France is the latest country to follow the United States, the USSR and India among others in setting up a space command. A largely sensible decision, the problem is our view of space defence is irretrievably tainted with illusions of space wars a la Star Wars, Star Trek and the James Bond movies Moonraker and Golden Eye. The reality is a lot less glamorous and but not any less cataclysmic.
To understand what space defence means in tangible terms we need to understand the various strains of space defence and the military and economic imperatives that make countries militarise space.
The earliest weaponised space assets were the Soviet Polyus and Almaz. The Polyus was a laser-based system, designed to intercept ballistic missiles or shoot down satellites. The chemical lasers it used were highly unreliable, with limited shots and led to a catastrophic failure of the system. The Almaz was a different beast. It was a space station fitted with a high speed machine gun to defend itself. This relatively low tech solution worked in theory, but was abandoned without facing any real test.
Today though all indicators are that we are heading to a re-weaponisation of space and that this time it will last and develop. This has two main drivers: economics and technology.
Today our dependence on space is phenomenal. Be it the Google Maps-based navigation you use to find addresses, or track your Zomato delivery, to agricultural uses giving early warnings to farmers, to emergency situation management of impending natural disasters, and to precision guidance of weapons systems. Moreover the democratisation of space-dependent technologies such as GPS means the economic footprint of space-based applications has grown exponentially accounting for massive chunks of the information economy.
Surprisingly, unlike say cyber defence, we still don’t have any systems defending space assets, despite the knocking out of space systems being far more catastrophic than a cyber attack in some circumstances. In fact nobody is more vulnerable than the military that depends not just on space-based real time intelligence to hit targets accurately, but also to identify targets.
This space-based targeting revolution, and the massive reduction in costs that GPS targeting has enabled is one of the main reasons we have massive drops in the number of civilian fatalities in air campaigns. In short, the direct economic and military cost of losing space assets is almost apocalyptic for any modern services-based economy, but the opportunity costs of massive civilian fatality is much higher in the absence of the precision space provides.
All of this has been threatened by anti-satellite (ASAT) tests by the US, China and India. However, ASAT capabilities are like nuclear weapons in that they are not meant to be used. Like Hiroshima or Nagasaki, if you do not have similar weapons to threaten adversary capabilities, in all likelihood your satellites will be taken down. On the other hand if you have a demonstrated ASAT capability, countries will think long and hard about taking down your satellites.
The greatest cost to this deterrence-based approach to protecting vital space assets is the question: What happens when deterrence fails? This is where you need to start defending satellites and this is where we are going back to the Polyus and Almaz.
Today we have three streams of technology for protecting space-based assets: Stealth, Electronic and Active defence.
Stealth mostly lies in concealing a satellite. The highly secretive US Lacrosse series satellites, for example, can sense they are being ‘looked at’ from great distances and literally disappear from the view of any light sensitive electronic equipment. A more rudimentary version of this technology is now available to the rich and famous to prevent paparazzi from photographing them.
Electronic defences involve jamming the electronics of any incoming projectile. In many instances they can simply jam a missile and make it lose direction. The final line of defence, is active laser defence. Unlike the dangerous and highly-unstable chemical lasers of the Polyus, the development of solid state lasers means for the first time the reliable shooting down of incoming projectiles by laser beams is possible. Importantly while disabling a missile it does not create the massive problems associated with space debris.
To sum up, so much of the new age economy is based on space-based assets. The advent of credible ASAT missiles has made space assets vulnerable and the cost of leaving space systems undefended is too high. While the deterrence that ASAT systems provide may be good for some, the development of space-based defences is a necessary redundancy measure and a technological and economic inevitability.