Battles For Territory in Space

Conflict is brewing in space among the world’s leading superpowers – China, Russia and the United States – for control of satellites. Currently the U.S. reigns supreme in space with over 1,100 governmental and civilian satellites of the roughly 2,270 in orbit.

China and Russia are keen to claim their own territory in this crowded nest of orbits and are working to destroy U.S. satellites and replace with their own.

Modern civilization has become increasingly dependent upon satellites for everything from cellular towers, power grids, cable and network television, navigation (GPS) systems, and weather monitoring to a myriad of uses in business and finance.

But this fight for territory in space largely revolves around intelligence. Satellites used for surveillance mean placement is key. When conflict breaks out in Ukraine for example, territory from space with the prime views becomes highly sought after—both for those who want to assess the situation and those who wish to cover up their actions.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before congress earlier this year saying China and Russia are both “developing capabilities to deny access in a conflict” and that China in particular has demonstrated “the need to interfere with, damage and destroy” U.S. satellites.

So how is a battle for control of the sky fought? There are basically two methods—the brazen act of launching an anti-satellite missile, and the more covert method (currently on the rise) of utilizing “inspection” satellites to sabotage or destroy other satellites. “Inspection” satellites are typically configured to perform ordinary maintenance and thus appear harmless, however they are capable of destroying other satellites with lasers, explosives and/or mechanical claws.

In response to these possible threats, the current administration has budgeted at least $5 billion to be spent over the next five years to enhance both the defensive and offensive capabilities of the U.S. military space program. Efforts to tackle the problem via diplomacy are also being made, though progress has been stymied. In late July at the United Nations, a long awaited EU-drafted code of conduct for space-faring nations failed due to opposition from Russia, China, Iran and others. At this point, international law governing space operations is likely many years from being ratified.

“The bottom line is the United States does not want conflict in outer space,” says Frank Rose, Assistant Secretary of State for arms control, verification and compliance – who has led the U.S. diplomatic efforts to prevent a space arms race. The U.S., he says, is willing to work with Russia and China to keep space secure. “But let me make it very clear: we will defend our space assets if attacked.”

We know that China, Russia and the U.S. are developing and testing controversial new capabilities to wage war in space despite their denial of such work. Let us hope the quest for space domination and resulting repercussions does not reign down on us at home.

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