Space warfare

Space warfare is combat that takes place in outer space. The scope of space warfare therefore includes ground-to-space warfare, such as attacking satellites from the Earth, as well as space-to-space warfare, such as satellites attacking satellites.

In the early 1960s the U.S. military produced a film called Space and National Security which depicted space warfare.[1]

From 1985 to 2002 there was a United States Space Command, which in 2002 merged with the United States Strategic Command, leaving Air Force Space Command as the primary American military space force. The Russian Space Force, established on August 10, 1992, which became an independent section of the Russian military on June 1, 2001, was replaced by the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces starting December 1, 2011, but was reestablished as a component of the Russian Aerospace Forces on August 1, 2015.

Only a few incidents of space warfare have occurred in world history, and all involved training missions, as opposed to actions against real opposing forces. In 1985 a USAF pilot in an F-15 successfully shot down the P78-1, an American research satellite, in a 345-mile (555 km) orbit.

In 2007 China used a missile system to destroy one of its obsolete satellites (see 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test), and in 2008 the United States similarly destroyed its malfunctioning satellite USA-193. As of 2018 there have been no human casualties resulting from conflict in space.

International treaties are in place that regulate conflicts in space and limit the installation of space weapon systems, especially nuclear weapons.


Early efforts to conduct space warfare were directed at space-to-space warfare, as ground-to-space systems were considered to be too slow and too isolated by Earth's atmosphere and gravity to be effective. The history of active space warfare development goes back to the 1960s when the Soviet Union began the Almaz project, a project designed to give them the ability to do on-orbit inspections of satellites and destroy them if needed. Similar planning in the United States took the form of the Blue Gemini project, which consisted of modified Gemini capsules that would be able to deploy weapons and perform surveillance.

One early test of electronic space warfare, the so-called Starfish Prime test, took place in 1962, when the United States exploded a ground-launched nuclear weapon in space to test the effects of an electromagnetic pulse. The result was a deactivation of many then-orbiting satellites, both American and Soviet. The deleterious and unfocused effects of the EMP test led to the banning of nuclear weapons in space in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. (See High altitude nuclear explosion.)


Through the 1970s, the Soviet Union continued their project and test-fired a cannon to test space station defense. This was considered too dangerous to do with a crew on board, however, so the test was conducted after the crew had returned to Earth.

A USAF F-15 Eagle launching an ASM-135 ASAT (anti-satellite) missile in 1985.

Space warfare strongly influenced the final design of the United States Space Shuttle. The distinctive delta wing shape was needed if the shuttle were to launch a military payload towards the Soviet Union and perform an immediate de-orbit after one rotation to avoid being shot down.[2][verification needed]

Both the Soviets and the United States developed anti-satellite weaponry designed to shoot down satellites. While early efforts paralleled other space-to-space warfare concepts, the United States was able in the 1980s to develop ground-to-space laser anti-satellite weapons. None of these systems are known to be active today; however, a less powerful civilian version of the ground-to-space laser system is commonly used in the astronomical technique of adaptive optics.


A SM-3 missile is launched from a U.S. ship to intercept a failing spy satellite

The People's Republic of China successfully tested a ballistic missile-launched anti-satellite weapon on January 11, 2007. This resulted in harsh criticism from the United States of America, Britain, and Japan.

The U.S. developed an interceptor missile, the SM-3, testing it by hitting ballistic test targets while they were in space. On February 21, 2008, the U.S. used a SM-3 missile to destroy a spy satellite, USA-193, while it was 247 kilometers (133 nautical miles) above the Pacific Ocean.[3][4][5][6]

Japan fields the U.S.-made SM-3 missile, and there have been plans to base the land-based version in Romania and Vietnam.[citation needed]