War in space – a turning point in geopolitics

For the first time mankind has reached the frontiers of space, not for glory, but simply to win the war. Now he is also reaching out to space to earn money.

The first rocket to leave the Earth’s atmosphere was neither American nor Soviet. It was the German V-2 rocket. This was the first real ballistic missile. Its operating ceiling was above the Earth’s atmosphere, and the rocket itself reached speeds of over 5,000 kilometres per hour. The propulsion was liquid fuel; ethanol with an oxidant in the dosed amount that gave the projectile the appropriate momentum to a predetermined range depending on the distance to the target and the task. The control system, however, was primitive and tended to take a course that ended with the rocket hitting the ground prematurely or some other malfunction, leaving the task unfinished. The warhead was about 1,000 kilograms, about half the weight of the bombs taken in the bomber bay of only one bomber – the B-17 flying fortress. The V-2 missile’s warhead was not able to cover a large area with its explosion, but it was quite effective in destroying the place where the rocket hit. Unlike the V-1, which had a noisy engine, the V-2 rocket hit the target after the fuel ran out, falling from above in terrible silence, but with great speed and without any warning. For this reason, it aroused great fear among the civilian population.

 

The V-2 missile, however, failed strategically. It could have been used against the sea ports used by the Western Allies, but instead Hitler decided that it should be a weapon used to terrorise large cities like London. Analysts at the time believed that this was not a rational approach. But they were wrong. Rockets were very expensive, and the Germans had relatively few of them, given the enormous needs of the ongoing world war. The V-2 did not provide enough precision to eliminate targets within the ports, and the blast area of its warhead was too small to destroy the entire port. Attacking cities, on the other hand, meant a high degree of certainty that they would hit a target. This was exactly what was supposed to convince British public opinion to force the British government to seek a truce with Germany.

The V-2 missiles did not live up to the hopes placed on them, but they performed another, very important task. The V-2 program led to the implementation of an idea: that the ballistic missile would be associated with the spectre of terrorising distant enemy cities far beyond the front lines. In this field, the V-2 was a spectacular success.

After the war, both the Soviet and American space and rocket programs were based on the German V-2 rocket program. Importantly, on the project work of captured German scientists. The first American satellite was launched by the Jupiter C rocket, a modernised Redstone rocket – which itself was in fact a modified version of the V-2 rocket. Werhner von Braun, who became an American citizen and later a hero of the American space program, used to say that he “aimed at the stars”. Satirists such as Tom Lehrer added on the punchline that “he sometimes hit London”.

 

Both the Americans and the Soviets immediately understood the prospective military importance of rockets. At first, they felt it was most appropriate to use them to attack civilians in cities – just as the Germans had during the war. This way of thinking changed with the introduction of nuclear weapons into arsenals on a larger scale. The Cold War engulfed Europe, with the US and the Soviet Union facing each other. At the same time, the Americans had a huge advantage in modern strategic aviation, with bases in virtually all directions on the periphery of Soviet continental power. The Soviets, in turn, did not have a strategic air force, so they could not threaten the territory of the United States with their own power projection. In addition, right after the end of the world war, and on the eve of the Cold War, the Soviets did not have nuclear weapons, so they could not threaten the US territory all the more. This created a gigantic imbalance in which the Soviets were in a very difficult strategic position. From the end of the World War, the Americans had nuclear weapons and war-proven long-range strategic aviation, and the Soviets had neither one nor the other.

 

The Soviets also could not build an intercontinental bomber, because the technology of its construction as well as strategic air force training were very costly and time-consuming. Meanwhile, in the 1950s, the Americans further developed their strategic bomber forces with the very successful (and still in use today!) B-52 strategic bomber as an excellent solution for intercontinental power projection into Eurasia. For this reason, throughout the decade of the 1950s, a conventional war started by the Soviets was impossible because the United States had an undeniable nuclear advantage and the necessary power projection. It is worth noting that the Americans did not seize the opportunity to take advantage of this.

The Soviet idea to remedy this imbalance was to build a missile force that could counter the American threat. Its core was the German V-2 rocket and captured German scientists. The very competent Soviet team of scientists and engineers turned out to be no less of an advantage.

The major challenge was that the V-2 missile range was only around 350 kilometres, while the Soviets needed an intercontinental range missile with a much better guidance system than the German WWII missiles. It was estimated that it would take the Soviets no less than a decade to overcome this problem. However, taking the bull by the horns, the Soviets moved forward with construction work.

 

The Americans noticed the Soviet effort to build missiles, but felt very comfortable, thanks to their giant advantage in strategic bomber aviation. However, over time, they began to realise that the development of Soviet ICBM could threaten the very existence of the US strategic air force. A ballistic missile with an intercontinental range launched from the territory of the Soviet Union could hit a target in North America after about 30 minutes. It usually takes longer to scramble a B-52 squadron on “standby” status to reach their air surveillance stations. Understanding the ramifications, the Americans made profound changes by introducing a permanent combat alert with a dedicated B-52 permanently on duty in the air above the Arctic Circle. The North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) was also set up, stationed in a rock-carved bunker on Mount Cheyenne in Colorado Springs. A network of radar stations was also built in northern Canada.

Above all, the existence of ICBMs led to two problems that needed to be resolved somehow. The first was to locate the enemy rocket and launch site so that they could be destroyed before launching. The second was to detect the launch itself. After all, neither side of the Cold War wanted to start a nuclear war as the result of a random incident.

At the same time, neither side wanted to lose its own nuclear forces as the result of a lack of reaction. The problem of identification, however, was different for each of the superpowers. A key strike element for the United States was the strategic B-52 bomber, while the most important element of Soviet intelligence was the creation of a network of spies in the United States, whose task was to identify air bases in the United States where nuclear planes were stationed. This wasn’t hard. It was more difficult to conduct traditional intelligence using scouts in the field – usually in bars and restaurants around air force bases.

 

Chatting at the bar might have been enough to identify the type of planes stationed at the base. Nevertheless, the tracking and identification of the correct missile force bases was much more difficult. Although, as a rule, this could at least be roughly established. Thus, Soviet intelligence could quite easily establish that the B-52s were stationed at the Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas, and the missile forces were stationed at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Given that the early ballistic missiles were powered by liquid fuel that took a long time to refuel the missiles, and the rocket had to remain above ground during loading, the information thus obtained was sufficient at that time to obtain the coordinates required for the strike. Also to confirm that a rocket would be fired.

 

In turn, for the Americans, tracing Soviet locations was much more difficult. Due to the geography of the country and the prevailing totalitarian system, the Soviets kept a more stringent security regime close to their military bases, and the entire system of detectors started at a considerable distance from military bases. Since the Soviets did not have strategic bomber aviation, their counterintelligence had a relatively easy job of confusing the Americans. Fictitious bases were created with an apparently identical security zone, so there was no way to distinguish real missile bases from apparent ones. An irremovable problem was the inability to approach Soviet military installations, so HUMINT (i.e. human intelligence, physically gathered by agents located in the field) was in principle out of the question.

 

In this situation, another solution was found: U-2 planes that flew at very high altitudes, equipped with advanced cameras capable of taking high-resolution photos. These planes enabled the Americans to properly identify Soviet missile capabilities and establish a target list in the event of a possible nuclear war. Flying at an altitude of over 21 kilometres, still far from the edge of space, but beyond (it seemed) the effective range of Soviet anti-aircraft systems, U-2s appeared regularly over the Soviet Union from 1955 until the first of them was shot down in 1960. This forced Washington to focus on the essence of the problem, i.e. the lack of the necessary aerial reconnaissance.

The greatest unknown was invariably the status of the enemy’s ability to destroy their own aerial reconnaissance platforms, which in fact is always a mystery. An additional problem was that air reconnaissance of the time could be practically eliminated by the enemy in circumstances in which the knowledge of this event would not reach the power sending these aircraft. It was at this point that the idea for reconnaissance from outer space emerged.

The greatest unknown was invariably the status of the enemy’s ability to destroy their own aerial reconnaissance platforms, which in fact is always a mystery. An additional problem was that air reconnaissance of the time could be practically eliminated by the enemy in circumstances in which the knowledge of this event would not reach the power sending these aircraft. It was at this point that the idea for reconnaissance from outer space emerged.

The question of the enemy firing the missile system was even more troublesome. An intercontinental ballistic missile launched either from the US or from the USSR, as a rule, had to pass over the North Pole. Radars could detect it about 15–30 minutes before it hit the target. And during this time of the rocket flight, a lot of activities had to be undertaken: inform the state management about the missile flight, make a decision about the war and pass it on to the bomber crews or to the personnel handling their own ballistic missiles. The probability that this would fail within the given time frame or that there would be another problem with the reporting and the decision-making system was very high. Therefore, it was becoming crucial to obtain more time for the entire process of observation, orientation, making and then executing the appropriate decision.

 

The need to identify the enemy’s abilities and increase the time to react required establishing real-time reconnaissance. This was particularly important for mobile targets, which would make a retaliatory strike de facto impossible. The only sensible solution seemed to be innovative and constant reconnaissance, which could not be easily destroyed. Such a solution could only be provided by the new domain that was becoming outer space – through satellites operating beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, optimally operating in constellations, which maintained the reconnaissance system during the operation of orbital laps of the Earth.

 

The launch of the Soviet Sputnik and the American response were not the result of the realisation of the ideals of scientific space exploration, but a military necessity. The satellites placed in space were supposed to provide information on the deployment of enemy forces. In the early days, this was done, at least as far as the American systems are concerned, by dropping cartridges to Earth with negatives placed in a capsule, which were intercepted by patrolling airplanes. As one can guess, this was not easy to do and it took a long time to send the negative, capture it, retrieve it, and then transport it to the laboratory and develop it there. It then took a long time to correctly read and interpret the information and pass it on to the decision makers. The whole process took far too long, especially in the case of a nuclear war between the superpowers.

 

The transmission of data at the speed of light proved to be the right solution to the problem. This was done using radio signals in binary code that could be rendered as photos. The orbital position of the satellite then became less important, and the time between data transmission and data availability was revolutionarily reduced. The only problem that remained, therefore, was to detect the launch of the rocket from the surface of the Earth.

 

Reconnaissance satellites orbited our planet in a low orbit over 100 kilometres above the Earth. A new generation of satellites was needed that would constantly watch over the detection of enemy rocket fire. These satellites would have to orbit the Earth at a certain speed so that they would not be drawn into the atmosphere by the planet’s gravity (if the speed was too slow), but at the same time they could not exceed a certain speed in order not to leave a given orbit on which they orbit the Earth (which happens in the case of overspeed). It should also be mentioned that many satellites are needed to maintain constant observation of even only one place on Earth.

There is one very important area of strategic importance in near-Earth space, located approximately 36,000 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, where the orbital speed is as fast as the planet’s rotation. This allows a satellite located there and monitoring a specific part of the planet’s surface to detect the launch of a ballistic missile thanks to an infrared detector designed to detect such events and rapidly transmit the data to the appropriate missile command and the country’s military or political leadership for decision making.

Thus, thanks to space reconnaissance, an additional half an hour was obtained for the entire decision-making process. This was very important during the Cold War. Thus, two strategic areas of near-earth space developed: the first was the low Earth orbits, where satellites orbit the planet at a very high speed relative to the Earth, the second area was the geostationary orbit, where the satellites remain static with respect to a given point on Earth.

To this day, there has been no battle of any kind for these areas. But that will change in the future. Any attack on satellites in low or geostationary orbit will make the party under attack “blind” to missile flight and launch. Moreover, such an attack, “blinding” the enemy’s system in this way, will probably be treated as a prelude to war. The “blinded” side may be tempted to initiate a pre-attack procedure for fear of being fully “blinded” and thus losing its ability to wage war. According to the rule: go to war or you will be beaten on the spot before you know it. This triggers a real security dilemma with a cascading sequence of events and calculations from both sides.

In this way, a kind of paradox arose during the Cold War. Satellites placed in orbits were supposed to detect an enemy attack or the relocation of missile systems, which gave rise to suspicions of an impending attack. As neither side was actually ready for a nuclear war, nor was it ready to destroy enemy satellites. Thus in practice, instead of contributing to the inciting of a war, reconnaissance systems and various types of satellites placed in space prevented the war.

 

There is a very special connection between nuclear weapons and the vastness of outer space and the principles of operation beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. But this connectivity is not obvious. Weapons of various kinds throughout history have often prevented, rather than incited, war. Thanks to space, there was no situation in which one side had the opportunity to defeat the other. Rather, it was the case that each side had the opportunity to alleviate the security dilemma and stabilise the strategic balance. It is hard to find any historical example of the entry of a new domain of war having a stabilising effect similar in scale to that made possible by space. The entry of Portugal and Spain into the Atlantic and therefore into the domain of the world ocean led to wars lasting generations and centuries. It was the same entering the aerial domain, coinciding with the World Wars and the Cold War.

 

Meanwhile, in the second half of the twentieth century, a world war did not take place, despite the entry into the new space domain and the possession of terrible nuclear weapons by the superpowers. This was largely because the systems placed in space stabilised the strategic situation. The proviso was, of course, the possession of such systems – but, this being met, the situation between superpowers with space capabilities was thus stabilised.

With the achievement of such a situation, the danger of nuclear war has diminished significantly. Wars of total destruction are quite impractical in a situation where the enemy has nuclear weapons. Following this reasoning, new weapons have emerged over time that are less apocalyptic but serve the traditional purpose of war, which is to destroy the enemy’s ability to continue the war. These new types of weapons could not exist without space-based systems. For example, hypersonic anti-ship missiles which, to be effective, require the receipt of data from space-based systems to locate, for example, an enemy ship in motion. They also need a GPS, Galileo, Glonass or Beidou signal for communication navigation. Outer space suddenly turned out to be the main place, thanks to which the communication infrastructure enabling any high-tech combat on Earth based on information dominance on the battlefield can function at all.

At a time when the centres of gravity of war are the nodes and centres of command and communication systems, outer space has become a key place, a keystone or a pivot, i.e. the main hinge enabling modern war on Earth. A war with the use of precision and precise means of recognition and destruction now simply needs outer space. Whoever is not there does not count.

 

Initially, war in space was unthinkable as space systems became primarily necessary for calculations related to the threat of nuclear war. But as the threat of global nuclear exchange diminished, the utility of outer space and of the systems placed in space became clear and lucid. Previously, they could not be fully used when the stake was the destruction of an entire civilisation. They have become usable when it comes to traditional wars designed to break the will or ability to continue to wage war or repel attacks, but whose purpose is to destroy an entire country. For now, space is used in this way primarily as a medium that provides information to weapons systems and to military and political leaders making key decisions.

Over time, this new domain will be used as a site for the direct use of both kinetic weapons and new weapons operating at the speed of light. In this way, the attributes of outer space have been restored to the attributes of a domain useful in a conventional war, which although very advanced and ultra-modern, is still war.

New weapons and systems orbiting in space enable precision on the battlefield of Earth. However it sounds, they make the cruelty and ferocity of the wars known from the 20th century battlefields on Earth, culminating in murder and destruction at the height of WWII, a thing of the past.

 

The last world war was waged with the use of imprecise and very operationally inaccurate types of weapons, designed to destroy. The more damage they caused, the better. Rifles, mortars, bombers – they all used essentially ballistic missiles. Once fired or dropped, their trajectory was predetermined by the laws of physics. This made them less accurate, and their lack of accuracy was compensated for by the large number of soldiers, guns and bombers. In order to produce huge masses of weapons, whole cities and numerous factories were engaged in the production of war equipment and war materials. World War II took place literally in the factories. This made them the priority targets of the war. The planes were tasked with destroying production plants wherever they could, using almost any method.

 

Due to the low accuracy of the armaments, in order to destroy one important factory, the entire city was often destroyed, often together with its inhabitants. This was a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the war and its fundamental purpose. This type of warfare was unsustainable in the long run.

 

Of course, the illusion arose that because of the nature of this kind of war, armed conflicts would be successfully eliminated. The design and development of nuclear weapons reinforced this hope, given that nuclear weapons destroy cities and their populations even more effectively than strategic bombers in conventional carpet raids. Unfortunately, war is part of human nature. The new generation of weapons is incomparably more precise. Precision reduces the degree of destruction necessary to win, but at the same time makes war more likely and easier to risk, reminiscent of pre-revolutionary Cabinet wars. Thus, it becomes more permissible. The horror of war is still terrifying, but has to some extent been tamed when we compare the new methods of warfare with the terrifying scale of the devastation wreaked during the world wars.

 

The initial precision weapons were simply aimed at the target with the human eye. Then radar came to the rescue. To be precise, shock systems had to have a very limited range. As the development of precision weapons progressed, their range began to increase, sometimes cascading. The turning point was Operation “Desert Storm” in the early 1990s, when American Tomahawk maneuvering missiles were launched from ships up to 1,500 kilometers from the target and which effectively destroyed the Iraqi command and communication system. The ability to act with precision and over long distances has enormous military and geopolitical value. Nevertheless, operational activities at such distances require not so much reconnaissance and intelligence as real-time reconnaissance and intelligence.

With the advent of a new type of precision ammunition and the dependence of key systems on space for, for example, targeting targets, there is no doubt that any power could start a war without attacking and neutralising enemy space systems. The enemy must be blinded, stunned and lost, without orientation and without access to its own systems in space. Destroying them can mean victory. As both sides will try to destroy enemy space systems, neither can be sure of complete success. From this the following conclusion can be drawn: restoring the capabilities of the situational awareness system in space and destroying this system is the foundation of war in the very near future.

The threat of a nuclear war required constant reconnaissance. The only place where such constant reconnaissance was possible is in outer space. Today, if anyone wants to wage war against a state with capabilities in space, they must first destroy sensors in space. Every day new systems and new satellites are being launched. The near-Earth space close to the planet has become seriously crowded, because so many systems are orbiting there. And the fear of being blinded in the first minutes of the war keeps all the powers awake, without exception. Especially in the era of great power rivalry that is now beginning.

 

From the day the V-2 rocket was first used to attack London, the fear and threat of war fueled space exploration. The enthusiasm for exploration was probably also important, and manned space flights or scientific stations in the orbits of the Earth were a great propaganda masterpiece. But since the V-2’s first strike in London, the logic of war has dominated outer space and this process is now accelerating rapidly, also changing the dynamics of understanding and exploring space as such. Invariably, seeing an enemy before he sees you and striking at them is the essence of considering outer space. For war reaches everywhere and reaches everything. It immediately appears in every new domain with the appearance of man and his intentions.

 

We consider low Earth orbits as well as the geostationary orbit to be a key strategic point close to the Earth. Actually the centre of gravity, which we are just getting used to. If the geostationary orbit is the centre, it can be flanked. Currently, the space actually used by mankind extends from 100 kilometres above the Earth’s surface to 36,000 kilometres, and perhaps slightly above, including the vicinity of the Moon. Systems in this zone will be protected militarily in the future. Thus, an attack on them must be launched by surprise and from an unexpected direction.

 

There are over 300,000 kilometres of space between the Moon and Earth’s orbit, and the Moon itself has an exceptionally strategic location. Well disguised for military purposes, from which force can be projected towards Earth. The point is that when war breaks out, its logic extends to new areas and new domains, and outer space becomes just another (though special) medium for warfare. Such a war will not be limited in terms of territory or area as it was during the Cold War on Earth, but will extend to the entire Earth-Moon dual planetary system. Understanding this is key to understanding space strategies. The Earth-Moon planetary system is a system with its own topography and movement structure resulting from the principles of orbital mechanics. One can say – with its own geography, and therefore its own geopolitics. In the case of space, it should rather be called astropolitics.

 

War, as man’s final endeavor, is inscribed in human nature and is closely related to other human activities. It is about the kind that are already changing the orbits of the Earth into a market where more and more money is earned thanks to the rapidly advancing information revolution. Information is becoming an essential commodity of humanity in the 21st century. There are those who claim that information is the crude oil of the new age. Information is retrieved, processed, used and valued. Information and data are traded, and more and more so thanks to the infrastructure located in space, which is becoming the backbone of the modern earth’s economy.

With the advent of a more effective transport system to orbits around the Earth, preferably with reusable rockets that are much cheaper to use, orbital rocket refueling stations, or a new superpower race to the moon for its raw materials, or the proliferation of satellites and nanosatellites, a revolution symbolised by constant experimental rocket launches from Boca Chica, Texas, is going to happen in front of our eyes. Just like the revolution of the world ocean 500 years ago, thanks to the activities of the school of navigators in Sagres on the Portuguese coast. The phenomena visible in recent years and commercial ventures as part of New Space are shifting the limits of space availability and its economy to an extent previously unattainable.

A new space age is about to begin. The new market and the new economy will function thanks to those who have the courage and are not afraid of risk. It will also need cavalry, that is, military space forces. They are needed to protect the new market and the rules on which this market operates. To this end, the cosmic forces will patrol the celestial communication lines up the gravity well, from the Earth to the Moon and beyond its surface to the limits of the Earth’s gravitational pull.

 

With the growth of China’s power, determined to catch up with and overtake the Americans in space and to make up for all technological backlogs, as well as with the rivalry of great powers (after 30 years of a golden peace which once appeared to be permanent), we can expect literally anything in terms of competition, both on Earth and in outer space. It will be the key to geopolitical decisions on Earth. The future is coming.

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War in space – a turning point in geopolitics
Author Jacek Bartosiak
CEO and Founder of Strategy&Future, author of bestselling books.
Date 03/08/2021
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