reliably.  And they weren’t bothered by things like clouds or mountains being in the way.
    • Private broadcasters got their hands on the tech, and they started using it for TV.  Then, when private communications companies got their hands on it, they created cell-phone, and eventually 4G, networks. Now, your iPhone doesn’t connect directly to a satellite, but it still relies on them.  Those terrestrial cell towers still rely on satellite relays.
  • GPS Tracking
    • Using signals from three satellites, GPS systems triangulate your position anywhere on the globe.  That doesn’t happen without satellites.  Period.  We can do it with cell towers, but they still rely on satellite-linked networks, so…
  • Military Command and Control
    • Apart from military and civilian communications, satellites are now being used to control unmanned drones, take spy photos, and perform all sorts of other tasks that would be crippled by the loss of a satellite.

The Satellite Warfare Scenario

ICBM Launch at night.

ICBM Launch at night.

Tensions arise between two or more hostile nations.  There is an aggressive act (or a perceived aggressive act) by one nation toward the other.  The other nation retaliates by blowing up a communications satellite.  Now in either large parts of, or possibly the whole country, civilians could be without any modern communications capability.  They could have restricted or no internet access.  They could essentially render the other nation blind and deaf.

The nation that knocks out its enemies’ satellites would also knock out their ability to coordinate counter attacks, control drones, and other unmanned vehicles, and resupply forward-deployed units.

What’s Next?

Indian unmanned space shuttle

Indian unmanned space shuttle

Well, it’s probably not going to be Tie Fighters or Klingon Birds of Prey just yet, but blowing up satellites – especially those that could seriously cripple a society could have effects similar to those of using WMDs.  

Here’s a scenario I could see unfolding, given the history of arms escalation in recent decades.  First, a country proves they can and are willing to blow up their neighbor’s satellites.  Their neighbors react by building either an offensive system of their own that is superior in blowing up satellites, or they build some kind of orbital craft to actively protect the satellites.  If the diplomatic situation is tense, both countries will claim that their systems are for “defensive purposes only.”  

Think about how navies evolved, though.  You have a commodity (a ship) that’s vulnerable to attack (say a troop transport or a supply ship).  You can either give that ship bigger guns (which is not what it’s built for), or you can build some smaller, lighter ships to go along in a caravan with it and protect it.  The same thing happened in the Air Force.  Bombers couldn’t attack without support from smaller, more maneuverable fighters.

Anti-Satellite Missiles Turn into Anti-Satellite Drones?

With missile defense, the idea was to build a missile that could knock out an incoming missile.  We may be at the point now where that is obsolete thinking.  With drone technology, envisioning a fleet of unmanned fighter drones patrolling the space around critical satellites is not too much a flight of fancy (if you’ll pardon the pun).  Imagine a satellite being patrolled by as many as seven unmanned space drones programmed to intercept and destroy incoming threats – be they missiles or other enemy space drones.  Sound like science fiction?  I think it’s not as far off as one might think now that the battlefield has extended into orbit.

 

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