By Theresa Hitchens
Over the past 20 years, the use of outer space has changed dramatically. From the dawn of the space age up to the Cold War era, Russia and the United States were the world’s only space powers. Today, 41 countries own or operate satellites, about a dozen countries can launch satellites, and many others are seeking such capability. At the same time, more and more countries are using space for military purposes -- from communications to mapping to intelligence gathering to weapons targeting.
What might the milspace environment look like in another 50 years? While prognostication is usually ill-rewarded, the one thing safe to say is that it’s going to be crowded up there: with more military satellite users and operators and a plethora of micro- and nano-satellites joining larger, more traditional satellites. More difficult to foresee is whether there will be combat operations in or from space, as technology is only one of the obstacles to space war.
What We Certainly Will See
The emerging micro- and nano- and pico-sat boomlet will change the milspace landscape in more ways than one. In the past, most working satellites were behemoths, weighed in metric tons. With the price of launch still hovering between $11,000 and $22,000 per kilogram, cost has been a significant factor in limiting the number of space operators. Small, smaller and teeny satellites (between 100 kilograms and 1 kilogram) launched on small, low-cost launchers will hurdle that barrier. While low-cost launch has long been a space pipe dream, programs such as Europe’s planned Vega and the U.S.-planned Falcon, as well as the multitude of innovative concepts being developed by private space entrepreneurs such as Burt Rutan and Elon Musk, are today laying a solid foundation for a revolution in satellite affordability.
Currently, 14 nations operate some 292 dedicated or dual-use satellites for military purposes (although most of those are U.S. owned). There is no doubt that the drop in pricetags will ensure that both numbers continue to grow.
Tiny satellites will provide a host of new capabilities. In particular, militaries will be afforded a much greater level of “space situational awareness:” the ability to “see” and understand what is happening with one’s own and other’s space assets. Equipped with tiny optical cameras and other sensors, micro-satellites will be in the forefront for tracking and identifying space objects, from debris to potential on-orbit anti-satellite weapons (ASATs). Micro-satellites that can autonomously maneuver will be used for inspection, failure diagnostics and reconnaissance of other’s space assets, as well as refueling and repair (once again, greatly reducing the life-time costs of a satellite system). Mini-satellites also long have been viewed as potential attackers, using radio frequency jamming, blocking optical apertures or destroying targets through kinetic energy. Housed in benign-looking motherships, or carried on operating satellites for later release, such weapons would be difficult to find and track from the ground. With the increased use of seeing-eye micro-sats, however, it will be much harder to hide in space.
Micro-satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellations will also likely replace the large satellites now used in ones, twos and threes for Earth observation-related operations. And everyone will want them. The proliferation of imaging satellites means it will also much harder to hide anywhere on Earth. The good news is, battlefield commanders will be able to call in satellite reinforcements with localized communications and imaging from LEO on a “pop-up” basis, whenever and wherever they are needed.
What We Probably Won’t See
While micro-sat hordes are practically inevitable, the outlook for rapid space strike capabilities – via “Marines in Space,” orbiting hypervelocity rods, weapons-carrying hypersonic cruise vehicles or space planes – remains decidedly cloudy.
Carrying tourists into LEO is a decidedly different, and much more achievable, proposition than inserting a squadron of Marines into hostile territory and getting them back out safely via a sub-orbital space vehicle. Despite the Corps’ hopes, 2057 is likely to come and go without the advent of Starship Troopers.
Space-based terrestrial strike weapons using kinetic energy must battle the laws of physics (absentee ratios), not to mention economics (even in an age of low-cost launch options, getting thousands of necessarily heavy things to orbit will strain any war-planner’s cost-benefit calculations). And Earth-zapping lasers are nowhere on the horizon.
True space-planes (single stage to orbit) remain vexed by the fact that to achieve the velocity needed for lift, a huge load of fuel is required, making the vehicle so heavy that payloads, whether humans or weapons, are infeasible. While there is much research ongoing, methods to overcome this chemical propulsion quandary – such as anti-matter engines – are likely to remain in the realm of science fiction for a long, long time.
Sub-orbital hypersonic cruise vehicles look more promising technologically, but their history – dating back to the late 1950s and early 1960s – is less than impressive. Still, of all the options for space strike, the use of hypersonic vehicles is the only one worth betting anything on. But it’s a 50/50 chance.
The Million Dollar Question
What about space wars? As weapons on orbit don’t look feasible for the foreseeable future, the real question is the emergence of ASATs. The micro-sat revolution both encourages and discourages ASAT development. Maneuverable micro-sats could make excellent weapons, but ASAT operations (whether kinetic, directed energy or RF) are vastly complicated when there are tens of targets instead of just one, and when everyone is watching very closely. And as reliance on space increases, the pressure against debris-creating weapons grows in turn. But history teaches us that just because the military usefulness of a technology is in doubt, it doesn’t mean it won’t be pursued. The case is still out.
Many will no doubt think this look-ahead lacks imagination. But given the problems major space powers are having in simply replacing current capabilities, and the general 15-20 year timeline for development of new military systems, unbridled techno-optimism about the future of milspace seems unwarranted. Still, there’s always science fiction.
-- Theresa Hitchens is director of the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information, and author of “Future Security in Space: Charting a Cooperative Course.”