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A space satellite orbits the earth in this illustration. Picture: 123RF/COOKELMA
A space satellite orbits the earth in this illustration. Picture: 123RF/COOKELMA

London — As a UN-led military force moved in to protect the independent nation of Mercury from rival Arnland in French war games this month, the most critical battle was playing out not on land, at sea or in the air, but in orbit.

While European nations argue over what weapons to send Ukraine and whether to add ground troops, France’s AsterX drills — the name is a reference both to French comic character Asterix and the first French satellite launched in 1965 — brought together 190 participants from France and 15 allies to simulate space warfare.

The Arnland enemy, played by personnel from US Space Command, deployed attack satellites with robot arms that could disable allied satellites. The French team countered by moving their own “patroller” satellite into a similar position, ready to intercept if necessary.

France does not have operational patroller satellites to perform that function, French officials told attending journalists, but it hopes to procure them in coming years. The rate at which Earth orbit is becoming crowded and militarised is now seen speeding such developments.

The French exercise included simulating more than 4,000 objects in space, with an intelligence desk using both telescope and social media information to identify friendly, neutral and potentially hostile items, a capability France does not expect to have fully operational in reality until 2030 at the earliest.

With a budget of $6bn to build its Space Command between now and then, the French military space capability is considerably smaller than that of the US — US Space Command’s annual budget is at least $30bn, supporting almost 14,000 personnel.

By partnering with the US for the exercise, however — as well Japan, Germany, Italy, Britain, South Korea and others — French officials say they are able to access the deepening network between allied nations.

As well as hosting the French Space Command, the Toulouse base hosting the exercise is also home to Nato’s new Space Centre of Excellence. The alliance has also created its own fledgling joint space headquarters at the US Air and Space Forces European headquarters at Ramstein in Germany.

French general Philippe Adam, commander of the French Space Command, described the drills — which have been running annually since 2021 — as “absolutely essential for our operators, but also our processes, training what we call operational readiness, so we are ready to fight a real war”.

The scenario, he said, was inspired by the real world — including “unfriendly behaviour” by Russian satellites, including unannounced and threatening approaches to Western satellites which, he said, now happened “all the time”.

In February, Republican representative Mike Turner of Ohio, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement talking of a new “serious national security threat”, later confirmed by the White House to be what was referred to as a new Russian nuclear anti-satellite weapon.

US officials refused to reveal many further details, but the comments appeared to refer to either a nuclear-powered satellite or one that might use a nuclear electromagnetic pulse to disable other nearby satellites. Such a capability appears to be under development by the Kremlin but has not yet been launched, US officials said.

US space hotline to Beijing?

The growing number of other satellites, however, are making low Earth orbit increasingly congested. According to estimates, at least 2,500 satellites were launched in 2023 alone, while Western officials say Moscow and Beijing have invested heavily in a range of space capabilities with a view to challenging Western dominance.

Last month, the head of US Space Command, Gen Stephen Whiting, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that both Russian and Chinese space capabilities were developing “breathtakingly fast” — and that both US military and civilian space authorities were still optimised for a “benign space environment” rather than one of heightened international competition.

“The systems requirements were largely laid down during a time when we didn’t face the threats we now see,” he said. “We really have to focus on making sure we have the systems to protect and defend our existing architectures.”

As well as building new capabilities to fight in space, US officials say they need to build direct relations with those running space policy and operations for Beijing in particular.

China is now the only nation to have its own independently operating manned space station in Earth orbit, and has pledged to put its own astronauts on the moon by 2030.

“It’s… important we have a shared understanding with potential adversaries so that there is no miscalculation,” Brig Gen Anthony Mastalir, commanding US Space Forces in the Pacific, told the Air and Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium in Colorado last month, suggesting a direct US-China hotline on the topic.

“When you think about a hostile act or demonstrating hostile intent in space, what does that look like?” he asked rhetorically. “And do all nations have a shared understanding of what that looks like?”

If anything, US co-operation with allies in the Pacific is moving even faster than that in Europe. The US already has an element of US Space Command in Korea working closely with the government in Seoul, and hopes to set up a similar capability in Japan by the end of the year.

From low orbit to the moon

While international tensions are clearly part of driving that expansion, so is the fast-changing face of new technology — particularly directed-energy weapons that US officials fear could be used to “dazzle” and disable US satellites, missiles and potentially military capabilities on the ground.

Such techniques would likely avoid some of the unintended consequences of satellites and space vehicles physically shooting each other down. A 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test produced a vast debris field, parts of which threaten satellites today.

As ever more players develop the ability to put objects into orbit, space looks set to become more and more congested. As China and the US prepare to return to the moon, the congested space may increasingly include what is called “columnar space”, between geosynchronous orbit just more than 35,000km above Earth and the moon itself about 385km away.

So far, rockets heading to the moon such as the US-manned Apollo missions and more recent US, Chinese, Indian, Russian and European probes have simply passed through this region, but analysts say there is evidence China is building rockets that will allow them to conduct more extensive operations there.

The US will soon have similar capability, provided by the 120m Starship rocket built by Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX, which flew round the world on its third test this month before burning up upon re-entry.

Starship will have a lift capacity of 100-150 tonnes, more than a Boeing C-17 cargo plane. Exactly when that system will be operational remains unclear, but Pentagon officials have expressed interest in using it for both deep space missions as well as potentially transporting equipment and troops around the world in times of crisis in perhaps less than an hour.

Starship’s size, analysts predict, will also significantly increase the Pentagon’s ability to launch large numbers of satellites at once. The Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency has also asked SpaceX and other firms to develop projects that would allow a sustained US civilian and military presence on the moon.

Major wars to come will almost certainly be fought in space. Those by the middle of the century may well start in space and then spread to Earth. 


Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues. He joined Reuters in 2003, reporting from Southern Africa and Sri Lanka and on global defence issues. He is also the founder of a think-tank, the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and, since 2016, has been a Labour Party activist and British Army reservist.

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