The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?

With all the talk about a "space force" lately, maybe its time to take a look at all the previous attempts to "weaponize" space.
Matthew S. Williams
X-37B Orbital Test VehicleVandenberg AFB

In recent years, there has been a significant amount of attention dedicated to the idea of creating a military force specifically for space. This is in part related to recent comments made by the president of the United States, as well as several public officials and elected representatives that have stressed the need for a "space force".

At the same time, the way humanity's presence is growing in space in recent decades has made the issue relevant once again. While it is still the case that only astronauts have been to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond, it might not be that way for very much longer.

In the past few years, there has been an unprecedented growth in the commercial aerospace industry (aka. NewSpace), not to mention the development of CubeSats and other technologies that are making space more accessible.

And in the coming decades, commercial flights to orbit, lunar tourism, Martian tourism, and off-world colonies may also become a reality. For this reason, there have been suggestions that a military (or police) force be created to keep the peace in space.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?

Artistic rendition of Space Station Freedom with the STS Orbiter Vehicle. Source: NASA

To be fair, the idea of deploying a military force or weapons to space is hardly new. What's more, several national militaries have had their own take on this type of fighting force for decades.

Like so much that is taking place today, the roots of this "space force" idea go back to the early days of the Cold War and the Space Race.

What's a "Space Force"?

On June 18th, 2018, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3), which directed the Pentagon to begin planning the creation of a 6th independent military service branch that would undertake missions and operations in the rapidly-changing environment of space.

This directive was issued during a speech at the National Space Council meeting held at the White House, where he said:

"We must have American dominance in space. I'm hereby directing the Department of Defense to immediately begin the process to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. We are going to have the Air Force, and we are going to have the space force."

The U.S. Space Force (USSF) would be the first new branch of the US military created in more 70 years - the previous being the U.S. Air Force, which was established as a service independent of the U.S. Army in 1947.

On August 9th, 2018, Vice President Mike Pence and the Department of Defense (DoD) released additional details about the proposed force. These included plans to create a separate command and control boy - U.S. Space Command - in addition to an independent service overseen by a dedicated civilian service secretary.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?

President Trump holds up SPD-3 at the White House on June 18th, 2018. Source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Pence also stressed that this force was to be established by 2020 and would include an elite Space Operations Force - similar to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

The need for a Space Development Agency was also stressed, one which would be charged with harnessing innovation in the field and streamlining the bureaucratic process - similar to what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The subject of a service branch for space has already been the subject of considerable debate within the military and US Congress. The US Air Force, which currently oversees military operations in space, have argued that the armed forces do not have the resources to support a separate space service.

However, the impetus for the creation of such a force was stressed by Pence, who cited military advancements being made by both Russia and China.

Historical Precedents

Efforts to create a space force go all the way back to the days of the Cold War. This is not surprising, given that the US and the Soviet Union were pursuing parallel programs of space exploration in part to ensure that neither nation would be left at a disadvantage.

 In addition, it was the development of short-range to intercontinental ballistic missiles that allowed for the creation of launch vehicles in the first place. In this respect, space exploration and military applications have always been connected.

Officially, the US has maintained a space force since 1985. At this time, the U.S. Space Command was formed to provide joint command and control of the Air Force, Army, and Navy's space forces.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the focus of the armed services on homeland defense and anti-terrorism was greatly increased, leading to space defense being deemphasized.

For this reason, the U.S. Space Command was merged with the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in 2002. In 2006, it would be replaced by the Joint Functional Component Command for Space and Global Strike (JFCC SGS). And by 2017, it would be reorganized as the Joint Force Space Component Commander (JFSCC).

Similarly, between 1992 and 1997, then again from 2001 and 2011, the Russian Space Forces existed as an independent organization within the Russian Ministry of Defense. In 2015, it was reestablished as a branch of the Russian Aerospace Forces.

Beyond these organizational structures, the Soviets, the United States, and other space programs have a long history of pursuing space-based military programs in one form or another. At the same time, both sides recognized the danger in allowing for an "arms race in outer space".

These concerns were ratified with the creation of the Outer Space Treaty and other treaties passed between the late 1960s and late 1970s.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
GPS Block IIA satellite over the Earth. Source:

Outer Space Treaty

This treaty, which was signed in January 1967, and it entered into force in October 1967, forms the basis of outer space law. The Outer Space Treaty was largely based on the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which was drafted in 1962 and adopted in 1963, but with some additional provisions.

Among other things, the treaty established that the exploration of space would be open to all people, would not be subject to national sovereignty or claims by any state, and that the exploration of space should be for the benefit of all humanity.

As it states in Article I of the Treaty:

"The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.

"Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

"There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international co-operation in such investigation."

The Treaty was initially signed by the three depository governments - the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As of June 2019, 109 countries have become treaty signatories, while another 23 have signed the treaty but have not yet finished the ratification process.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
The first session of the Legal Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space on May 26th, 1959. Source:

The main points of the Outer Space Treaty include the prohibition against placing of nuclear weapons in space, the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies for peaceful purposes, and establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations.

Article V spells this out, where it states:

"States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

"The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden."

However, the Outer Space Treaty did not ban all military activities in space, the creation of military space forces, or the weaponization of space. With the exception of weapon's of mass destruction (i.e. nuclear weapons), nations could deploy military assets to space without incurring any sanctions. These included:

"The use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes," and the "use of any equipment or facility necessary for peaceful exploration of the moon and other celestial bodies."

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?

1986 DIA illustration of the IS system attacking a target. Source: Ronald C. Wittmann/DIA

For this reason, the Soviet Union and the United States were free to pursue military programs in space in one form or another, as long as they didn't involve the deployment of nuclear weapons. Some examples include...

Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Systems

With the development of nuclear weapons and the onset of the Cold War, both the US and Soviet Union began work on satellites that would lend them an edge in space. With the passage of the Outer Space Treaty in October of 1967, satellite-based weapons systems would be limited to conventional weapons only. 

The Soviet Union began conducting clandestine research into military satellites by the beginning of the 1960s. In order to hide the true purpose of this research, the Soviet government adopted the policy of designating all military satellites "Kosmos".

Unfortunately, not much information is known about these efforts due to the fact that the Soviets kept information about their space program tightly guarded. This was to ensure that western observers (and spies) did not learn of Soviet space efforts, but also so the public did not learn of any failures.

 However, various bits of information were cobbled together during the Cold War - along with independent investigations - which revealed some rather interesting (and frightening) developments on the Soviet side.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
Rusian IS anti-satellite spacecraft. Source: Kometa

For example, according to various accounts, Soviet work on ASAT technology began either in 1956 at the behest of Sergei Korolev and the Energia design bureau (OKB-1) or in 1959 under Vladimir Chelomei and NPO Mashinostroyeniya (OKB-52).

Regardless, by 1960, the Soviets efforts to develop ASAT technology was raised at a meeting in the summer residence hosted by Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev. It was here that Chelomei was given the go-ahead to start developing the UR-200 rocket, which would be responsible for launching ASAT platforms to orbit.

This was followed in 1961 with the commencement of the Soviet Union's "Istrebitel Sputnikov" (satellite-destroyer) program. The design of the IS satellite called for a semi-independently-guided "kamikaze" spacecraft equipped with shrapnel warheads.

These would co-orbit with enemy satellites, approach them over time, and then explode its warhead close enough to knock them out. A total of 23 launches were recorded as part of IS test series and the system was declared operational by February of 1973.

The Soviets also experimented with arming military space stations (see Almaz, below) with the Rikhter R-23 autocannon. These guns were developed for Soviet aircraft and fired 23mm slugs at a rate of 2,600 rounds per minute, the highest rate of fire for a single-barrel cannon.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
Artist's impression of the Soviet ASAT laser. Source: Edward L. Cooper/DIA

From the 1970s onward, the Soviet Union even experimented with directed-energy weapons (aka. lasers) for their ASAT applications. Much of this consisted of testing large, ground-based ASAT lasers at their Terra-3 facility in Kazakhstan that were designed to "blind" U.S. spy-satellites.

The Soviet's also developed the Polyus spacecraft (aka. Skif-DM, 17F19DM), a prototype orbital weapons platform designed to destroy Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) satellites with a megawatt carbon-dioxide laser. This prototype was launched into space in May of 1987, but failed to reach orbit and burned up in Earth's atmosphere.

Anti-Satellite Missiles

During the Cold War, ASAT systems and technology were generally considered a low-priority for the United States. However, beginning with the Eisenhower administration, various efforts were pursued to design weapons that could take down enemy satellites.

In the late 1950s, the U.S. Air Force began work on a number of advanced strategic missile projects under the designation Weapon System WS-199A. One of these projects was the Bold Orion air-launched anti-satellite ballistic missile (ALBM) system.

This missile came in a one- and two-stage design, both of which were launched from a B-47 Stratojet at high-altitude to intercept satellites. Between May of 1958 and October of 1959, the USAF conducted 12 launches that met with limited success.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
A Bold Orion missile mounted on a B-47 taking off. Source:

The system was then modified to include an Altair rocket as its upper stage, which gave it significantly greater range. Only one test flight of the ASAT system was carried out, which revealed that it was limited in effectiveness unless it was armed with a nuclear warhead.

There was also the High Virgo, another ALBM that was launched from the B-58 Hustler jet bomber. Here too, the missile was test-launched only once, which proved unsuccessful when communications with the missile were lost shortly after launch.

The last project to be pursued under the WS-199 program was the GAM-87 Skybolt ALBM. However, in December of 1962, President Kennedy canceled the Skybolt missile due to a combination of political and economic reasons. 

The development of ALBMs was not revived until the 1980s, when the existence of a successful USSR ASAT program became known. The USAF began working on the ASM-135 ASAT, which was an AGM-69 SRAM nuclear air-to-surface missile upgraded with an Altair upper stage.

The system, which was carried by a modified F-15 Eagle and launched vertically into space, began launch-testing in January 1984 and achieved only one successful interception in September of 1985. Although successful, the program was canceled in 1988 due to budget considerations.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?

Vought ASM-135A ASAT missile. Source: USAF/Ken LaRock

In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union also developed its own air-launched ASAT system. This system was called 30P6 "Kontakt", which consisted of a missile being launched by a modified MiG-31D 'Foxhounds'.

There was also the 14F11 Naryad ("Sentry"), an ASAT missile that was unveiled in the late 1980s in response to the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program. This missile was to be launched from the Soviet UR-100N rocket,

In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev visited Baikonur Cosmodrome and was shown an anti-satellite system called "Naryad" (Sentry), also known as 14F11, launched by UR-100N rockets.

The use of nuclear weapons to destroy enemy satellites was also considered in the 1960s. In the US, this was inspired by the observed effects of high-altitude nuclear testing - like the Hardtack Teak test (1958) and the Starfish Prime test (1962), both of which generated massive electromagnetic pulses (EMP)s.

From 1962 to 1966, an adapted version of the Nike Zeus, a nuclear-tipped surface-to-air missile designed to destroy enemy ICBMs, was investigated for its possible ASAT applications. By 1966, this project was ended in favor of the USAF's Program 437 ASAT, which ran until March of 1975 and used the Thor missile system.


The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
Space vehicle "Zenit" on display in St. Petersburg. Source: Wikipedia Commons/Maryanna Nesina


But of course, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed satellites during the Cold War that were intended for reconnaissance and military observation (aka. spying!). In the US, the first formal program was designed Weapon System 117L, which was developed during the mid-1950s.

Within this program, a number of sub-programs were conducted, which included the Corona satellites. These were a series of reconnaissance satellites designed to take high-resolution photographs from orbit and then return the payload to Earth via parachute.

This program ran from 1959 to 1972 and was followed by similar programs like Canyon (1968-1977), Aquacade (1970-1978) and Advanced Orion (1995-2016). The Soviet Union also pursued multiple spy satellite programs during the Cold War under the cover of the Kosmos program.

Between 1961 and 1994, multiple Zenit satellites were deployed, which were a series of photoreconnaissance satellites based on the design of the Vostok spacecraft. As with their American counterparts, these satellites would record images and then deploy them into the atmosphere with chutes to be retrieved.

During the early 1960s, the Soviet Union began developing orbital space stations as part of the Almaz program. The deployment of these stations was done under the cover of the Salyut program, which ran from 1971 and 1982.

In 1978, the Soviet Ministry of Defence judged that the program was not cost-effective given the time and maintenance the Almaz stations required, and canceled it.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
Almaz space station at VDNKH, Moscow. Source: Wikipedia Commons/Pulux11

Anti-Missile Systems

During the 1950s and onward, the Soviets and the United States also pursued programs dedicated to building space-based anti-ballistic missile systems (ABMs). This included Project Defender, an anti-ICMB satellite program that began in 1958 that called for the deployment of a huge wire mesh to catch ICMBs early in their launch phase.

The concept was declared impractical due to the fact that no means could be found to protect the satellites themselves from attack, which led to the cancellation of Project Defender in 1968.

A year prior, the Sentinel Program was announced, which consisted of both long- and short-range missiles and an associated radar and computer system. This program was intended to offer protection against ICBMs for most of the continental US.

Due to concerns over the effectiveness of the system and tipping the balance of power in favor of one side, Sentinel was renamed and purposed as the Safeguard program in 1969. Deployed in 1975, this system was dedicated to the protection of US ICBM-silos around the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

The issues arising from ABM technology led the US and USSR to sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. Under the articles of this treaty, each country was allowed to deploy a single ABM system with 100 interceptors to protect a single target.

Whereas the US deployed the Safeguard system after the treaty went into effect, the Soviets deployed the A-35 "Galosh" missile system to protect Moscow. But whereas Safeguard was only operational for a few months, the A-35 has been improved over time and is still operational (now called A-135).

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
The Soviet Galosh anti-ballistic missile launcher. Source: Wikipedia Commons/

By the 1980s, the US renewed its efforts to develop an ABM defense system. This began in March of 1983 when President Reagan announced a new national missile defense program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, aka. the "Star Wars" Program).

That stated goal of this program - which was overseen by the SDI Organization (SDIO) - was not just to protect the US and its allies, but also provide the completed system to the USSR to end the threat of nuclear war once and for all.

The system called for the protection of the US and its allies in the event of all-out nuclear war through the deployment of space-based laser stations, nuclear-pumped X-ray laser satellites, and ground- and space-based missile systems to intercept hostile ICBMs in space. 

The program also called for the development of advanced sensors, command and control, and high-performance computer systems to coordinate the advanced system.

In 1987, the American Physical Society (APS) produced a report that concluded that the necessary technologies were decades away from realization and that their feasibility would not be known for at least another decade.

After the publication of the APS report, SDIs budget was repeatedly cut and by the late 1980s, efforts were re-focused on the "Brilliant Pebbles" program. This concept involved using small orbiting missiles as interceptors, which would be much less expensive to develop and deploy.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?

A pebble emerges from its "life jacket" prior to launch. Source: Wikipedia Commons/SDIO/MDA

With the end of the Cold War, funding for SDI officially ended. In 1993, President Clinton redirected the efforts towards tactical nuclear missiles and renamed the agency the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO).

By December of 1999, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution to urge the US to abandon its plans to build an ABM defense system. The resolution called for continued efforts to strengthen and preserve the AMB Treaty.

However, in June of 2002, the Bush administration announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. Concurrently, the BMDO was renamed the Missile Defense Agency in 2002, and Russia responded by withdrawing from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) treaty (since in 1993).

Development of Missile Defense concepts are ongoing and continue to be a source of controversy and a stumbling block when it comes to relations between the US and its allies and Russia.

Space Planes

Throughout the Cold War, the US and USSR (and their allies) produced a number of concepts for space planes. However, it has not been until recent years that working models of military spaceplanes have entered service.

These include the X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), a reusable robotic spacecraft that NASA began developing in 1999. This vehicle is sent to space using a launch vehicle and then re-enters Earth's atmosphere and lands under its own power.

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
The X-37 rolling out at the NASA Kennedy Space Center. Source:

The X-37 was designed as a scaled-up model of the Boeing X-40 Space Maneuver Vehicle (SMV). Originally designed by NASA, operation of the X-37 was transferred to the Department of Defense in 2004 as a demonstrator for reusable space technologies

This spaceplane is capable of long-duration flights, the purpose of which remains classified. To date, five test flights have been conducted using the two operational X-37Bs, which have spent a total of 2792 days in space. 

In the coming years, USAF will be unveiling the SR-72 hypersonic demonstrator aircraft. As a replacement to the SR-71 Blackbird, the SR-72 is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed for reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering.

The plane relies on scramjet technology to achieve speeds of up to Mach 6 (7,400 km/h; 46,000 mph) and reaching an operational flight ceiling of 24,000 meters (80,000 feet).

So What Would a Space Force Look Like?

Between the historical antecedents and systems that are currently under development, a basic idea can begin to take shape. For starters, given their importance to navigation, communication, and (someday soon) wireless connectivity, ASAT systems may become an especially important military asset.

This will definitely include anti-satellite missiles, but could also involve anti-satellite platforms in orbit that are armed with penetrator missiles, directed-energy weapons, or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warheads.

Spaceplanes will also likely become a regular feature, conducting everything from space-based espionage to transporting personnel from Earth to space stations in orbit. With the development of reusable spacecraft in orbit, troops might even be able to hitch a ride to other planets.

Another possibility is the development of aerospace fighters, aircraft that are capable of operating within Earth's atmosphere as well as the vacuum of space. In fact, a spaceplane like the X-37 would suffice as the platform for a space interceptor or fightercraft.

It's also not difficult to imagine how space soldiers ("Space Marines" anyone?) would be equipped. Not only would they need pressure suits, but ones that incorporate body armor (such as kevlar and layers of supermaterials like graphene) would be especially useful.

As for weapons, soldiers would need guns that can fire in the vacuum of space, which pretty much rules out gas-powered rifles. Perhaps portable directed-energy weapons (which the Soviets researched in the 1980s) that could blind sensors and/or burn holes in enemy spacesuits.

Speaking of direct-energy, space-based lasers could also become a reality. These could perform double-duty, providing for asteroid defense as well as performing precision strikes from orbit against enemy infrastructure. With a little steering, they could also be used to destroy enemy space weapons.

Ballistic weapons, like the Soviet-era Almaz space cannon, could also play a role. In fact, ballistic impactors, the kind that fire projectile rounds could also enter service, as could rail guns for point defense and space battles!

The Militarization of Space: What Would a "Space Force" Look Like?
A cannon for space? Source: Anatoly Zak/

If all of this is beginning to sound like science fiction, that's because its entirely speculative. Much of would be in violation of the Outer Space Treaty and others that have been subsequently signed.

And since no one is in a hurry to abandon this treaty and the protections it ensures, it is not likely that most of these weapon systems will see the light of day anytime soon.

The Future...

Given the way technology continues to advance rapidly, not to mention the fact that more nations are becoming involved in space exploration, the future of humanity in space is difficult to predict.

As our presence in space and the infrastructure necessary to support human operations there continues to grow, concerns over the issues of sovereignty and security will naturally follow.

These concerns are not new and have not changed much since the Space Race began over sixty years ago. But given the era of renewed space exploration that lies before us, it is understandable how the militarization of space has once again become a pressing issue.

What will all this mean? On the one hand, there are those who insist that a "space force" is necessary to protect space assets and against things like "space piracy" or terrorism. On the other, there are those who worry that we in the midst of a new "arms race" in space and militarization could lead to tensions between nations.

Given the current budget environment and the sheer cost of space exploration, there is no shortage of people who claim that the recent passage of SPD-3 will not result in any serious changes being made.

But as we continue to explore the Solar System - and maybe even colonize it - we may find ourselves looking to a space force to protect the space lanes and defend against any possible threats.

Who knows? A military force in space may even be necessary someday to protect humanity against existential threats, like an extra-terrestrial species that is determined to invade.

Images of "Space Marines" or the "Mobile Infantry" abound!

Further Reading:

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