Space is an enabler that supports other military domains

Space is an enabler that supports other military domains

Text by Juuso Mikkola and Arttu Tiainen

Space is often viewed as a peaceful environment that benefits all mankind. Indeed, all nations are free to use the space for their own benefit within certain limitations coming from the United Nations space agreements. However, space has never been a peaceful environment. It has been militarized and weaponized from the first years of the space age. This article explains briefly why space has always been a military domain, how space supports and enhances warfighting on the Earth and what space warfare means.

The not-so-peaceful history of space

The technology, which enabled access to space, was based on ballistic missile development. In addition, the early satellites had a very strong connection to the missile programs of the Cold War. Reconnaissance satellites were used to calculate the number of missile launchers, missile warning satellites were used to observe the possible missile launches, navigation satellites were used to quickly give a position to surfacing submarines to calculate the launch trajectories and so on.

Number of the active satellites grew during the decades and satellites started to have military uses without connection to the nuclear deterrence. Satellites were utilized in a small fashion during the Vietnam and Falkland wars, but in the 1990s during the Gulf War, the satellites finally had a strong effect on terrestrial warfare. Especially GPS made an impact, as the US troops could navigate with it through the desert and utilize precision-guided munitions. Also, the satellite communication and space-based reconnaissance supported the US troops.

Nowadays, space supports terrestrial warfare in multiple ways. Reconnaissance satellites and satellite navigation are probably still the most well-known applications, but there are many others. Even common weather forecasts rely on space-based data and weather has a significant effect on military operations. Also, modern networked combat and communication systems require precise time synchronization, which is primarily coming from the navigation satellites as well.

From the 1960s to the 1990s almost 70% of the yearly launched satellites were military satellites. Even though the human spaceflight programs might have been more visible during those years, the space was foremost used to support the military. During the 1990s the commercialization of space started to grow and currently more than 90% of the yearly launched satellites are commercial. Space also started to have a major impact on civilian society and now many space-based services can be considered as part of critical infrastructure.

Although the military satellites are now the minority, space is still getting more important to the armed forces around the world. Some nations have dedicated military satellites, but all of them are utilizing publicly and commercially available data from the satellites. Publicly available data consist of, for example, positioning and timing signals from GPS or GALILEO satellites (GNSS-systems) and commercial data varies from earth observation to satellite communication.

Who controls the space, controls the information

As the space-based capabilities are enhancing the combat capabilities on Earth and supporting the military operations in multiple ways, the control of space is getting also more important. Space control does not mean control of area, but more importantly control of access. The ability to retain the usability of own satellite services and the ability to deny the satellite services from the adversary if needed.

The first large-scale operational use of space assets was seen during the Gulf War which is sometimes referred to as the first space war, however this description has some flaws. While satellite communications and especially GPS provided great advantages, those were supporting force multipliers for forces on ground and air. Anti-satellite weapons were not used, even though the development of them started in the early 1960s. The lack of war in space probably is not due to the supposed peaceful nature of the domain, but more likely the lack of large-scale conflict between the major space powers and connection to the nuclear deterrence in the early years.

However, there are still many reasons not to destroy satellites – at least not with kinetic weapons. Atmosphere does not end at any altitude; it just gets thinner and thinner. Atmospheric drag will slow down all space objects and eventually objects will slow down enough to re-enter the denser atmosphere and burn there. Depending on the orbital altitude, that can take decades or centuries. Destroying a satellite with a missile, will generate hundreds or thousands of new fragments in space. This orbital debris can collide with satellites and cause even more debris. Eventually this could even start a chain reaction that would make at least some orbital altitudes unusable for a very long period and that would affect everyone on Earth. This raises the threshold for kinetic attacks in space and quite likely it would require a major large-scale conflict between space-faring nations.

There are also other methods of space control, such as electronic warfare (EW) and cyber warfare. These provide more subtle methods that may not even be seen as acts of war as they are not seen as severe, and the attackers are much harder to identify. Additionally, the target has a strong incentive to keep the attack hidden and thus only a small proportion of this type of acts are brought to public.

If the ground stations are incapacitated, the satellite can’t be tasked and the data from the satellite can’t be downlinked to the Earth. The most common threats against the satellite systems are directed at the ground infrastructure as those resemble more mainstream cyber-attack targets and require less specialized assets. Simpler attacks against ground stations can deny the use of the satellites and more sophisticated can even hijack control of or permanently incapacitate satellites. Satellite data servers as any servers can be targeted with data destruction or tampering attacks. As the vast majority of earth observation data is never seen by humans and used for machine learning models, this type of data poisoning can cause harm over a long period and cause faulty analysis information for the decision makers.

EW can be used to jam or alter all kinds of signals, but the most common example is GNSS jamming. The GNSS signal is coming from an altitude of 20 000 km, it is relatively weak and therefore easy to jam by transmitting some other signal with the same frequencies. The GNSS jamming denies the use of space-based position and time signal, which makes it part of space control and space warfare in a larger context.

GNSS jamming is part of modern warfare, every warfighter should expect it and train to act without space-based position and time signals.

Although there still has not been a large-scale war in space, the world has already seen the first space wars. For example, during the war in Ukraine, Russia has destroyed space-related ground infrastructure, jammed the SATCOM & GNSS signals and conducted cyber operations against satellites. This is essentially what space control is about, the ability to deny use of space-based capabilities from the adversary.

In many operations, success may depend on capabilities provided by space. A modern soldier must know how to use the full capabilities provided by space, but they must also know when the space capabilities are limited or even denied. For example, a GNSS receiver provides an accurate and easy way to navigate, but a map and compass can be an acceptable alternative when needed. However, part of proficiency is to know when and how to use each of these options.

Commercial space or space mercenaries?

Ongoing war in Ukraine has also highlighted the value of commercial satellites to the military operations. Western companies have supported Ukraine by providing valuable space-based services. For example, imagery from the earth observation satellites can be used to support planning, choosing targets for weapon systems, and evaluating effects after the strike beyond the battlefront. Commercial satellite communications can be used for command and control even after the ground-based networks and infrastructure has been destroyed. Satellites will probably not have a decisive effect on the war themselves, but they will help by acquiring targets from the Russian controlled areas and by providing means for command and communication when the ground-based infrastructure is destroyed.

Using commercial services for war has downsides too as the commercial satellites can be considered lawful targets in many cases. EW and cyber actions against commercial satellites have already taken place in Ukraine and can cause collateral damage, such as was seen with KA-SAT terminals which disabled the remote control of 5800 wind turbines across Europe at the beginning of the invasion. This is something commercial space companies need to consider in future when they are developing their business plan. Selling services to the military has benefits as it is most likely quite profitable. The insurance, however, will not cover the acts of war and losses of service or even the satellites can be costly.

Conclusion

Space is an enabler that supports every other domain. Who controls the space, has an advantage as the space enhances the combat systems in land, sea, air and cyber. The discussions whether the war in space is inevitable or not are futile as the war is already ongoing in space.

However, it would benefit all if the actions in space are sustainable, and space will remain usable for all. The key for the sustainable use of space is making the kinetic attacks against the satellites futile and too costly. This can be achieved for example by utilizing tens of satellites instead of a few, so the service is harder to deny and by designing space systems to be resilient against possible threats. The growth of commercial space and utilization of these satellites for the military operations can possibly have a large part in the sustainable space warfare, where the temporary effects are more valuable and effective than the permanent ones. Cyber security plays a key role in the sustainable use of space as it also enables the safe combined use of governmental and commercial space assets.

JUUSO MIKKOLA

Master of Military Sciences, Master of Science
(Tech.)
Senior Staff Officer (Space Operations)


Juuso Mikkola has a background as a naval
officer, but he is now working in the Finnish Air
Force mainly with the Space Situational
Awareness (SSA). SSA is the foundation of
space defence.

ARTTU TIAINEN

Master of Science in Spacecraft Design
Senior System Engineer


Arttu Tiainen is a hardware engineer with a
diverse technical background and currently
working with radio frequency systems for military
applications. Studied in Finland, Sweden,
Canada and Austria and currently pursuing PhD
studies at the National Defence University.

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