Military Embedded Systems

War in space


December 20, 2016

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: Speculating a war in space is a perplexing subject, so let?s wade into it with a heathy level of trepidation, looking at treaties, space courts, and potential battle scenarios.

Space treaties

First off, there’s the Outer Space Treaty (1967), signed by 104 countries (with another 24 in the ratification process), that outlaws weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the earth, on the moon, or on any other celestial body. If you want to read the document, you can find it here <>. It’s written in legalese, so reading it is like intentionally rubbing sand in your eyes for an hour.

The treaty, however, does allow conventional (kinetic) weapons in space, if that’s any consolation. Additionally, the treaty says that no nation may claim sovereignty or ownership over any celestial bodies by planting a flag on it or by temporary or permanent occupation. So, no country can put a large nuclear weapon storehouse in space and rain warheads down on an enemy nation…unless they can sneak it up there. That’s the theme of the movie “Space Cowboys," if you care to watch it.

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1996) prohibits the explosion of nuclear weapons in space. If you have been a consistent reader of my previous articles, you already know that Russia exploded seven nuclear weapons in space in the 1960s, while the U.S. exploded five nuclear weapons in space in the same timeframe. Both countries were trying to create the Christophilos Effect. These explosions were more than 90 miles up, but there were other Russian and U.S. nuclear explosions slightly below that altitude. You can read this document here <>, with the exact same ocular discomfort.

To read more Warfare Evolution Blogs by Ray Alderman, click here.

Luxembourg and space war legalities

Treaties always involve lawyers and international courts and the space environment is no different. The country of Luxembourg, sensing a legal vacuum, took it upon themselves to become the epicenter of space law, defining who has the land use and mineral rights on any celestial objects, since they have a lot of unoccupied lawyers sitting around. Obviously, mining and exploration companies should file their legal claims in Luxembourg’s “space courts’ and pay legal and claim fees. Could the next step be Luxembourg levying taxes on any ore and mineral imports coming back to earth? We seem to have a jurisdictional problem here. If Luxembourg wants to administer the “space courts”, then their lawyers and judges should be sent up there. But, that might violate other agreements, prohibiting countries from contaminating space.

Currently the treaties do not prohibit the use of space as a highway for nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, to enter and leave on their way to their targets over some period of time. Also, satellites can only lay claim to the position they occupy in orbit, much like ships at sea.

As you can probably see by now, space law is basically an extension of maritime law, and that raises serious questions about Luxembourg’s authority, given their historical lack of naval presence and experience on the oceans.

Space players

About 6,600 satellites have been launched into space by eleven countries: United States, Russia, France, Japan, China, United Kingdom, India, Ukraine, Israel, Iran, and North Korea as well as the European Space Agency. Around 3,600 of them are still in orbit, with about 1,000 of those still operational, according to web information. Of those that are operational, about 500 of them are in low earth orbit (100 to 1.200 miles up, with an orbital period of about 127 minutes), 50 are in medium-earth orbit (1,200 to 12,000 miles up, with an orbital period of about 12 hours), and the rest are in high-altitude geostationary orbit (22,300 miles up). Turkey just launched their first military satellite in December 2016 with nine more planned.

These statistics are significant because a potential war in space could involve one country launching missiles from Earth to destroy their enemy’s spy and communications satellites. Here are some examples of nations demonstrating that capability taking out their own satellites:

- On 11 January 2007, China shot down their FY-1C weather satellite flying 537 miles above the earth. The spacecraft was in a decaying orbit, and the missile fired from their ground base was an SC-19. The kinetic explosion created 3,438 pieces of space debris (2,867 pieces are still up there flying around). The action was clearly a Chinese anti-satellite missile test.

- On 21 February 2008, an SM-3 missile was fired from the USS Lake Erie in the Pacific, and it destroyed the failed NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) spy satellite USA-193 flying 140 miles high. The satellite failed to operate after launch and began a decaying orbit that would bring it back to earth within a few weeks. The cover story, for the destruction of the spacecraft, was that it contained 1,000 pounds of hydrazine, a deadly toxic chemical used as a propellant to maneuver in orbit, and needed to be destroyed before reentry. The kinetic explosion created 174 pieces of debris. The last chunk of USA-193 reentered the earth’s atmosphere in October 2009. This action was clearly an American anti-satellite missile test.

- Another incident, unknown to many today, occurred 13 September 1985 when the U.S. shot down the Solwind failed research satellite P78-1, flying 345 miles above the Earth. The missile used on this mission was the ASM-135 (anti-satellite missile) fired from an F-15 fighter plane flying at 38,000 feet, about 200 miles off the coast of California. The explosion created 285 pieces of debris, all of which have reentered the atmosphere and burned up, according to reports.

Another potential capability comes in the form of “killer satellites”, snoopers, “dazzlers”, and kamikazes. Here are some examples:

- According to a recent (December 2016) CNN special report by the same title as this article, China launched their “Roaming Dragon” satellite on 25 June 2016. It contains lots of fuel for maneuvering, and has a robotic arm. Chinese officials say the mission is to grab chunks of space debris and throw it back to earth, where it will burn up harmlessly upon reentry. But, could it cozy-up to an American intelligence satellite, knock it out of orbit, or destroy its antennas and solar panel supports with the robotic arm? Why Roaming Dragon as the name, instead of Merry Chinese Cleaning Maids?

- Then, there’s the Russian snooper satellites -- Kosmos 2499 (launched in May 2013) and the Luch (launched in September 2014). They have been maneuvering around in high-earth orbit, parking themselves next to some Intelsat satellites. The assumption is that they are snooping on communications traffic coming into and going out of those satellites. One could ask whether Kosmos and Luch become kamikazes and crash into the satellites they are monitoring, destroying them.

- Enemy anti-satellite satellites could contain COIL (chemical oxygen-iodine lasers), that can focus their beams on the sensors of U.S. satellites, dazzling them and disabling them for short periods of time. It would have the same effect as jamming. That’s a short term tactical technique, and the attacked satellite could recover when the lasers are removed. With enough power behind those chemical space-born lasers, the targeted sensors would burn out rendering the entire platform inoperable.

- Finally, there’s the American X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. It can be launched into space, and then return and land itself on an airstrip. It has already been on four classified missions in space, the last one in orbit for a year, flying at an altitude of about 200 miles. Could it be snooping on the Russian and Chinese satellites? Could it be used to refuel our satellites with more hydrazine so they can run away from Roaming Dragon and kamikaze satellites? Could it be delivering our new smaller Cubesats into orbit? Could our new Cubesats be snoopers and kamikazes too? Or, could the X-37 carry nuclear weapons into space for extended periods of time without violating the Outer Space Treaty? If you want to read more about satellite fights in space, read P. W Singer’s science-fiction novel, “Ghost Fleet” (2015).

According to NASA, there are more than 500,000 pieces of space debris orbiting the earth, including nuclear reactors and RTGs (Plutonium-238 Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators). Russia sent forty 10KW Topaz nuclear reactors into space to power their satellites since the 1960’s. One of them, Kosmos-954, malfunctioned and reentered the atmosphere in January 1978, scattering Uranium-235 over 48,000 square miles of Northern Canada (Russia paid about $7 million to clean it up). Previously, another Russian satellite reactor fell into the ocean north of Japan in 1973 and another fell into the South Atlantic in 1983. There are still more than 30 nuclear reactors orbiting above the earth, including the Snap-10A reactor launched by the U.S. in April 1965. And there are probably a hundred RTGs floating around up there.

Remember Skylab? It was the first U.S. space station in orbit and came back into the atmosphere in July 1979. On reentry, it weighed 170,000 pounds. As it broke up, it scattered debris on rooftops in Esperance, Western Australia. No major damage was done, but the Australian government levied a $400 fine against the U.S. for littering. That brings us to the Space Liability Convention (1972), establishing that the country owning a space object is liable for any damage it may do. Get out the eyedrops, and read this document here <>.

Well folks, this is my last article for 2016. I hope you learned a few things in this series. Now, I have to create a new list of books on warfare to read. From those, I must do some web research and create a list of topics for new articles in 2017. Then, I must submit those lists to my gracious loving understanding supportive and generous masters at Military Embedded Systems, as I grovel before them while negotiating my 2017 contract. If I don’t get hit by a nuclear reactor falling from space in the next month or so, you should be reading another captivating article about the wonderful and exciting world of next-generation warfare in January.