By Ramesh Jaura
A Soviet cosmonaut and an American astronaut shook hands high above the planet Earth, on July 17, 1975, where the Soviet spaceship Soyuz-19 and the U.S. spacecraft Apollo had met and docked.
In a message of greeting, the Soviet leadership described the “joint flight of the Soviet and US spaceships” as “a major step in the development of Soviet-American scientific and technological cooperation” opening up “new prospects for various countries to work together in the peaceful exploration of outer space”.
In the U.S. that night, CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite said that “the handshake in space could usher in a new era in mankind’s advance towards the unknown”.
Recalling that historic moment, Gennadi Gerasimov wrote for the Novosti Press Agency Publishing House in October 1983. “That day, we thought then, would be unforgettable, but now it seems that it never happened at all.” The space romance indeed turned out to be fleeting.
Forty-five years later, three of the world’s five official nuclear powers the U.S., Russia and China – have their Space Commands and space and counter-space weapons. Though, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, prohibits military activities on celestial bodies, and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space.
The treaty entered into force October 10, 1967, and has 110 states-parties, with another 89 countries that have signed it but have not yet completed ratification. The treaty forbids countries from deploying “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in outer space.
As Arms Control Association’s Executive Director Daryl Kimball points out, the term “weapons of mass destruction” is not defined, but it is commonly understood to include nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The treaty, however, does not prohibit the launching of ballistic missiles, which could be armed with WMD warheads, through space.
The treaty repeatedly emphasizes that space is to be used for peaceful purposes, leading some analysts to conclude that the treaty could broadly be interpreted as prohibiting all types of weapons systems, not just WMD, in outer space.
However, Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Tim Lawson is of the view that the Pentagon considers space to be a warfighting domain on par with land, air and sea. During remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Space Warfighting Industry Forum, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said: “China has already tested anti-satellite missiles, while Russia has deployed on-orbit systems that could threaten U.S. satellites.”
Lawson said Spacecom must “be ready to fight tonight” – a mantra that in the past was usually applied to U.S. combat forces in geopolitical hotspots such as the Korean Peninsula. However, it will be “several years” before the command achieves full operational capability, he added.
However, the U.S. Space Command has meanwhile reportedly developed new capabilities to counter China and Russia.
Lawson assured that significant portions of the U.S. military’s space programs are part of the classified “black budget,” making it difficult for outside observers to know what’s coming down the pike.
Spacecom is a unified combatant command of the United States Department of Defense, responsible for military operations in outer space, specifically all operations above 100 kilometres above mean sea level.
Space Command was originally created in September 1985 to provide joint command and control for all military forces in outer space and coordinate with the other combatant commands. Spacecom was inactivated in 2002, and its responsibilities and forces were merged into United States Strategic Command. After nearly 17 years, a new Space Command was established on August 29, 2019, with a reemphasized focus on space as a war-fighting domain.
American Space Command’s mission is: “To conduct operations in, from, and through space to deter conflict, and if necessary, defeat aggression, deliver space combat power for the Joint/Combined force, and defend U.S. vital interests with allies and partners.”
Russian Space Command – the counterpart of the American Space Command – was the part of the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces responsible for military space-related activities. It was formed on December 1, 2011 when the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces were created as a merger of the Russian Space Forces with part of the Russian Air Force. Responsibilities of the command included missile attack warning, space surveillance and the control of military satellites.
Space Command was one of four components of the Aerospace Defence Forces, the others were Air and Missile Defence Command, Plesetsk Cosmodrome and the arsenal. Subsumed under Space Command were three centres with their associated stations.
Initially, the space program of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was organized under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), particularly the Second Artillery Corps. In the 1990s, the PRC reorganized the space program as part of a general reorganization of the defence industry to make it resemble Western defence procurement.
The China National Space Administration, an agency within the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence currently headed by Zhang Kejian, is now responsible for launches. The Long March rocket is produced by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, and satellites are produced by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.
The latter organizations are state-owned enterprises; however, knowledgeable sources say, it is the intent of the PRC government that they should not be actively state-managed and that they should behave as independent design bureaus. China’s space program is directed by the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
In addition to serving as the scene of scramble for superiority, space is strewed with military or dual-use satellites. In December 2018, there were 320. Half of these are owned by the U.S., followed by Russia, China and India.
According to information gathered by Wikipedia, there are satellite weapons too in space. Communications satellites are used for [military communications] applications. Typically military satellites operate in the UHF, SHF (also known as X-band) or EHF (also known as Ka band) frequency bands. The U.S. Armed Forces maintains international networks of satellites with ground stations located in various continents.
Signal latency is a major concern in satellite communications, so geographic and meteorological factors play an important role in choosing teleports. Since some of the major military activities of the U.S. army is in foreign territories, the U.S. government needs to subcontract satellite services to foreign carriers headquartered in areas with favourable climate.
The United Kingdom also operates military communication satellites through its Skynet system. Skynet 5 is the UK’s most recent military communications satellite system. There are four Skynet satellites in orbit, with the latest launch completed in December 2012.
Photo: Test of the LG-118A Peacekeeper missile, each one of which could carry 10 independently targeted nuclear warheads along trajectories outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Source: Wikimedia Commons.