Will space be militarized (or "weaponized")?

This GD thread on the possibility of “armored spacehips” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=325439 – got me to thinking. What are the prospects that near-Earth space will become militarized*, or even a zone of active military conflict, within our lifetimes? Since the first few months after 9/11/01, I haven’t heard much about any attempt to revive the “Star Wars” missile-defense program. But it appears the Pentagon is exploring other possibilities. This article from 2003 – http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/03209/206344.stm – discusses research on “Rods from God” (tungsten rods, launched from sattelites at ground targets), hypersonic bomber planes, space lasers (apparently a “Star Wars” technology, meant to destroy missiles as they’re being launched), anti-sattelite weapons (to protect Our sattelites and destroy Theirs), and unmanned aerial vehicles (also intended to strike at ground targets).

Issues for debate:

  1. Can these technologies be made to work as envisioned?

  2. If the U.S. builds and deploys them, how will that affect the global military and geopolitical picture?

  3. If the U.S. deploys them first, does that necessarily prevent the Chinese or whoever from deploying their own space weapons?

  4. Will we see a world where every major power has its own military space force?

  5. If so, how will that affect the global military and geopolitical picture?

  6. Will we ever see actual combat in near-Earth space – spaceships fighting other spaceships head-to-head?** Or will such technology be used on ground targets only?

  7. Don’t suppose there’s fuck-all we can do about it?

To an extent no one will militarize space assuming everyone abides by the treaty regarding this (this treaty has no expiration date).

I do not think “Rods from God” count as a WMD. I cannot imagine why they’d be useful over conventional means of attack (they have to be terribly expensive on a bang-for-your-buck scale) unless what you wanted to hit was somwhere in the middle of Russia and there was no chance of getting B2 Bombers in there.

As for other weapons systems in space they have definitely been worked on. Mostly the idea is to kill an enemy’s satellites and (perhaps) defend our own satellites. I have no idea how far they got in research or deployment but the Wikpedia article linked below seems to suggest technical issues have hampered the program. We already have anti-satellite missiles fired from fighter jets.

I think it’ll be awhile yet before we get much more than this though.

Space will be weaponized as soon as hostile nations become good enough at space travel to make such weapons work. The ‘High Ground’ is just too valuable. If the Chinese, for instance, could figure out a weapon that could disable the U.S. GPS system, it’ll develop it. For the U.S. to have GPS is a disproportionate advantage, so the Chinese would seek to even the playing field. Then the U.S. will be forced to build defenses against that. And so on.

Also, if we ever do get to the point where we have colonies elsewhere, even small ones, then an aggressive embargo becomes a possibility. What if China were to say, “We will shoot down any spaceship that leaves this planet headed for that colony”?

It’s not well known, but during the cold war the Russians actually armed their Salyut 3 and 5 space stations with a machine gun.

If man develops a robust space existence, weapons will be there. It doesn’t matter how many treaties you sign now.

Will it happen in our lifetimes? It depends if the need is developed. The ‘rods from the stars’ was just a study, and they found that the ‘rods’ are not cost effective compared to conventional weapons of equivalent power. Most of the SDI proposals involve ground-based interceptors, not space based.

From 2001: Rumsfeld Commission Warns Against “Space Pearl Harbor”

This year: Space weapons: the new debate

This year: Common Aero Vehicle

2003: Small, Experimental Satellite May Offer More Than Meets The Eye

2005: Minotaur rocket launches XSS-11 military spacecraft

Is this that hard? Current GPS and spy sattelites move in easy to predict orbits and presumably have little/no defensive abilities/armor/etc. The Chinese have rockets powerful enough to lift men into orbit (they plan to do this later this year, I belie
ve), seems like all one would have to do is put a remotely triggered bomb in easily predictable path of an American sattelite and trigger it when the target gets close. Couldn’t the Chinese (or the Russians, French, UK, etc.) do this with their already existing tech.

Also, just as a semantic point, don’t ballistic missiles already enter space before falling back on thier targets? Haven’t we then already created offensive weapons that enter space.

Ballistic and orbital are different things.

The major strength, and weakness of orbital weapons systems is that they are in place at the beginning of unexpected military conflicts, and are available for immediate use, or for destruction by enemy action. Ballistic weapons are launched from platforms that are either fixed, and require very long range, or are on moving platforms which tend to both expensive, and vulnerable to attack.

If reentry technology is perfected, orbiting satellites become potential weapons platforms without any obvious differences from current non weapons satellite. The difference between space junk falling into the ocean, and an anti-ship weapon is one of guidance. At deliberately maximized reentry speeds mass is energy, and a lump of iron is the equivalent of a thousand pound bomb. The current publicly evident ability to guide reentering satellites is not equal to the task of theatre military operations, but that is only with what we know we have now.

The same set of problems you solve to hit a missile being launched against you provide you with the solution that also gives you a satellite that can be launched beyond the low Earth orbits of most space traffic, and simply coast stealthily along for decades, waiting for a target. Or, it is also possible to rather cheaply interdict a fairly large region of space from satellite use, simply by exploding a fairly small charge in the center of a fairly large bag of bb’s in the orbit you don’t want folks passing through. Your first targets disintegrate into new shrapnel, and those don’t cost you anything.

Also, think of this. The exact same set of technological equipment, with only minor differences describes a telescope gathering important astronomic information for science, and the observation platform for an orbital weapons system. Non optical astronomic instruments of the current generation are not easily limited to long range use. You just turn it around, and point it at the Earth. And you measure every sort of EM radiation coming up, instead of coming down. An integrated information system in space is a pretty impressive weapon, even if it sends down nothing but data. If it starts chucking tungsten crowbars at orbital velocities targeted at GPS accuracy, it’s a very large-scale sniper. No, not a weapon of mass destruction, but a handy way of eliminating specific targets in hard to reach places.

So, if you think we should never deploy any such thing, then you have to count on everyone else to not deploy them either. Or, you study up on how to bring down theirs, without creating an artificial ring system for the planet. Or you give up satellites entirely.

It’s that darned genie, who ain’t going back into the bottle, again.


Why shouldn’t we militarise space? Who knows when an alien invader may attack?

Any alien society would have to be capable of interstellar travel. If their technology is that advanced, likely Earth wouldn’t have a chance no matter what.

I dunno, a space platform loaded with H-bombs sounds impressive, until a micrometeorite the size of a pea punches through it and scrambles its systems sufficiently to make it decide the Belgians have gotten too uppity, and there’s no-one aboard to shut it down. Plus there’s also the chance the other guy might be able to decode and spoof your control signal.

Plus if the aliens come, all we’ll need is a Mac laptop.

I’d say the “rods from God” are a pretty viable alternative when the only other game in town is bunker-busting nukes. If we’re willing to toss one treaty to vaporize subterranean hardened terrorist bioweapons labs, we’ll toss any and all others, and hence I’d say weaponization of space is just a matter of time.

If you really want a space-based wmd, put a big-ass mag-lev mass driver on the Moon and launch boxcar-sized rocks at the bad guys. All the bang of a strategic warhead without any of the radiolical-waste expense. It’s the greenest way to annihilate your enemy.

That’s like saying the Wright Flyer was useless because you couldn’t really go anywhere in it.

Of limited use to start with, perhaps; but later? Like they say, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. We need to start somewhere.

I suppose it should go without saying that a mass driver could be developed for what are ostensibly purely benign purposes, like launching spacecraft to Mars. Why, such advanced propulsion alternatives would fit nicely into Bush 43’s long-term goals for manned space exploration, now wouldn’t they…

Well, let’s say that if the aliens show up before we develop our own interstellar travel, we’re screwed, because we’ll have no defenses against the technology they possess.

The real key, of course, is to invade them. Screw the prime directive.

Actually, it’ll turn out that the aliens are killed by contact with plain 'ol water, and they’ll curiously lack the foresight to bring any kind of protective gear when they invade our water-covered planet. So defending ourselves won’t be an issue.

And it can be wielded by a ragtag band of plucky Lunar rebels with a sentient computer friend! :slight_smile: