Of all the places where conflict could erupt, space might seem the least likely, except in movies. But increasingly, it is becoming a contested environment posing new dangers.
The United States sees this as a vital security issue. “Potential adversaries understand our reliance on space and want to take it away from us,” a senior Pentagon official, told Congress in March. And while everything from control of nuclear weapons to weather forecasting to cellphone use could be affected, the United States “is not adequately prepared for a conflict” in space with countries like China and Russia, he acknowledged.
The specific concern is the security of thousands of satellites and vehicles, like the international space station, that orbit Earth. America has long dominated space, but many other nations also have valuable assets in orbit.
Satellites enable the Pentagon to locate enemies on the battlefield, verify arms control treaties and ensure early warning if an adversary targeted the country with an intercontinental ballistic missile.
In the Cold War, the United States and Russia engaged in limited testing of antisatellite, or ASAT, weapons. Now China, and to a lesser extent Russia, are actively developing such offensive capabilities, including jammers, lasers and cyber weapons that could damage satellite operations.
A turning point came in 2007 when China conducted its first successful ASAT test by blowing up one of its own weather satellites. The hit unleashed more than 3,000 pieces of debris into space and fed suspicions about China’s intentions. Suggestions by Chinese experts that, in a conflict over Taiwan, Beijing might be able to shoot down an American early warning satellite only deepened American concerns.
Read more: Preventing a Space War
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