The Space Wars Have Begun

Artist rendering of ground and space based laser weapons. Image: US Air Force.

“Space is now a distinct warfighting domain,” says the U.S. Defense Space Strategy.

Last week, corporate media repeated U.S. military propaganda: that Russia had “tested new technologies that could lead to so-called ‘killer satellites’” (ABC); the U.S. and Britain “accused Russia of testing a weapon-like projectile in space that could be used to target satellites in orbit” (BBC); “the US has publicly accused Russia of testing an ‘orbit weapon’” (CNN); “The launch could represent a step towards the militarisation of space”(Sky News); and so on.


These reports invert the chronology of events and omit the U.S. agenda to dominate space. Like China’s verified destruction of its own weather satellite in 2007, Russia’s alleged maneuvers in space are—if true—a response to what the Pentagon calls “Full Spectrum Dominance”: “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment.” This was a Clinton-era doctrine (1993-2001) which continues into the present. The Bush administration (2001-09) extended the policy, going from domination to “ownership”: Like the battles of old, “whoever owned the high ground owned the fight.” So-called Ballistic Missile Defense, which is supposedly designed counter nuclear weapons-carrying ICBMs, are actually missiles with the potential for first-strike capacity.

There is a way to stop Chinese and Russian anti-satellite tests: sign a treaty outlawing space weapons. But doing so would also prevent the U.S. from testing its own anti-satellite and other weapons, i.e., from “dominating” and “owning” space.

Beginning 2001, “China, at first alone but later with Russia, … made several proposals” to the UN Conference on Disarmament “on possible elements for a future treaty banning the weaponization of space,” says Arms Control Today. That’s not because the Chinese or Russian elites are good people who want peace, but rather because they know that they cannot complete with U.S. space domination. In 2002, Bush withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty 1972 and provoked Russia by constructing a missile system in Eastern Europe. In June of that year, Russia and China proposed a treaty committing signatories to “[n]ot place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons.” It was rejected by the U.S.

In 2010, President Obama (2009-17) launched the world’s first known, orbiting and geosynchronous space weapon—it had the capacity to do both and the military denied that it was a space weapon—the X37B, which had suspected anti-satellite capabilities.

In February 2018, the USAF Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, told Congress: “We own the high ground of air and space. We project decisive combat power forward with our joint team to defend America’s interests and our allies worldwide.” At the end of the year, Russia was accused by the U.S. of doing what the U.S. had done a decade earlier vis. the X37B: orbiting a potential space weapon. Making diplomatic efforts to defend against Full Spectrum Dominance, Russia and China continued their efforts to ban the weaponization of space. The U.S. continued its policy of “domination” and “ownership.”


Notions of Full Spectrum Dominance and ownership of space mean that the U.S. rejects every effort at the UN General Assembly to strengthen the Outer Space Treaty 1967. In November 2018, Russia introduced a draft treaty, “No first placement of weapons in outer space” (A/C.1/73/L.51). The second draft passed, with 128 nations voting in favor and 12 against, including the U.S. and Britain. In November 2019, the General Assembly reported: “The Committee approved, by a recorded vote of 175 in favour to 2 against (Israel, United States), with no abstentions, the draft resolution ‘Prevention of an arms race in outer space’ (document A/C.1/74/L.3).”

But the General Assembly, unlike the Security Council, has no enforcement mechanism, meaning that the U.S. can and does ignore the result of the vote.

The draft resolution “Further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space” (document A/C.1/74/L.58/Rev.1) was also approved, though the UN noted: “The representative of the United States reiterated his delegation’s opposition to the Chinese‑Russian draft treaty presented to the Conference on Disarmament.” In January 2020, the U.S. Space Force joined in Global Lightning, the annual exercise that sees Russia potentially getting nuked by U.S. forces. It is in this broader context that Russia is alleged to have tested an anti-satellite weapon.


“Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon,” claims the Space Command (not to be confused with the Space Force). If this is true, the U.S.’s legal objection is unclear. As noted, the U.S. has rejected multiple efforts to ban anti-satellite weapons, so Russia has a legal right to test weaponry. This is against the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty 1967, but so are U.S. activities in space, such as the launch and test of the X37B. Either way, Russia rejects the claim as false. “On July 15, Russia injected a new object into orbit from [its satellite] Cosmos 2543,” the U.S. Space Command continues. The only evidence for this claim is a website:

But, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. space policy includes spoofing: “Spoofing deceives the receiver by introducing a fake signal with erroneous information.” How do we know that the returns regarding Russia’s alleged probe were not spoofs?

Notice that the U.S. is not concerned about Chinese or Russian dominance in space. U.S. planners are aware that neither Russia nor China has the financial or technological means to dominate space. Rather, they are concerned about Sino-Russian capacity to limit U.S. operational freedoms; in other words to scupper U.S. attempts at Full Spectrum Dominance. The Defense Intelligence Agency does not mention Chinese or Russian space dominance, but rather, how those countries “view counter-space capabilities as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness.” Likewise, the Defense Space Strategy says: “China and Russia each have weaponized space as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space.”


In addition to nuclear war/accident and climate change, space weaponization poses a terminal threat. If and when something goes seriously wrong, national tensions will rise to the point of escalation and potential accident involving nuclear weapons. Furthermore, military planners are aware of this yet they do nothing to stop it: quite the contrary.

One UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) document casually notes: “By 2050, space-based weapons systems … could include nuclear weapons.” Another states: “nuclear possession may lead to greater adventurism and irresponsible conventional and irregular behaviour, to the point of brinkmanship and misunderstanding.” As noted above, Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) is a potential first-strike weapon. A third MoD document states: “the development of strategic BMD systems is likely to continue along multiple technical tracks by the major powers” (emphases in original).

Anti-satellite (AS) weapons expert, Nancy Gallagher, calls AS war without nuclear weapons “a mirage”: “Should a satellite be struck by a piece of space debris during a crisis or a low-level terrestrial conflict,” says Gallagher, “leaders might mistakenly assume that a space war had begun and retaliate before they knew what had actually happened.”

Time is getting short, threats are multiplying.

T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).