Whether the infamous Star Wars project was a cunning bargaining chip or bluff is still up for debate. But as the speed of technological change ramps up, the race to weaponize space is sadly still underway nearly 40 years later.
Way back in 1983, President Ronald Reagan revealed ambitious plans to remove the threat of nuclear weapons from space with a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Senator Edward Kennedy famously dismissed the technological systems that were yet to be researched and developed as nothing but "reckless 'Star Wars' schemes."
The U.S. Department of Defense recently released its annual report on China's military power. The report highlighted how killer satellites and directed energy weapons are beginning to form a disturbing new narrative.
The report reveals how China is leveraging technology to focus on information, cyber, space, and counterspace operations. Directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers are said to be just a few of China's arsenal of counter-space systems designed to blind and deafen the enemy.
"In space, Moscow and Beijing have turned a once peaceful arena into a warfighting domain. They have weaponized space through killer satellites, directed energy weapons, and more in an effort to exploit our systems and chip away at our military advantage"Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
Elsewhere, missile defense expert Dr. Uzi Rubin also warned of the security threat posed by Iran's secret space program. In July, Russia was also accused of testing a satellite weapon in space. As we begin to think bigger than our tiny planet, we once again seem destined to repeat past mistakes. Unfortunately, the use of outer space for peaceful purposes is at risk as leaders prepare for a series of battles beyond Earth.
How satellites changed our world
Satellites and space systems are the unsung heroes that are all guilty of taking for granted. Before audiences could view a large sporting event, newsreels were recorded on film that had to be developed, duplicated, and flown to cinemas around the world. The launch of Syncom 3 changed all that when it enabled live broadcasts of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Satellites have transformed our lives without us even realizing it. They were the backbone of the TV channels that we grew up with. They also enabled meteorologists to view weather patterns on a global scale and deliver accurate real-time weather forecasts. Satellites also made it possible to make phone calls on airplanes, and GPS systems help us navigate land, sea, and air.
The eye in the sky can monitor everything from the ocean to wind currents and the extent of environmental disasters such as forest fires to air pollution. The critical role that these systems collectively play in our daily lives cannot be underestimated. Attacking the critical infrastructure that every nation heavily relies on would be the equivalent of flicking the off switch on everything that we see and hear.
The rise of hybrid warfare
The rise of digital aggression has paved the way for hybrid warfare to target vulnerabilities across societies in ways that we do not traditionally think about. The role of big data and social media can influence the actions of a global audience. This vulnerability could be one of the reasons for the building of the infamous great firewall of China.
Many such attacks occur in a "grey zone" of conflict where operations don't cross the threshold of war in the traditional sense. Before we begin building smart cities, we are already starting to see that our reliance on connectivity creates a significant vulnerability that can manipulate a nation without resorting to traditional conflict.
Escalation can involve the jamming of satellites combined with a power grid hack or cyber-attack on manufacturing hubs, national railways, or airports that can quickly blind and deafen an entire nation. The ability to disrupt and disable an opponent's actions without engaging in open hostilities provides leaders with an attractive, yet unsavoury tactical advantage.
A loss of transmission from space would instantly disrupt communications, transport, power, and computer systems. Governments and businesses would struggle to cope as flights cancel, and food supply chains creak under pressure causing public order to inevitably break down.
The usual suspects are currently exploring how they can militarize space while protecting their existing satellites and other orbital assets. Thankfully, there are still many technological and budgetary hurdles that will need to be overcome before any nation can genuinely take advantage of the final frontier.
Two years have passed since Elon Musk sent a Tesla Roadster into space. Those that saw it as just a cheesy publicity stunt for Tesla missed the point. When looking at the image with planet earth as the perfect backdrop, it represented an opportunity to think bigger than our country and even this planet.
Together we could become a multi-planet species that is capable of spreading humanity to other planets. Instead, leaders have seemingly opted for an upgraded digital cold war. Although technology has significantly advanced, it's our legacy thinking combined with a tendency to repeat our past mistakes that will continue to hold back the human race rather than push it forward.