Our planet may currently be obsessed with a very different type of Russian aggression, but late in 2021 – just as Vladimir Putin’s tanks were rumbling into position near the Ukrainian frontier – Moscow also showed how much danger it could pose far beyond our atmosphere.

On 15 November, the country launched a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile, destroying one of the many defunct satellites floating about in orbit. Foreign powers quickly lined up to denounce the test, noting that the resulting wreckage posed risks both to astronauts and space’s general communication infrastructure. US Space Command estimates that the Russian experiment created over 1,500 pieces of trackable debris.

Yet, if the 2021 incident was not bad enough – just one fragment of metal has the potential to wreak havoc on unmanned satellites and space shuttles alike – the precedent it could set is arguably more worrying. While warfare in space has been on the minds of army planners for decades, new technology is making it an increasingly attractive option. More to the point, our globalised planet means a strike in space can cause serious disruption on earth too, damaging communications and hampering intelligence gathering.

As with the risk of nuclear war below the clouds, space battles also have the potential to veer out of control. From space-borne bravado to catastrophic chain reactions, space is a volatile and unpredictable theatre of war. Despite these dangers, however, some of the world’s great powers seem reluctant to decide adequate rules of behaviour, with even non-legally binding norms running into trouble. Not that the situation is completely hopeless. The UK and the US are both investing heavily in new space forces, giving their militaries the tools to at least fight back if the worst happens. Even so, it is clear that space is an increasingly uncertain sphere of operations – and that Russia’s DA-ASAT experiment is just the start.

Space for competition

As seems to often be the case for many issues in our current geopolitical moment, our era of space competition began in the pall of the Cold War. The 1960s and 1970s saw both Washington and Moscow vie for control of the great beyond. But with Russia humbled – and China a minnow compared with the giant it would later become – the US in the 1990s felt sure it could rule the stars alone. “In 1991, we had a 25-year period without threats,” says Christopher Stone, senior fellow for space studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “As a result, we saw a resurgence of the ‘sanctuary’ mindset – that from here on out, in the so-called New World Order, we were going to have a free space environment for everybody.”

If nothing else, this open-handed optimism is reflected in how the US and its allies exploited space through the years of Pax Americana. On the eve of the Gulf War, in 1990, there were just 464 satellites in orbit. Over a decade later, as the US prepared to invade Iraq once more, that number had almost doubled. And though many of these schemes were hard-nosed military ventures – one report suggested the US Department of Defense enjoyed a space budget of $19.4bn in 2003 – civilian projects proliferated too. If you have followed the remarkable rise of new technology over the past few decades, that is not hard to understand. GPS navigation alone uses two dozen satellites, with Stone emphasising that industries as varied as agriculture and banking all rely on orbiting satellites.

Yet, as the US is increasingly learning to its peril, this interconnected world also comes with challenges. And as Dr Wendy Whitman Cobb explains, that is especially true now that the US’s time in the sun as the leading great power is juddering to a halt. “As countries generally have become more dependent on space assets, and have deployed increasing numbers of them, the chances for disagreements or conflicts naturally arises,” says Cobb, an associate professor of strategy and security studies at the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Fair enough, especially when you consider how quickly the US’s rivals have caught up over the past few years. At the turn of the millennium, China had developed and launched just 47 satellites (and 10% of those were unsuccessful). This year, the People’s Republic controls 363 satellites – and supposedly has ambitious plans to launch a mega constellation of 13,000 more.

Go sky high

The rise of space technology is generally followed by the proliferation of new space weapons. Stone, for his part, describes a strategy like China’s as a “multi-layered attack architecture”, encompassing a range of different options depending on the situation. Like the Russian test in November 2021, one prominent example are DA-ASAT missiles, fired from the earth’s surface against extraterrestrial foes. Satellites are also vulnerable to attacks from other satellites, which can deliver mines or other explosives to their targets. Not that militaries necessarily need to shoot actual projectiles to achieve their aims – non-kinetic weapons can be just as effective, with jammers, lasers and cyber tools all available to trigger-happy leaders.

“As countries generally have become more dependent on space assets, and have deployed increasing numbers of them, the chances for disagreements or conflicts naturally arises.”

Dr Wendy Whitman Cobb


The number of pieces of trackable debris left by the Russian DA-ASAT missile test in November 2021.

US Space Command

Nor are these mere hypotheticals. Beyond Russia’s actions, Iran has used jammers to block nearly 120 foreign Persian-language satellite TV channels. In 2005, China claimed to have successfully disabled a satellite using a mounted laser gun – though this was not confirmed independently. It is clear, at any rate, that many states have both the capacity and the will to use a range of space weapons. But beyond these relatively isolated incidents, what might a full-scale extraterrestrial conflict actually entail? Because space is so remote – and much harder to defend than a city or naval base – Stone argues that countries like China could try and use the sphere in lieu of a riskier attack on earth. “If they can’t win in space,” he adds, “they’ll expand.” In a similar vein, Stone also says that space warfare can broadly be understood psychologically. If, for instance, China were able to disrupt US satellite communications, it would more easily be able to snatch disputed islands in the South China Sea, taking the initiative and putting its Western rivals on the backfoot.

“On paper, you can try to generate a norm. But from a military standpoint, you have to have the ability to enforce it.”

Christopher Stone


The annual budget of the US Space Force.

US Space Force

Still, it would be wrong to imply that attacking enemy satellites comes without risks. For starters, Cobb points to the fact that extraterrestrial prowess has, from the early days of the space race, been seen as the place to bolster national prestige, arguably making risky gambles more likely.

That is particularly problematic given the inherent dangers of DA-ASATs. Bomb an enemy airbase and the adjacent town will remain unscathed. But strike an enemy satellite and you could spark a massive chain reaction, annihilating hundreds of machines and leaving lower-orbit space a wreckage-strewn mess. That would make space flight impossible for the foreseeable future – and would destroy global satellite communications.

Naturally, agreeing specific rules around space warfare could mitigate these dangers. Yet, as both Stone and Cobb warn, the theatre is lacking here too. In part, this is a question of definition. Both China and Russia push for a ban on weapons in space, notably via a draft treaty often known as PPWT – or the “Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects”, as it is in full. But such schemes typically distinguish between weapons ‘in’ space and shooting ‘into’ space – Russian DA-ASATs among them – presumably out of a desire to catch up with sophisticated US programmes. To be fair, the US has tried promoting non-legally binding norms, hoping to pressure its rivals into playing ball. But as Stone says, that means little without hard power. “On paper, you can try to generate a norm,” he says. “But from a military standpoint, you have to have the ability to enforce it.”

Force the issue

If the prospect of a rules-based extraterrestrial system seems remote – especially in light of broader geopolitical tensions – countries are at least sharpening their defences. The most obvious example here is the US Space Force, a new branch of the US military with a yearly budget of around $18bn. Aside from updating weapons and doctrines, Stone says the space force is also important for prodding allies towards self-reliance. Certainly, it is a point reflected at defence ministries the world over. Founded in 2021, the UK’s Space Command is a joint command organised under the RAF. Among other things, it is working to improve the UK’s space intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities. In Japan, meanwhile, the Space Operations Squadron (JASDF) has recently been mandated to monitor threats to its star-borne hardware.

Programmes like the US Space Force may ultimately bring some order to the cosmos – or possibly create a stalemate where neither side dares attack the other. All the same, the future remains uncertain. And as Cobb implies, that is probably inevitable given the planet’s shifting geopolitical currents. “As countries like China become a greater force on the world stage,” she says, “it makes sense that they too would want to utilise space for all the advantages that countries like the US and Russia have.” At the same time, countries are rushing to boost the effectiveness of their extraterrestrial weapons. Russian DA-ASATs are one thing, but the US is allegedly using Boeing’s X-37 craft to launch secret satellites – and may even be able to zap enemy satellites with microwaves. Of course, what this and similar machines actually do are closely guarded secrets. But given how far space weaponry has come over the past few years, there is very little that would be out of the question.