Military use of space

If space is just another part of the human environment, will we extend all our activities into it? Space 'assets' - satellites, launchers, associated ground infrastructure - are crucial to modern security and defence. The ability to monitor 'the other side' has been credited with helping to stabilize the Cold War and prevent the ultimate catastrophe of global nuclear war, which was a very real danger until quite recently. But military actions in space are supposed to be forbidden under UN treaties (see lecture 7). Can we, and should we, militarize space? Can we avoid it?

Launch vehicles

The first launch vehicles were missiles, developed for the purpose of dropping nuclear weapons on cities but adapted to launch satellites. Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev, the architects of the US and Soviet space programs, began their careers designing missiles and only dreaming of space. Today, Russian missiles which have to be eliminated under the conditions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty are being converted into satellite launchers (Kosmotras). The links between military and civilian space programs are difficult to separate. In the US, NASA and the Pentagon have separate space programs, but the civilian/military distinction is not so clear in many other jurisdictions.
ISC Kosmotras
US launch vehicles
Launch vehicles - general

'Spy' satellites

Surveillance from orbit may have helped defuse the Cold War, and it is certainly important today for military and national security operations. Beginning with high resolution photography, surveillance has expanded to include electronic intelligence gathering. Early imaging satellites returned film in re-entry capsules, but now transmit their data. Commercial imaging satellites are now nearly as good as 'spy' satellites, so military users often buy commercial data rather than obtaining their own. During specific operations (such as in Iraq recently) the military will sometimes buy all available images exclusively, to prevent their use by the enemy.
Space Surveillance
US Air Force Space Command
Spy Satellites

Global Positioning System

GPS lets you find out where you are - but that is also essential for many military tasks such as dropping a bunker-buster bomb on the high value target of your choice. GPS was first developed for military uses, and only then opened for civilian applications. In time of war the civil version can be shut down or degraded to hinder enemy use. Russia has its own GPS, called Glonass. Europe is starting to build one called Galileo.
GPS (courtesy Peter H. Dana, The Geographer's Craft Project, Department of Geography, The University of Colorado at Boulder.)

Weather and Communications Satellites

These systems are also essential for military operations. Although there are commercial systems with similar capabilities, Armed Forces around the world have their own parallel systems for security reasons. All these surveillance, GPS, communications and weather satellites make up the 'space assets' which shape warfare today. If they are so important, could they come under attack? (for instance, sensors blinded by lasers?). Should they be defended? Is this how space gets militarized?
Protection of Space Assets - PDF file.
Military weather satellites
Military communication satellites

Star Wars?

Not the movie... Ronald Reagan proposed a system of orbiting sensors and lasers (or other possible architectures) as a means of rendering ballistic missiles obsolete. This Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars, faced enormous technical difficulties and strong opposition from around the world, as some versions would break the UN treaty ban on weapons in space. Nevertheless, some people believe the Soviet economy collapsed trying to keep up with this development, so Star Wars might have ended the Cold War.
Ballistic Missile Defense.
Reagan's 1984 proposal.
Possible Soviet Responses...

More Ballistic Missile Defense?

Canada has been invited to join a program to defend the continent against ballistic missiles. So far it has resisted. The threat is not just that missiles might be launched from a hostile nation, as we once feared in the case of the Soviet Union, but also that a small missile might be launched by terrorists from a cargo ship near a coastal city. This would be difficult to stop - short flight times mean very little opportunity to react, and anyway how do you stop an incoming missile? The technical problems are immense. Should we do it? If BMD involves space-based sensors monitoring potential missile launches, does that constitute militarizing space? Would we be militarizing space if we just used orbiting mirrors to deflect ground-based lasers towards an incoming missile? Are we participating if we just provide space for radar sensors to look for missiles? You can see it gets complicated.
BMD
... and Canada?

Assured Access to Space

You own assets in space, and want to defend them. Or you need rapid access to space to put up new surveillance systems to deal with a new threat. Or - maybe - you want to deny an enemy the use of their space assets before they fly over your bases. In each case you may need guaranteed access to space at very short notice. Military planners have tried to create their own satellite (and even human) launch vehicles, to avoid relying on systems like the Shuttle which are less reliable or take a long time to prepare. Secrecy shrouds these efforts, but the message is clear - a largely hidden space program runs parallel to the civilian efforts we usually hear about. What is not so clear is how far this has gone along the road to space. It's worth remembering that the 'moon race' of the 1960s began with plans for military bases on the moon.
Covert spaceplane development?

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