The Pentagon, for years, saw space as a ‘sanctuary’ – a realm for international cooperation, scientific exploration, and discovery, with the potential to shape the future of humanity and foster global partnerships.
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The Department of Defense [DoD] held this stance for a long time, guided by ethics and the vision of a future society. But power rival nations, most notably China and Russia, have been aggressively militarizing the space domain. China has been testing Anti-Satellite [ASAT] weapons for a decade, and both countries continue to ramp up their space war capabilities.
In response, the Pentagon has accelerated its efforts to ensure the US can defend itself in space. This includes enhancing satellite connectivity, deploying hundreds of high-throughput Medium and Low-Earth Orbit satellites, and exploring the potential for lasers, optical communication, space drones, and manned spacecraft war platforms.
Spacecraft / Drone
Given the potential threat and the sensitive nature of space war systems, many details are not publicly accessible. However, an evolving robotic space vehicle, developed for both scientific and military purposes with large-scale Air Force involvement, is now surfacing. The concept of an attack space drone may seem straight out of Star Wars, but Boeing’s successful flight with the X-37 robotic spacecraft shows that it’s not far from reality.
The Orbital Test Vehicle, as it’s called, is thrust into space by a launch vehicle and lands as a space vehicle upon re-entering the atmosphere. According to U.S. Space Force News, the X-37B successfully de-orbited and landed at a NASA facility at Kennedy Space Center in November 2022.
Since the initial ‘drop test’ in 2006, the Orbital Test Vehicle has been launched beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and returned several times, recently clocking a total of 908 days in orbit during a mission from 2020 to 2022.
Originally a NASA project, the OTV started as an exploratory scientific mission to study space flight. But as the technology matured, it revealed potential military applications, drawing Pentagon’s attention. Today, the X-37B variant essentially functions as a space drone capable of conducting surveillance, gathering data, and potentially being adapted into an armed military platform.
From a scientific perspective, researchers have used the X-37 to conduct experiments with solar energy and ‘reusable’ space technologies. A data sheet on the OTV from the U.S. Air Force reveals that the X-37 uses Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium Ion batteries.
With rapid advances in autonomy, AI-enabled data collection and analysis, and multi-domain networking, the possibilities for military application seem limitless. Unmanned spacecraft could network with satellites, acting as mobile ‘nodes’ beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. They could perform surveillance, defend against ICBM and hypersonic missiles, and even launch offensive strikes if directed by a human.
While specifics regarding the X-37B’s test missions and military capabilities are likely classified, its successful long-duration flights certainly hint at potential lethality and military mission capability.
The proliferation of Medium and Low-Earth Orbit satellites aims to increase throughput, build redundancy, and enable hypersonic missile defenses to track enemy threats continuously. A mobile spacecraft like the evolved X-37B could significantly augment this effort, especially if it can transmit real-time information to human decision-makers using various data links, GPS signals, or optical communication.
The X-37B could potentially defend satellite assets from enemy ASAT weapons. If handled ethically and in line with Pentagon’s ‘human-in-the-loop’ doctrine, it could even destroy enemy satellites or targets from locations beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
While this prospect may seem alarming, the U.S. has been hesitant to weaponize space, considering it a multinational sanctuary. But with Russian and Chinese efforts to militarize space, the U.S. finds itself at a disadvantage, necessitating the Pentagon to close the gap, build a U.S. Space Force, and prepare to defend the US from space if necessary.
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