The idea of human conflict in space goes back to the 1930s. While moviegoers were thrilled by the adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, scientists in the Third Reich developed plans for a space station with a large mirror to reflect concentrated sunlight back to Earth’s surface, in effect, making a heat ray. The Austrian engineer Eugen Sanger drew up blueprints for the Silbervogel, a sub-orbital craft designed to bomb targets in the United States. While neither one ever moved past the design stage, the Nazis did build and use the V2 rockets. Since the weapon could nearly reach Earth orbit, it is not much of a stretch to think, had the World War II turned out differently, Germany could have put payloads into space by the late 1940s or early 1950s.
The Cold War
The Outer Space Treaty, which was ratified in 1967, forbids space-based nuclear weapons. However, there is no such prohibition on conventional weapons. This led to the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” program under the Reagan Administration in the 1980s as a way to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles. The Soviets did mount a gun on their Salyut 3 station for self-defense purposes. The U.S. also tested anti-satellite missiles, while the Russians experimented with ground-based lasers to blind or destroy targets in orbit.
Space is no longer the exclusive purview of the United States and Russia. A security consultant who has graduated from homeland security programs says many intelligence agencies rely heavily on satellite data to ensure their respective countries’ safety. Several nations, including Israel, India, China, Japan, Iran, and North Korea all have orbital launch capabilities. That means Earth’s orbit is getting crowded, and will get more crowded as it is estimated the number of satellite launches will grow from 100 per year to 1,000 per year by 2020. This increases the risk of a collision, be it accidental or intentional, thus increasing the chance for a crisis between adversarial countries. At least a dozen nations have the capability of testing or deploying space weaponry. America has conducted four test flights of the X-37 spaceplane since 2011, while the Chinese tested an ASAT weapon in 2007.
The world is dependent on satellites for communication, intelligence gathering, and navigation. That means a top priority in a future war is knocking them out. With more advanced military development by China, North Korea, and Iran, other countries must come up with counter-measures to protect their space assets.