Billions of bits of debris flying across space, lasers burning holes into the atmosphere, and space-faring robots steering satellites into fiery reentry… welcome to the Space Force vs. China.
Luckily, for now, it seems like everyone is sticking to the “No weapons of mass destruction in Space” rule.
Any future war between the U.S. and China will likely become a space battle, and any space battle will focus on the destruction of each other’s warfighting satellites — the ones that provide intelligence, communications, and GPS. The U.S. has over 800 in orbit and China has over 200.
The first salvos will be the least destructive. The U.S. Space Force and the People’s Liberation Army would use weapons like lasers and jammers to temporarily blind or disable. If things escalates from there, it’ll be time to turn to true anti-satellite weapons.
The Raven allows for relatively easy and precise steering in space.
The U.S. could turn to systems like the Raven, a NASA program that allows for automated link ups between satellites, to get American kill satellites into position above Chinese satellites, link up with them, and then steer them downwards, turning them into a meteor that will explode and burn up in the atmosphere.
But by the time a space war breaks out, China may have has its own system for sending orbiting objects into the atmosphere, like the proposed “space broom,” a satellite bearing a laser for burning up space debris and sending it back into the atmosphere. If it aims at a pressurized tank on an American satellite, it could create a tiny hole that would vent gasses and degrade the satellite’s orbit, dooming it.
For a more visceral destruction, China’s AoLong 1 satellite can grab enemy satellites with its arm and hurl them towards the ocean.
Like this, but then the robotic arm throws the satellite back towards earth, cups its hand to its ear, and acts like it can’t hear the crowd cheering for the first successful wrestling take down between robots in space. (Wrestling leagues, I look forward to pitching you a spec script.)
By this point, it would be expected that military forces would start to clash on the lands and sea — that is, if the war didn’t start there in the first place.
Once significant numbers of troops are in harm’s way, which would be immediately with both navies sailing carriers holding thousands of sailors in the Pacific, the forces would be willing to turn to even move destructive measures to gain an advantage.
This would mean the use of missiles designed for destroying ballistic missiles. Most weapons capable of engaging a ballistic missile in the middle of its flight are also capable of engaging a satellite in low earth orbit, where most military and civilian satellites operate. Some are even capable of engaging targets in higher, faster orbits.
In general, hitting an object in low earth orbit means firing a guided missile at an object approximately 250 miles above the earth that’s traveling at over 17,000 miles per hour. It’s a bit of a tricky shot, but China and the U.S. have shown they’re capable. The Space Force would likely inherit some of the land-based missiles and lasers capable of making this shot, but they would also ask for a huge assist from the Navy.
See, China and the U.S. both have land-based missiles that can make the shot, but any anti-satellite missile launch faces a fuel problem. Missiles can only hit satellites that fly within a certain range of the launch point since the missiles have to make it into space with enough fuel to maneuver and reach the target. So, a Space Force would likely be stacked to engage targets that fly over missile shields on the West Coast, but would be weak elsewhere.
These things can reach space and kill things there. For realsies.
(Missile Defense Agency photo by Leah Garton)
But the Navy’s Standard Missile-3, a common armament on the Navy’s Aegis destroyers, has a demonstrated capability of killing satellites after a software change.
In a shooting war with China in space, expect the missiles to get their software upgraded immediately.
A tit-for-tat escalation into missiles exploding in space creates an immediate crisis for all astronauts up there. See, nearly all manned space missions have taken place in low earth orbit, an area that would become even more saturated with space debris in this situation. The International Space Station, for example, is in LEO.
Think thousands if not millions of bullets, all flying at speeds sufficient to punch right through the International Space Station or the planned Chinese large, modular space station. Expect both countries to immediately try to evacuate their troops. For the ISS crew, this means they need to make it the Soyuz capsules and immediately start the launch sequence, a process expected to take three minutes.
But the really bad thing about this type of war is that it can’t end. See, those bits of space debris go in all directions. The ones flying at escape velocity will fly away and travel, potentially forever, through the universe. The ones that explode towards the earth will likely burn up quickly.
But the ones flying at the right velocity, quite possibly thousands or millions of pieces of metal per missile vs. satellite engagement, will simply fly through low earth orbit at thousands of miles per hour, shredding everything they come in contact with and creating more debris.
Think of those really scary scenes in Gravity.
Eventually, this is nearly guaranteed to take out the bulk of the satellites in orbit, from communications to weather to mapping.
In a stroke, we’d get rid of a significant portion of our internet architecture, our weather data, and other systems, like GPS, that we just expect to work, potentially setting us back decades.
So, even if the combatants decide to stop shooting at each other, it’s too late to save space for that generation. For decades, the job of the Space Force, NASA, and all of our allies will be cleaning up from the war, whether the whole thing lasted minutes or years.
So, let’s just make a movie about it, watch that, and try to avoid actually fighting each other in space.
Come on, Space Force. You guys can work out deterrence strategies, right?