The Reality Of Fighting In Space
NASA Astronaut in space (Picture: NASA).
NASA Astronaut in space (Picture: NASA).
Space is the military's vital frontier, although sci-fi movie scenarios seem a little way off, it is becoming a key part of defence.
Thousands of miles above Earth, satellites circle the planet. Some have encrypted battlefield commands fed through them that help to guide forces on the ground.
Simply put, space has become a crucial component of military options and the need for countries to expand their space capabilities has grown in importance.
Last year, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the UK's first Defence Space Strategy.
He announced he would boost the number of personnel working in the sector by a fifth over five years to more than 600, with RAF Air Command taking on the responsibility of "command and control” of the UK's military space operations.
Mr Williamson said at the time that Britain must be ready to counter "emerging space-based threats", such as the "jamming of civilian satellites used for broadcasters and satellite navigation to support military capabilities".
Across the Atlantic, President Donald Trump has announced the United States' next steps in space.
In June 2018, President Trump ordered the creation of a US Space Force, stressing America must have "dominance in space".
Seven months later, he announced plans to expand America's missile defence systems, including creating a layer of sensors in space.
"We will recognise that space is a new war-fighting domain with the Space Force leading the way."
President Trump said new space-technology would play a "very big part" for the the US' defensive and offensive capabilities. But is he right?
Space Warfare Is Reality, Not Fiction
Space warfare expert, Dr Bleddyn Bowen from the University of Leicester, believes President Trump is right, stating "to do modern warfare as we know it, we can't do it without space systems".
"A space force is very realistic," explained Mr Bowen.
"Space is extremely important to defence and any modern military power.
"When we talk about a US Space Force, it's not about putting troops in space or building fancy new space weapons, it's about reorganising what the US military already does in space.
"Space warfare has the potential to help tip the scales in a conventional war in the years ahead.
"However, it can't be relied upon to be the solution to all the military problems that a military faces."
But how does combat in space work?
"There are many ways to take out satellites - we have soft-kill and hard-kill capabilities," Dr Bowen said.
"Soft-kill such as jamming the communication of satellites, dazzling them with lasers or even hacking into their computer control systems.
"Hard-kill is like kinetic kill systems like ramming them with interceptors or deploying high explosives near them.
"It could be both [offensive and defensive], it depends on the eye of the beholder."
Brexit And Space
The UK’s focus on space comes at a time when its future in the sector is being clouded by Brexit.
The European Union (EU) blocked the UK's participation in the Galileo project citing security concerns, despite the UK already investing in it.
The Galileo project is the European version of the US' GPS system, promising real-time positioning down to a metre or less.
This type of technology first proved a success to military units fighting in the featureless desert in the first Gulf War in 1991.
GPS is vital in defence, across a number of weapon systems.
It allows everything from missiles to be launched accurately to complex military manoeuvres being much easier and even reducing the risk of friendly-fire incidents.
But despite the UK's exclusion, Dr Bowen says there is reasons for optimism.
"After Brexit, British-based companies will no longer develop the inner-workings of the system or get under the bonnet of Galileo's PRS signal which is the encrypted, highly-precise military signal.
"However, what will stay the same will probably be the UK MOD's access to that military signal.
"The UK will probably just become a passive user of the accurate signals from Galileo but won't be able to develop them anymore, as only EU member states are allowed to do that."
The UK has its own satellite communication system, Skynet, which is used by the military.
However, ministers have suggested the UK will look at the possibility of developing its own satellites as Galileo alternatives.
While Skynet provides the MOD with "secure communication systems", the UK is otherwise "completely dependent on allies", according to Dr Bowen.
Is There A New Space Race?
During the Cold War the US and USSR were gripped in a competition to explore space. That contest became known as the 'Space Race'.
It started in October 1957 when the Russians launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth.
Later that year, Russia sent a dog into space for the first time. Then Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human in April 1961.
But the US responded, President John F. Kennedy promised to put mankind on the moon. That was famously achieved in 1969 with Neil Armstrong taking those small steps and that giant leap.
Eventually, the two countries worked together on space exploration but in today's current climate it seems unlikely there will be any military co-operation.
While countries, like Russia, China and the US are developing their space capability, Dr Bowen believes the space race is not back on.
"There's no race in space as such because many countries are developing their own space systems for their own needs," he explains.
"The United States isn't necessarily falling behind, it's just that many other countries are catching up.
"The US still leads in terms of the amount of satellites deployed and, more or less, the quality of satellites, as well.
"But China has quickly eclipsed Russia as the world's second space power in the last 15 years.
"Europe as well is fast developing a very comprehensive satellite infrastructure...India and Japan are developing more security and military relevant satellites, as well.
"The United States still leads in space across most indicators apart from crewed space flight."
At the moment, space as a military domain is about the fight for technology and the challenges using satellites to defend us on Earth sets.
So sci-fi scenarios of battles in space may be a long way off but the fight for dominance in space is already on.
Pictures courtesy of NASA, Levi Price, NASA, US Dept of Defense, NASA, US Dept of Defense, ESA, MOD, EU.