Mar 31, 2020 - Science

Nations around the world moved toward militarizing space last year

Gif of a constellation in the shape of a soldier.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the last year, countries including the U.S., France, Russia and Japan took steps toward further militarizing their uses of outer space, according to a new report from the Secure World Foundation.

Why it matters: As space becomes increasingly key for militaries, nations are starting to find new ways to protect their military and research satellites, raising concerns that they might develop ways of destroying enemy satellites and making some parts of space unusable.

Details: Last year, France established its own offensive and defensive posture in space, as it looks to counter any threats to its own space-based assets.

  • Japan, which has long been involved in scientific endeavors in space, has also recently started to develop the ability to track satellites in orbit to protect its own military interests.
  • A Russian satellite has reportedly spied on a U.S. spy satellite from orbit, and the country is believed to be spoofing and jamming position, navigation and timing signals in Crimea and Syria.
  • The U.S. also performed its own tests of new military technology in orbit, including the release of small satellites from the secret, uncrewed X-37b space plane.

The big picture: Space-faring nations have shied away from using destructive means to respond to threats to their satellites, but that could change in the future.

  • Experts are particularly worried that the destruction of a satellite could create large amounts of space junk that would endanger functional spacecraft and make wide swaths of certain orbits unusable.
  • "Right now, there appears to be a norm against using kinetic capabilities, but I fear that could change, particularly in a future high-stakes conflict between a couple of space powers," Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.
  • "Policymakers might consider all options on the table, including ones that have devastating long-term effects."

Between the lines: Demonstrating the ability to destroy a satellite may now become a signal to other nations that a country has major capabilities in space.

  • India's test of an anti-satellite system last year may set a new standard for other nations hoping to establish themselves in orbit.
  • "It may have established the norm that destroying a satellite is how you publicly signal you’re now a space power," Weeden said.

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