At a summit that will take place in early December, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is expected to declare outer space as a war zone partially in response to new technological developments.
“There is an agreement that outer space – like land, sea, air, and cyberspace – must be a domain, and the London summit is the best place to make it official, ” a NATO diplomat told Reuters. “The decision to declare space a new defensive frontier may convince Trump that the treaty can be a useful ally to the detriment of China’s aspirations as a rival military power.”
If this decision is confirmed, between December 3 and 4, the first step would be taken for NATO members to use weapons to destroy enemy satellites or missiles. But how could current technology allow a war out there?
First, Russia has launched a commercial satellite specifically designed for meetings with other satellites. The purpose of this ship is peaceful: to perform the maintenance of other satellites in orbit. And the fact that commercial companies have this capacity surely means that it already exists in the main world powers. That is, if a country or company can maneuver its own satellites in the vicinity of others, the maneuver can be used for military or sabotage purposes – potentially undetected.
Another related development is that of France, which recently announced that it will build satellites armed with machine guns or lasers to protect its interests in orbit. An expected reaction of the Gallic country when considering that shortly before the United States announced its intention to create a Space Force – something for which it already established a command. Other nations are expected to do the same as well.
On August 29, President Donald Trump formalized the creation of the United States Space Command (Spacecom), the eleventh combat command in the country that will control the future Space Force.
All this has attracted the attention of NATO. But … what exactly would outer space as a war zone look like?
One method includes firing an intense beam of microwave radiation at an object. In fact, this concept has been tested before by the police to stop cars by disabling their electronic devices. The same applied to satellites would constitute “a direct energy weapon”, allowing nations to deactivate satellites in other countries without creating large amounts of orbital debris. Even the attack could easily happen by accident.
On the other hand, the use of radio jamming to interfere with communications and radar dates from World War II. By changing the radio receiver to noise, the reception of genuine signals can be obscured and an operating system removed. It is the equivalent of trying to see the light of a candle against the intense light emitted by the headlights of a car.
Satellites are tested against auto-generated radio noise before being launched. But if a nearby “hostile” satellite deliberately transmits to the target satellite, then its communications are interrupted.
By far the most obvious method of interfering with a satellite is a solid projectile. Moving satellites have very high kinetic energy and speed. If a slower object is placed in its path, the resulting collision would be devastating.
A missile can also be launched from the ground aimed at destroying an adversary satellite, although it would be an attack too obvious. A more subtle alternative is to destroy your own satellite and produce enough space debris to get through the enemy’s orbit.
As for kinetic weapons in space, machine guns are generally problematic due to their recoil. If a weapon is fired at an angle that does not follow the exact direction in which the satellite is traveling, then its direction will change in the opposite direction to the recoil generated by the firing.
Lasers are also considered defensive weapons, with the idea of being able to destroy the attacker’s solar panels. Without power, the enemy satellite would be unable to communicate with the station on the ground and would essentially be lost. The recoil when firing a laser is much smaller and the lack of atmosphere would allow it to be more effective.
Also, a laser could be used to “blind” the instruments of another satellite.
The use of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in space is currently prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But not all nations have ratified the latter, for example, the United States and North Korea.
Starfish Prime was a nuclear test conducted by the United States on July 9, 1962. The explosion occurred 400 km above Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean.
A small number of nuclear tests were carried out in space in the 1960s. The results of these tests generated artificial radiation belts around the Earth, which were detectable for decades after the event – representing a threat to astronauts. The radiation also deactivated half a dozen satellites in the lower orbit.
Given the technological advancements, it seems important to highlight that, under the Outer Space Treaty by NATO, space is supposed to be used only for peaceful purposes and to be a domain for “all of humanity.”