As perceived security threats mount in Earth’s orbit, countries around the world are following the example of the United States and creating their own “space forces.”
Nine months ago, in December 2019, the U.S. Space Force was born. The new military branch was created with a focus to protect the nation’s satellites and other space assets, which are vital to everything from national security to day-to-day communications.
Now, countries including France, Canada and Japan are following suit, as leaders from those countries’ “space force” analogs said Thursday (Sept. 10) during the 2nd Summit for Space Sustainability, an online event hosted by the nonprofit Secure World Foundation.
So, why do these countries, as well as nations like Russia and China, want a military presence in space?
According to Maj. Gen. John Shaw, the combined force space component commander of the U.S. Space Command and commander of space operations command for the U.S. Space Force, it’s analogous to asking “why do ocean-going or seafaring nations want a Navy?” They want “to secure that domain for all activity and to deter threats in that domain,” he said during the summit on Thursday. “Nobody wants a war in space.”
The threats that the U.S. Space Force aims to deter are not theoretical and have already started popping up, Shaw explained.
For example, in April and again in July, the Space Force detected an anti-satellite missile test conducted in low Earth orbit by Russia. The April test “provides yet another example that the threats to the U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious and growing,” Space Force commander Gen. John “Jay” Raymond stated following that incident.
Satellite tests are no uncommon occurrence in low Earth orbit. However, according to Shaw, Russia was testing what looked like a “space torpedo.”
“And I could add many other threats that we’ve seen along the continuum of space counter-space capabilities,” Shaw added, citing “the proliferation of electromagnetic spectrum jammers” as an example. Jammers deliberately interfere with information beaming to or from Earth-orbiting satellites.
And, while the U.S. Space Force is actively working to combat these threats, other countries are following suit. “We share the same concerns,” French Space Command major general and commander Michel Friedling said during the summit.
“We want to make sure that we’re not riding coattails,” Brig. Gen. Mike Adamson, the director general and Space/Joint Force Space Component Commander for the Canadian Department of National Defence added during the summit. Canada wants to “maintain our place at the table,” Adamson said.
Satellite swarm threats
However, intentional, nefarious threats from other nations are not the only concern for the U.S. Space Force and other countries’ growing military space efforts. Constellations of satellites from private companies here on Earth can also pose serious issues.
The “proliferation in low Earth orbit of commercial satellites, in some ways, might be the greatest threat to space sustainability,” Shaw said, adding that this will only really be a threat if not done properly.
Recently, SpaceX began launching large numbers of satellites to low Earth orbit, in an effort to grow a huge constellation called Starlink that’s designed to provide internet access around the globe.
SpaceX has already lofted more than 700 Starlink satellites. But Elon Musk’s company has approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to launch as many as 12,000 satellites into orbit and may want to grow the constellation even larger than that someday.
And SpaceX isn’t the only one with such ambitions. For example, Amazon aims to launch about 3,200 satellites for its own internet constellation, Project Kuiper.
Putting so many satellites into orbit raises a number of potential concerns, including the proliferation of “space junk.” While SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are designed to fall out of orbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere over time, the presence of so many spacecraft in orbit at once increases the possibility of collisions, which would generate huge swarms of debris. These swarms would then pose a potential threat to other satellites in orbit.
As Shaw mentioned, the Space Force also expects to see more and more “academic” or science-focused satellites launched into orbit.
With all of these new satellites expected to launch, the Space Force wants to ensure that they are made with a “responsible design so that they don’t become a navigational hazard,” Shaw said. “As we continue to expand across all sectors…how do we do that in a responsible way?”
This is a concern for other countries dipping their toes into space-focused military branches as well.
These emerging military enterprises have to consider things such as, “How do we coordinate with the private actors in space?” Friedling said.
Friedling also brought up the issue of security for these private or science-focused satellites. “Do they want to be protected or escorted?” he asked, comparing these craft to private ships that were escorted in convoys during World War I to keep them safe from enemy attack from newly introduced submarines.
The space military representatives, which also included Maj. Gen. Hiroaki Sakanashi, the director general of the project promotion group for emerging domains and programs in the Air Staff Office in Japan, seemed to agree that these are concerns that should be addressed by space-focused military efforts.
“You invite conflict when there’s weakness, and I believe you deter conflict when there is strength, and that is the path we’re on,” Shaw said. Taking this approach “will lead us, I believe, to a more strategically stable situation that deters conflict in space,” he added.
“Certainly, Canada is going along those lines as well,” Adamson agreed.