Space 2.0—enabling war in space?
9 May 2019|

Humanity is on the cusp of a new age in space, with the rapid development of technology including much cheaper, and reusable, launch vehicles and smaller, more versatile satellites.

The ‘Space 2.0’ approach brings transformational change in accessing and utilising space. There’s a shift towards ‘small, cheap and many’, with a growing emphasis on small satellites, in contrast to the large, complex and expensive craft which are beyond the reach of all but the major space powers.

This rationale also applies to launches, with the emerging reusable rocket revolution, epitomised by SpaceX and Blue Origin, that significantly reduces the cost of getting payloads into space. Here, the difference between the old ‘Space 1.0’ mindset, and Space 2.0 couldn’t be starker. NASA is persisting with its fully expendable ‘Space Launch System’ that is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, and will cost approximately US$1 billion per launch. This is in contrast to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is partly reusable and costs much less to operate, at US$90 million per launch.

The trend towards reusability and reduced cost will continue as technology evolves. Chinese companies are developing fully or partly reusable launchers. The UK’s Reaction Engines Ltd is developing the ‘SABRE’ (synergetic air breathing rocket engine) that could make spaceplanes a reality by providing rapid response and quick turnaround to deliver payloads into space by the 2030s.

The basis of Space 2.0’s growing success is the lead the commercial sector has gained over government-run space activities by exploiting rapid spiral development cycles that have been enabled by the reduction of  costs. That situation brings rapid innovation.

The adoption of the Space 2.0 paradigm is a very positive development for humanity’s long-term future in space. It makes many of the ambitious ‘big space’ goals, such as colonisation of the moon and Mars, and the exploitation of space resources much more affordable and, thus, possible.

However, it also brings risks because it can be applied equally to developing ‘counterspace’ weapons. Reducing costs through reusable rockets and small satellites, and the potential for reusable rockets to rapidly access space, opens up a quicker and cheaper path for the development of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) for major and minor powers alike. Low cost ‘cubesats’, which normally provide useful services to terrestrial users can become ASATs if equipped with a payload such as a close-range jamming system.

The next generation satellite mega-constellations for the ‘internet of things’, a ‘broadband in the sky’ ubiquitous communications system, and pervasive earth-observation networks will demand rapid production, and equally rapid deployment, of low-cost reusable launch vehicles. That means harnessing fourth industrial revolution technologies like 3D printing, automation and robotics, and advanced assembly line processes.

These technologies will allow the fast and large-scale manufacture of small satellites—or ASATs. That’s significant when a $10,000 CubeSat crashing into a multi-billion-dollar intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellite can generate the same effect as a much more expensive and complex ‘direct ascent’ anti-satellite system such as that tested by China in 2007.

In considering where this may be headed, key trends will have a bearing on how Australia can best respond to the evolving counterspace challenge.

The cost of using space for benign or malign purposes is dropping, and there’s an accelerating proliferation of Space 2.0 technologies. In 2019, China and Russia are the two key ‘counterspace threats’ in terms of traditional ASAT technologies. By 2035, the spread of technology that can be applied in an ASAT role, whether in space or from the ground, will mean the number of potential ‘counterspace’ powers will grow rapidly, and Australia’s space capabilities will come under greater threat.

States will increasingly seek to avoid capabilities that generate large amounts of space debris. The emphasis will be on ‘soft kill’ tactics that have rapidly scalable and reversible effects, along with a requirement for deniability, if not outright anonymity. Key capabilities of the space battlefield of 2035 will be directed energy weapons, cyberattacks, advanced electronic warfare and ubiquitous jamming. Space war may happen at the speed of light as satellites go dead without warning.

Reusable launch systems may provide even lower cost and more responsive space access, potentially via hypersonic spaceplanes. These systems will open up capabilities for states like China and the US to rapidly project force into space, through space, and from space against targets back on earth. Australia is a leader the research and development of hypersonic propulsion and needs to look seriously at the potential of this technology to provide an operationally responsive space capability to the Australian Defence Force.

Space 2.0 technologies will see the rapid growth of commercial satellite mega-constellations in low-earth orbit and these will not remain limited to US companies. In the same way that Chinese space companies are making their first steps in the footprints of SpaceX, China will seek to exploit mega-constellations for its own civil and military purposes. Space is congested now. By 2035, it’s likely to be far more so.

The strategic canvas upon which we now consider the issue of space warfare and counterspace capabilities will expand beyond geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) to the moon and cislunar space—the moon and the region around it. The US is aiming for a human return to the lunar surface by 2024 (though it is uncertain whether it can meet this date), and China is talking about putting its ‘taikonauts’ on the lunar surface within 10 years. The Chinese see the moon and ‘cislunar space’ as being strategically important in terms of their ‘Space Dream’. In recent testimony to the US–China Economic and Security Review Commission, General James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that the US needed to shift its gaze and mindset beyond the traditional focus on LEO and GEO and emphasised the potential risks of major power competition in cislunar space. The moon and the cislunar region represent astrostrategic ‘high ground’ from which an adversary could oversee and even control the critical LEO–GEO region while also regulating access to the moon.

The return to the moon is a key step in the next phase of human space activity and a key component of that will be competition for resources and wealth. That competition will affect the national interests of states and determine their future actions in space.