New Global Battlefront: Satellite Warfare

China shatters a satellite—and a lot more.
From the April 2007 Trumpet Print Edition

On January 11, China destroyed one of its old weather satellites by shooting a warhead from a ballistic missile into space. While the world gaped, Chinese officials belatedly declared that they have no intention of escalating tensions with America or any other nation, stating that their satellite-busting technology is dedicated to peaceful pursuits.

It is not every day that a world power blasts a warhead into space to test the “peaceful” application of satellite-destroying technology. The truth is, this test was a bold Chinese statement. “[I]t’s a big fat challenge,” Rob Hewson, editor of London-based Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons said—“an overtly military, very provocative event that cannot be spun any other way.”

To this point in history, space has remained unmarred by war and international bickering in any way comparable to what is happening on Earth. For many, space is a symbol of mankind’s aspiration for global peace and prosperity. This is why the International Space Station has enjoyed worldwide cooperation. The International Space Station is a symbol of mankind’s hopes and dreams of exploring space, transcending national aspirations in global collaboration.

However, on January 11, China shattered this vision with a punch of reality. Men are at war, and space is the newest battleground.

The nation with the most to lose on this battlefront is clearly the United States, which relies heavily on satellite technology for its unmatched military power. Without satellites, American forces simply could not wage war effectively. But also, space technology coordinates many daily activities of Americans—from debit machines and finance, to hydro and telephone. Without satellite technology, America would come to a standstill.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Famed German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun once observed, “I am convinced that he who controls the open space around us is in a position to control the Earth.”

Control of space is what China’s satellite-busting technology is about. Beijing wants to challenge U.S. space supremacy. And it is not alone. Other nations and power blocs are charging forward with their own space programs.

Who will win this battle for space supremacy?

Blinding the U.S. Giant

Racing across the Iraqi desert in the 1991 Gulf War, American-led forces routed Saddam Hussein’s army in record time. It was like watching a hammer smash through a thin sheet of ice: The backbone of the Iraqi Army broke in mere days. The speed with which coalition forces defeated Hussein’s army stunned the world. It left some nations, like China, concerned. It has been called “the first space war”: Largely, it was the use of the U.S.’s Global Positioning System (gps) and other space systems that enabled such a victory. It was an overwhelming victory made possible by American satellite technology.

By integrating space technology into its military program, the U.S. has become astonishingly powerful. But, at the same time, it has also become extraordinarily dependent on that technology for its national security. The Pentagon relies on electro-optical, infrared, radar and other types of reconnaissance satellites to see what is happening on the battlefield. Satellites allow commanders to coordinate the battlefield and to make precision attacks.

While this level of technological coordination gives the U.S. military an edge—one that its enemies are all too aware of—these enemies and competitors are also aware that satellite technology is an Achilles’ heel for America.

A January 22 New York Times article highlighted the fact that China has “extensively studied how the United States has used satellite imagery in the Persian Gulf War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in tracking North Korea’s nuclear weapons program …. Several senior administration officials said such studies had included extensive analysis of how satellite surveillance could be used by the United States in case of crisis over Taiwan.”

Virtually the only thing preventing China from invading Taiwan is America’s protection. China knows that defeating the American military head-on is not an option. So, like other nations, it is looking to a unique strategy to level the playing field: asymmetric warfare. Rather than directly confronting American forces, this strategy envisions knocking out critical capabilities.

Essentially, China knows it will not reach parity with U.S. satellite and military technology anytime soon. But it also knows it doesn’t need to reach parity to tangle with the United States. All it needs to be able to do, using select technology, is disrupt America’s satellite war-making abilities. With China having demonstrated such satellite-destroying capability, will the U.S. be as eager to come to Taiwan’s defense as it once was?

John Tkacik, a former State Department expert on China, told Agence France Presse, “The prospect of losing a good chunk of our satellite coverage, our satellite network in space in a Taiwan combat scenario really does change the equation for American planners on how we approach the defense of Taiwan should it need it” (January 23).

This is a disturbing new development for America. China has developed technology capable of blinding America from seeing the battlefield, or worse, even preventing it from effectively waging war. This fact calls to mind a disturbing prophecy about the modern-day descendants of ancient Israel, which includes America, failing to respond to a call to war: “They have blown the trumpet, even to make all ready; but none goeth to the battle …” (Ezekiel 7:14). A satellite attack could play a part in the fulfillment of that scenario.

America Faltering

In light of advancements by other countries and U.S. financial constraints, some are growing concerned that the U.S. may be losing ground in space. “We are falling behind, if not losing, on many measures of space superiority,” Defense Department contractor Stephen Hill said at a forum in Washington in January.

nasa’s space and defense program is underfunded, even underachieving, according to the Associated Press. While the U.S. has plans for a space-based missile-defense program and the Pentagon is working on ground-based lasers and other technology to shoot down satellites, “the Pentagon’s budget is severely constrained by Iraq and Afghanistan and a drive to replace outdated planes and ships, making space programs a lower priority …” (January 23). And in terms of manpower, Washington State Sen. Patty Murray recently pointed out that America’s space industry has lost more than 700,000 jobs in the past 15 years.

John Douglass, president and ceo of the Aerospace Industry Association, and other industry analysts feel nasa’s space programs and research and development are underfunded compared to historic levels. To match historical funding levels as a percentage of America’s gross domestic product, nasa’s budget would have to be doubled from the $16 billion it is today to between $30 and $40 billion (Access Intelligence, Dec. 18, 2006).

“Sooner or later,” Douglass recently told an audience of industry professionals and journalists, “this is going to reach a crisis.”

The Race for Space

In addition to China, other nations are also making progress in space. In January, the Indian Space Research Organization launched and returned its first satellite in what one commentator termed an emerging space race. Japan also has plans to send an orbiter to the moon.

Russia’s space program, after several years of being underfunded, is now once again surging ahead. Russia has anti-satellite capability and is certainly capable of developing technology to challenge U.S. space supremacy. Col. Gen. Vladimir Popovkin, commander of the Space Troops of the Defense Ministry of Russia, recently reported that Russia’s oil money is fueling a military space revival. “Space infrastructure is now increasing its role throughout the world in boosting both the military might and social and economic prosperity of the leading world states,” he wrote. “In military matters, space-based systems are the key to information supremacy. They provide more accurate and prompt information about the situation to all troops and weapons systems. Space resources have therefore become a matter of vital interest for the state economically, politically and militarily” (ria Novosti, Oct. 4, 2006).

Europe’s space ambitions are coordinated through the European Space Agency (esa), a network of 17 countries including France, Germany and Italy. Europe sorely wants to close the space technology gap with the United States. For a long time, Europe’s space program lagged far behind; in recent years, esa has made changes to reverse this course. Eyeing continued American advancements, Europe examined its shortcomings and took up the challenge to try to close the gap, almost doubling its financing. Today, primarily working with Russia, Europe has rapidly escalated its space capabilities. With its Galileo satellite navigational system (in which China has a major financial stake) and close connections to Russian technology and know-how, the European Union looks to become a challenge to U.S. space supremacy.

China’s recent advancement will only fuel this developing space race. If one considers human nature and the spirit of competition among nations—along with mankind’s history of eventually using every weapon it has devised—the prospect of this space race having deadly consequences appears very high.

But within this bad news, some experts find a glimmer of hope.

The Good News

Noted author, physicist and space enthusiast Stephen Hawking recently stated that mankind needs to look to space if the human race is to survive. In a radio interview with the bbc, he stated that mankind will have to colonize planets in far-flung solar systems. “Sooner or later, disasters such as an asteroid collision or nuclear war could wipe us all out. But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe,” Hawking said.

Though mankind’s intentions to explore space and advance the interests of humanity may be praiseworthy, we simply cannot overcome the spirit of competition that drives nations to wrestle other nations over who should rule it. The fact is, the same problems among peoples would exist wherever humans lived, simply because of the pervasive influence of human nature.

However, though Hawking’s ideas may appear fanciful and idealistic, he is not as far off as some may presume. Though mankind won’t step into space in quite the way he describes, mankind will indeed colonize the universe!

Incredibly, according to the Bible, mankind is heir of “all things” (Hebrews 2:7-8), or, as James Moffatt translates it, “the universe”! The Bible details how each human ever born has the potential to be involved in colonizing efforts into the deepest reaches of space.

That will not occur, however, until man learns to rule his own spirit and becomes converted (Isaiah 66:2). But at that point—which is sooner than most would presume—Scripture reveals that mankind will be given a chance to rule space in a spirit of cooperation and love. The spirit of competition that drives so much investment in implements of war today—like satellite-busting weaponry—will no longer plague man and frustrate his ambition to explore space.

Ultimately, space doesn’t belong to a nation or company of nations in this world—it belongs to God. But as our book The Incredible Human Potential explains, even now He is working out a plan to give the universe to you forever. He wants you to rule space!

The only question is, do you want to achieve your incredible human potential?