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War in Space

Al-Etihad, UAE, December 27

Since the dawn of history, human beings have fought and wrestled in all geographical fronts – plains, valleys and mountains on land, and oceans and rivers in the water. Even the skies were used as a battleground, through the reliance on hot air balloons and airplanes, all the way to the advent of combat aircraft in World War I. Recently, militaries have begun fighting outside the atmosphere itself, making outer space the setting of a new arms race, whose pace is accelerating and heralds a prospective space war. The most recent chapter of this arms race was materialized with the announcement President Trump last week about the establishment of a new branch in the US armed forces, which will be known as the Space Force, similar to other branches of the armed forces, such as the Air Force and the Navy. This force is the development of the Space Command, which was announced last August. It will be provided a budget of $40 million in the next year to support a force of some 16,000 officers, soldiers and civilians. This latest development falls within a broader phenomenon known as space militarization, whose roots go back to the beginning of the Cold War in the 1940s. This phenomenon revolves around the developments of weapons and technologies for the purpose of military uses in outer space. Perhaps the most famous example of these technologies is the GPS satellite system, which prior to its opening up to civilian use was intended for purely military purposes. GPS systems allowed, among other things, the accurate positioning of targets, of smart bombing, cruise missiles, and the upgrade of command and control of ground forces deployed on land. As a result of this paramount military importance of satellite positioning systems, and absolute US control over them, many countries have rushed to create and launch similar systems, such as Russia, which currently has a completely independent system known as “GLONASS,” and China, which has an analog system known as “Baidu.” Even the European Union developed its own system, known as “Galileo,” which became operational in 2016 at a cost of €10 billion. While the list of new technologies that might be introduced into space in upcoming years is too long to mention here, it may very well include things like secured military communication systems, spy satellites, accurate mapping satellites, and electronic jammers. The US is not alone in developing these technologies. In 2001, Russia established an independent space force, and China followed suit in January 2007, when it destroyed its own satellite with an anti-satellite missile carrying a warhead of 750 kilograms. In general, weapons to be used in prospective space wars can be divided into three main categories, first: surface-to-surface missiles, which will be launched from ground bases to destroy satellites used by the enemy to spy or to locate targets abroad. Second: space-to-surface missiles, which will be launched from satellites to destroy enemy forces on the ground, similar to bombers and cruise missiles. Some major military powers seek to use powerful laser beams to achieve the same goal. Third: space-to-space missiles, which will be launched from satellites against hostile satellites. And while the space arms race is accelerating, some treaties seek to slow or, at least, limit its pace. One of these initiatives is the Outer Space Treaty, which prevents signatories from placing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the Earth’s orbit, on the surface of the moon, or on any of the planets and other terrestrial bodies. This agreement has already been ratified by 98 countries, including the United States, Russia, and Britain. It is worth noting that this agreement only prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in outer space, but does not outlaw the militarization of outer space by relying on other conventional weapons. –Akmal Abd Al-Hakim (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)