Battlefield Space: The Realities of Wars on the Next Frontier

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There are three places on Earth that can erupt into fiery chaos at a moments notice. The Indo-Pak border, the Straits of Taiwan and the Gaza Strip, all of these places are strife with conflict between well armed, highly motivated and extremely volatile people. Here, a shot over the bow can result in nuclear missiles flying over head. It is ironic then that in the trying times of our desperate struggle that our better angels whisper brilliance in to our minds – from the harnessing of fire for our war against nature to the creation of nuclear technology for our war against each other. Technology and innovation have always led humanity to walk a fine line between genius and insanity, and now the future of war stands at the pinnacle of a new frontier on which to wage its terrible fate – outer space.

It’s important to note however that as we discuss the possibilities of practical space warfare we have to be cautious and stay within realistic possibilities. As Hilbert’s paradox of the Grand Hotel explains in theoretical inventions, the infinite range of technological and tactical outcomes are too varied for us to even consider. It’s something we have all experienced as children – “I double dare you! – I triple dare you! – I dare you times infinity! – I dare you times infinity plus one!” Every grand theoretical invention that we conjure up has an equally powerful and plausible counter weapon, every tactic has a counter tactic and the most powerful weapon has a neutraliser and a successor. So how far are we from that reality? How will it exhibit itself? And will we survive it? We take a look at these questions based on the of facts as they exist today while we continue to hope that evolve as only fiction.

Separating Reality from Fiction : – In 2012 a group of over 25,000 petitioners in the United States demanded that the government build a gigantic moon sized battle-station in space – a Death Star. Of course, this demand was dismissed by the American White House citing two reason – the 852 quadrillion dollar expense and the fact that their government “did not support blowing up planets”. Despite the amusing nature of this real world incident it goes to highlight the practical realities and limitations of space warfare. Since the 1970s in the critical moments of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union have been looking at outer space as the most suitable place for modern war to take place.

R-36MThe exponential research and development in long distance inter continental ballistic missiles or ICBMs have led to remarkable weapons in support of those goals. Long distance nuclear-kinetic weapons such as Russia’s R-36M a.k.a. SS-18 Satan which has a range of 16,000 kilometres, enough range to target cities like Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC, all of South America and pretty much anywhere on the surface on the planet in less than 30 minutes of its launch from New Delhi. The SS-18 Satan is a precise device of mass destruction with a velocity of 28,800 km/h capable of deploying 10 Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) warheads of up to 750 kilotonnes of nuclear yield each. To put it in perspective, that is a nuclear yield 375 times that of “Fat Man” – the bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945, which means that a single warhead on a single missile is capable of generating over 5 million human casualties at its point of impact in a country like India. The frightening nature of this destruction makes space all the more alluring for a war destination. And to that end the innovations in warfare have progressed with the same belief. Technologies that can support the advantages of a space assault on terrestrial nations as well as the potential for minimising collateral damage, outer space may in fact be the best place for war. And it presents its own set of challenges.

War Is All Kinds Of THEL :- Early on during the Cold War military strategists realized that nuclear weapons in space were not a good idea. The nuclear fall out combined with the unpredictable debris showers towards the surface of the Earth would leave every aggressor nation at risk of unsuspecting damage. To compensate for this side-effect more powerful conventional weaponry or new innovations in weapons design would be needed. The foremost of these designs for space based weapon inevitably came from the imagination of science fiction – lasers, Advanced Tactical Lasers to be more precise.

An invention of the Boeing Company, the Advanced Tactical Laser system was commissioned by the United States Special Operations Command in 2002. Within six years the Boeing Company delivered the weapons strapped to a C-130H Hercules transport aircraft, and proved capable of defeating a ground based target by the end of 2009. The silent and invisible laser possess a 100 kilowatt capacity sufficient to slice a tank shell with ease. Other similar direct energy weapon in service and development are the High Energy Liquid Area Defense System, Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) or the Nautilus laser system and the Mobile-THEL have all proven successful in neutralizing incoming mobile targets such as rockets and artillery shells. If we theorise their use in outer space we can easily see how their strengths would play off against their disadvantages. The notorious over-heating of laser weapons is only limited by their heat-transfer support systems which would allow them to stay cooled. It is easy to imagine a space-based improvisation that would use the minus 270.45 Celsius temperature of space to cool the weapons allowing for near continuous usage. The Mobile-THEL laser system is designed for quick bursts of attacks to minimise its heating but in the sub-zero temperatures of space it could potentially operate continuously.

Velocitas Eradico – I, Speed, Destroyer of Worlds
An alternative to the complicated and difficult to construct direct energy weapons is the far simpler development of non-combustible high velocity inert projectile launchers – railguns. The simplicity of the railgun concept is built into its physics, which is the acceleration of projectiles at supersonic velocities using electromagnetic propulsion. By rapidly accelerating a projectile to supersonic speeds we no longer depend on chemical propellants like gunpowder which wouldn’t perform effectively in the vacuum of space. The current design of railguns only requires a power supply of pulsed direct current and a heat resistant material in its armature build. With these components military railguns do not even need explosive rounds as the kinetic energy of these projectiles is sufficient to cause considerable damage.

The-MIRV-weaponThe first weaponized railgun is already in production and is known as the General Atomics Blitzer system. This weapon launches discarded round casings of conventional artillery at velocities of Mach 5 (1600m/sec). The power and range of this weapon is proven to be significant as in tests the projectile continued to travel nearly 7 kilometres after having penetrated its 1/8 inch steel plate target. In another test by the United States Navy in 2008, a 3.2kg projectile was launched at velocities of nearly Mach 7 producing 9.2 million joules of kinetic energy worth of damage. By using the kinetic energy of such projectile weapons in the relative gravity-free arena of space the potential for damage is equivalent to TNT explosive charges of the same mass. And as these types of weapons achieve greater velocity, their destructive capability becomes all the more greater.

Starfighters of the Future :- No discussion of space war can be complete without talking about warships. Once it was understood that space in the next frontier, nations the world over have developed their own space vehicles. Fortunately, the development of spacecrafts has been driven by scientific and exploratory ideals. But with the creation of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) this fact might very well change. The Boeing X-37 series of spacecrafts are designed primarily to serve as reusable unmanned space vehicles intended to replace the Space Shuttle as the primary means of carrying out orbital activities. The X-37B variety of this design however is speculated to be capable of so much more than the simple duties we have witnessed the Space Shuttle carry out. The product of a clandestine 10 year project by Boeing’s Phantom Works black projects division, the X-37B is specially designed for the United States Air Force with assistance from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA.

drone-laserThe offshoot of the Boeing X-37 design it was merged with DARPA’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (HTV-2) which was specifically designed to offer operational results of rapid attacks and super fast manoeuvrability in flight making it a formidable spacecraft of aggressive engagement. But all official statements on the issue have obviously been to downplay its military potential. The spacecraft has already been embroiled in accusations that it is used as a spy satellite and weapons delivery vehicle, specifically having been used to spy on China’s Tiangong-1 space station module. And even as the Pentagon and the United States government dismiss these allegations it’s harder to argue that the craft is incapable of such feats. And considering the nature of the global arms race it is very likely that countries like Russia and China are equally invested in developing tactical spacecrafts of their own. But so far there has been little visible evidence from these opaque nations.

Reality Bites and then Booms : – Despite the cutting edge developments in warfare, weapons and technologies, there are some inescapable realities that today’s militaries can’t escape. The greatest obstacle to waging war in space isn’t in technical problems like weapons overheating or targeting accuracy but the fact that it is unlike anything, anyone, anywhere has ever experienced. And despite millions of people playing billions of games that simulate the nature of space based warfare, the reality isn’t as convenient as plasma shields and photon torpedoes. In space the laws of physics work at their purest – inertial momentum makes every fragment and debris a potential weapon of mass destruction, devices that could divert asteroids are a more likely reality than weapons systems capable of dealing with the multi-axis space environment which demands superfast responses to unpredictable spatial movements. And in addition to these basic facts, the vastness of space allows for no stealth in executing attacks or hiding from them.

USAF-pilot-less-planesAs two armada’s face off in orbit over a planet or far off in the nothingness of the void, even the most prototyped technologies of today wouldn’t stand a chance when developed to their full potential. Missiles and lasers launched would have to work with super-fast predictive systems which inform the warhead of the target location. Over the great distances between the warring fleets, even the potentially superfast microseconds in laser fire would leave ample time for spacecrafts to correct for evasive manoeuvres. And even though a close range direct strike would prove fatal for any target, it would be equally deadly for the victor as a counter strike would have little chance of missing them. We are at the very least two generations of innovation from any feasible form of space militarisation. At its current stage, we are capable of only launching space-to-earth attacks and vice versa. The various technological innovations necessary for zero-G combat involving futuristic fighter jets, automated unmanned space based high-yield weapons, as well as targeting munition systems that can deal with the physics of space navigation are still a long way off. And in many respects, the only reason to create those specific technologies is to wage war.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream :- For most of us today the shadow of war is far from our sights. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, faded in the brightness of our optimism. And as recent events in the Ukraine have shown, old animosities can find easy provocation, throwing even the most progressive nations into old, fearful patterns. The only things that have held us back are international treaties like Outer Space Treaty and the Space Preservation Treaty that remind us of our nobler intentions. But looking towards outer space the grim reality is even more prevalent in our imaginations, through television and movies, novels and stories, a part of us already accepts the inevitability of war over the Earth, far above the surface in the infinite coldness of space, where truly no one can hear you scream.

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