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Space Standoff: The next Cold War is already playing out right above our heads

There’s a cold war in space and virtually no one knows about it.

Right now, miles above your head, there are fleets of robotic, weaponized satellites poised to do battle as the world’s superpowers await the opening salvo in a very real cosmic chess match.

This might sound like science fiction. It’s not.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has enjoyed a quarter century of dominance in satellite technology. This advanced web of GPS satellites has given the U.S. military a great advantage on the battlefield. But thanks to robust military investments by Russia and China over the past few decades, this has all changed. Now, a single missile launch could wipe out a satellite and disable the GPS that the U.S. relies on for missile guidance, military operations, and more — so what was once America’s great edge is now a potentially catastrophic vulnerability.

The U.S. is now on the defense, preparing to protect its assets in orbit against a new fleet of high-tech satellites unlike anything the world has ever seen before. This doesn’t bode well for the future, because as history has continuously shown, any technology with potential military applications can (and usually will) spawn an arms race.

This is exactly where we find ourselves today, as the world’s superpowers march in lockstep toward yet another prospective nuclear doomsday.

A new cold war

As one could imagine, the ability to shoot a satellite — traveling at thousands of miles per hour — out of orbit is no easy task. It’s essentially the equivalent of trying to hit a speeding bullet with another speeding bullet from hundreds of miles away.

The message was clear: the next phase of the space arms race had begun.

But as futuristic as this anti-satellite (ASAT) technology may seem, this isn’t a new strategy by any stretch of the imagination. This was very much the next step in the Cold War before the U.S.S.R. dissolved in 1991, with both the U.S. and the Soviet Union testing an array of offensive and defense ASAT systems. Let’s not forget about Reagan’s very real “Star Wars” program.

The Soviets tinkered with everything from manned orbiting space vehicles with onboard rapid-fire cannons to so-called “suicide satellites.” These kamikaze satellites were designed to approach an enemy satellite in orbit and then detonate — a crude and dirty tactic, but all was fair game during the peak of the Cold War. Brinksmanship demanded brinksman-ships.

Up until the 2007, only Russia and the U.S. had demonstrated the capacity to destroy enemy satellites via missile intercept, a feat neither party had demonstrated since the ’80s. Then suddenly in 2007, everything changed when China successfully blew up one of its own weather satellites.

This Chinese test created more than 1,600 pieces of debris, many of which will remain in orbit for decades, with some debris expected to remain in orbit for at least a century. This poses an obvious problem for anything else zipping around at the outer reaches of the atmosphere. The International Space Station has spent much of the past decade dancing around in orbit, dodging debris that could potentially cause catastrophic damage.

If something as small as a nut or bolt — traveling at 17,000 miles per hour — were to collide with another craft in orbit, a debris field of thousands of pieces would be created instantaneously. Each of these chunks of shrapnel exponentially increases the chance of another orbital collision. This dreaded scenario (which is wonderfully illustrated in the film Gravity) is known as Kessler syndrome. The ensuing uncontrollable domino effect that such an event would cause could easily wipe out hundreds of satellites, rendering orbit impossible for decades.

And China blew up that satellite on purpose. This blatant disregard for orbit stability illustrates just how much the world’s most powerful militaries are willing to sacrifice in order to gain a lead in this domain.

The U.S. responded to this Chinese ASAT test with Operation Burnt Frost, successfully destroying its own orbiting satellite. This was the first U.S. ASAT test in more than 30 years. Soon afterward, the U.S. and China created a direct hotline reminiscent of the infamous “red telephone” used for communication between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War.

The message was clear: the next phase of the space arms race had begun.

Robo-satellites, unknown objects, and the pretense of peace

Thanks to seemingly bottomless defense budgets, as well as the tit-for-tat nature of any arms race, the next generation of anti-satellite technologies is already in orbit — with an assortment of others currently in development. These devices range from the unbelievably low-tech — such as a satellite with the ability to blind an enemy satellite’s onboard optics by simply spray-painting over them — to some of the most sophisticated technologies man has ever built.

China, for example, has launched at least one satellite that’s ominously equipped with a robotic arm. The Chinese claim this arm is a prototype of the one they plan to use onboard their space station, but the same arm has the capacity to “throw” another satellite out of orbit, or remove another satellite’s instruments, thereby rendering it useless.

“When the Chinese launched a missile in the summer of 2013, that got a lot of people worried.”

Much to the chagrin of Russia and the United States, this Chinese robo-claw has successfully performed at least one satellite capture procedure in orbit. The satellite is officially recognized by the Chinese government as part of a larger program involving “scientific experimentation satellites,” but the intrinsic dual nature of the grabber technology has only fueled paranoia among top military brass. And other maneuvers haven’t helped.

In 2013, the Chinese launched a rocket they claimed was part of a scientific mission to study the earth’s magnetosphere. The only problem is that, according to the Pentagon, no objects were actually placed into orbit during this exercise. “We tracked several objects during the flight but did not observe the insertion of any objects into orbit, and no objects associated with this launch remain in space,” noted Lieutenant Colonel Monica Matoush, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Victoria Samson, former Senior Analyst for the Center for Defense Information and current Washington Office director for the Secure World Foundation, explained the situation with an intentional slip of the tongue: “When the Chinese launched a missile — excuse me, a scientific test mission — to [geosynchronous orbit] in the summer of 2013, that got a lot of people worried.”

And China isn’t the only country participating in what might be construed as troubling behavior, either. The movements of several suspect Russian craft have recently received plenty of international condemnation.

One Russian satellite has made at least 11 approaches to its own defunct launch vehicle while in orbit. This suspect activity would appear to any onlooking military as obvious rendezvous and proximity testing. On one occasion, the satellite even collided intentionally with an upper stage rocket, “nudging” it into a higher orbit. This is troubling to military officials for obvious reasons: If a craft can nudge, it can quite easily knock a satellite out of orbit or collide with enough velocity to destroy it.

But of course, after all these dodgy maneuvers and astral nudging tests, the Russians assured the international community that the satellites were peaceful in nature — and didn’t bother to elaborate.

It gets better, too. When it comes to Russia, the real cause for concern surrounds a mysterious object known cryptically as 2014-28E. The object first appeared in space soon after the launch of three Russian military communication satellites. Initially, many believed 2014-28E was just another piece of debris left over from the launch. Not long afterward, however, this hunk of space junk began to swiftly change orbit, demonstrating an onboard propulsion system. What exactly 2014-28E is is still unknown, as the Russians have remained tight-lipped on the matter. Many experts fear that these actions signal that the Russians have revived their allegedly-defunct operation known as Istrebitel Sputnik (meaning “Satellite Fighter”), a covert Soviet-era ASAT program.

The U.S. military hasn’t played the role of the choir boy during this whole ordeal, either. It has stoked the flames with its own battle bots for decades. The country’s aforementioned ASAT test in 2008 was a rather unnecessary folderol of saber-rattling in itself.

Russian and Chinese officials have continuously accused the United States of spying on the Chinese Space Station with a top-secret space toy known officially as X-37B. This craft is essentially an unmanned version of the Space Shuttle with a payload bay that’s roughly the size of a pickup truck bed. However, what exactly will be carried and what has been carried on its previous three missions is classified. So too is the entire X-37B budget. Many aeronautic experts dispute claims that the U.S. is using this craft to spy on the Chinese Space Station — but, the complete lack of transparency from U.S. officials hasn’t helped thaw frigid relations between the involved parties.

And the X-37B definitely isn’t the only trick the U.S. has up its proverbial sleeve. Some of America’s most sophisticated ASAT technology is in development as we speak. DARPA, the research and development wing of the U.S. Department of Defense, is now quickly moving along with its Phoenix initiative. The program is based around the concept of a series of robotic craft with the ability to repair damaged satellites from the scraps parts of other defunct satellites already in orbit. Again, from a foreign military perspective, if a satellite has the ability to build something, that satellite also has the intrinsic ability to dismantle something — say, an enemy satellite.

Tit for tat, indeed.

An uneasy peace

Ever since the Sputnik launch, outer space has been the Wild West for space-faring countries. As it turns out, attempting to regulate an infinite space outside of any real unilateral government agency’s control is pretty tricky stuff. In 1967, soon after the U.S. and the Soviet Union had tested a bevy of their nuclear toys in outer space (with the U.S. even considering nuking the moon), both countries signed an agreement called the Outer Space Treaty.

One man’s last-minute decision prevented what could easily have been the beginning of World War III.

Unfortunately, this treaty is as wildly insufficient today as it was then, seeing as it only prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction in outer space, and the stationing of such weapons on celestial bodies. It also rather romantically establishes basic principles related to the peaceful use of outer space. The semantics allow for plenty of wiggle room.

Modern space legislation is desperately needed. Russia and China have continuously promoted several legislative updates –most notably the PPWT at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament — to no avail. The U.S. refuses to entertain any legislation that isn’t “verifiable” in nature, which makes it tricky.

“With space, everything is dual-use, so you would be verifying what exactly?” said Samson. “What you need is to know the other actor’s intent, and that’s very hard to do. Increasing transparency can help with that … Not that any country will be 100-percent transparent, but even a small portion can be helpful.”

This sort of minimal transparency eventually helped ease tensions at the peak of the Cold War, when both sides agreed to military site visits and inspections. But in space, at the moment, the sides could not be farther apart on any basic, legal groundwork.

High stakes

On October 27, 1962, a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine had been spotted patrolling near the U.S. blockade line around Cuba, kicking off the Cuban Missile Crisis. In an attempt to bring the submarine to the surface, a U.S. destroyer began dropping non-lethal depth charges.

The captain of the submarine mistakenly believed these charges were an attack and ordered his crew to arm the nuclear-tipped torpedo for launch. If this launch occurred, the U.S. would have presumably retaliated with a barrage of nukes launched at predetermined locations across the USSR.

Per Soviet protocols, all three of the Russian submarine’s commanding officers needed to agree unanimously on the decision to launch the warhead. The second in command, Vasili Arkhipov, refused to consent to a launch. The commanding officers eventually brought the submarine to the surface and returned to Russia without incident.

In essence, one man’s last-minute decision prevented what could easily have been the beginning of World War III.

This is perhaps as close the world has ever come to a doomsday scenario, and it’s chilling to think a moment of indeterminacy would have meant instant annihilation for millions. But unfortunately, the potential for a grave accident due to misinterpretation is dreadfully ripe in the space-age Cold War we’re currently entrenched in.

“In regards to indeterminacy of an attack: Bingo! Attribution is tremendously difficult,” says Samson. “If a satellite stops working in orbit, it’s not always apparent why. It could be because of faulty parts, solar flares, or deliberate interference.”

Let’s say, for instance, a U.S. intelligence satellite is taken out by a solar flare or fleck of debris while a Chinese or Russian satellite with suspected ASAT potential floats haphazardly nearby. The U.S. would have every reason to believe this was a possible preemptive strike to diminish U.S. GPS capacity before a larger attack. Would defense officials wait calmly with such crucial satellite assets potentially in the crosshairs? Probably not.

While there is currently tremendous potential for a military battle to begin in space, the ensuing war would extend to earth soon thereafter. This unnerving warning was echoed by General John Hyten, head of the U.S. Air Force Space Command. “If war does extend into space someday — and I hope it never does — the first response is not going to be in space,” he warned.

All things considered, it could easily be argued that the risk of an existential threat on this pale blue dot has never been higher. It’s incredible that a nuclear weapon hasn’t been used on civilians in more than 70 years, but most military experts would agree it is a matter of when, not if.

Without meaningful legislation to prevent such a disaster, life on this planet could disappear as quickly as a blip on a radar screen, with only the artificial halo of orbiting trash left to tell the tale.