Space War Tactics? The US, Russia, and China Are Testing Orbital Vulnerabilities

As rival satellites flee and potentially surveil one another.
Brad Bergan
A tactical representation of satellites in space (left), and a concept for an orbital station (right).1, 2

Space may be big, but it's probably not big enough for rival nations.

China has proven its ability to both maneuver and track satellites with a high deftness and precision, and this enables the country's military to see when a U.S. satellite moves conspicuously close, and redirect its own satellite away from the U.S. one in roughly 24 hours, according to recent video recreations that depict this exact scenario from COMSPOC, a firm that generates space tracking and other pertinent information for private and public officials.

In other words, warfare tactics are going to outer space.

Space-faring nations are exploring warfare tactics in orbit

A July 2021 incident involved a space surveillance satellite developed covertly by the Air Force and Orbital Sciences called USA 271 began to close in on one of China's satellites, SJ-20. This satellite is one of the PRC's most advanced and heaviest satellites. USA 271, which is part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSAPP), shadowed China's SJ-20 by moving in a parallel orbital trajectory. But the Chinese authorities could see it coming, and subsequently directed their satellite to move away. In the video (below), the "ranges" section reveals how close the two satellites came during the incident.

This kind of thing is rarely seen beyond the purview of highly classified nation-vs.-nation encounters in space, but it's going to happen again, and probably become a norm in the coming years. But it opens up an entirely new field of research involving every field of science applicable to space travel. You could call it space warfare tactics, but companies like COMSPOC that readily provide space tracking to private and public officials and governments will be part of the equation. Of course, the U.S. military already tracks objects in space, but this data is highly restricted to those deemed free of national security risks. Obviously, this is the case for spy satellites, but what's there is there, and detectable to COMSPOC, which is how the videos became available to the public.

Space situational awareness

"They start doing calibration maneuvers and they're very, very small maneuvers, so it's hard," said COMSPOC's Lead Jim Cooper for space situational awareness, in a Breaking Defense report. "It's about having the right system that can process and detect those small maneuvers when you're that close." Another space tactics oddity involved a different spacecraft of China's, when in 2018 the PLA launched and later deployed what the U.S. thinks might be a counterspace satellite, called the Tongxin Jishu Shiyan (TJS 3). COMSPOC data on the TJS 3 recorded it assuming a geosynchronous orbit (GEO), but in a bizarrely parallel orbit to the upper stage of the rocket that lifted it into orbit.

"You see, all of a sudden they're both right there, maneuvered to change their orbits, and they did that at the exact same time, and then the exact same way," said Cooper about the event, which happened in May 2019, in the Breaking Defense report. "So those maneuvers were basically done in tandem with each other. And you can see that the apogee kick motor — which is basically a rocket body — is now flying where the TJS 3 counterspace platform used to be." China, Russia, and the U.S. are simultaneously "testing the waters" of using space as a means to outsource the disputes of Earth. While in the here and now the idea of domain and space situational awareness feels like a new world of human experience, there is no shortage of sci-fi literature, TV shows, and franchises that serve as a warning of how brutal warfare could become, if it extends into space.

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