While in Spain we are investigating plasma engines for interplanetary travel, the United States, Russia and other world powers are immersed in a real race over who has the greatest power in space.
Like what happened in the space race, the Soviet Union led the way in the early stages of the war in space.
Years in which the United States was in an uncomfortable lag that it only surpassed by being the first to set foot on the Moon.
Because Russia remains, to this day, one of the countries that invests the most in everything related to space and is making a lot of progress in the already openly called ‘space war’.
Meanwhile, from Moscow they are immersed in a much less media program than the American one and have been for several years with proven military capacity to shoot down friendly satellites, enemies or any other vehicle that is not to their liking and travel through the cosmos.
The last of these movements was carried out a few weeks ago when they tested a weapon capable of destroying satellites in orbit.
An authentic declaration of intent that has given the Kremlin a small diplomatic crisis of which we are already a little used. But Russia and the United States, although they make up the historical core, are not the only ones to have more or less advanced anti-satellite missile programs.
India and China have gained special relevance in recent years and others like Israel are thriving in search of a niche in this space war. They all have anti-satellite weapons programs but only a few have been able to successfully test them.
Missile programs dedicated to shooting down satellites started out of the Cold War. The two countries with the most military power of those times were struggling to be the first to get a foot on the moon, and tensions grew as the months passed.
Satellites were the forerunners of manned missions and had a fundamental role in the development of modern espionage, global communications and even at the end of the 1960s everything related to military geo-positioning was beginning to cook.
And they were too juicy a dish for the possibility of destroying them to go unnoticed by the strategists of both nations.
In 1958 and after several failed tests with missiles attached to a Boeing B-47, the United States added another stage to the Bold Orion missile and achieved satisfactory, although not complete, results.
The device, fired on board the same model aircraft at 10,700 meters, passed only 6.4 kilometers from the Explorer VI satellite.
A considerably small and lethal distance if a nuclear charge had been used instead of a standard warhead.
Both the Bold Orion and the High Virgo – another project carried out by the United States – are considered from the military point of view Air Launch Ballistic Missile (ALBM or Air Launched Ballistic Missiles) and were the original bets to ‘shoot down’ satellites.
This second program featured the Convair B-58 Hustler bomber plane and failed shortly after the first attempt as communication and the source image from the camera installed on board the missile were lost.
In the United States Army they did not know the ‘properties’ of nuclear explosions until tests carried out in the Pacific Ocean well into the 1950s, in which several atolls literally burst, leaving them heavily contaminated and useless for human life.
After the explosion of a nuclear bomb, they realized that the electromagnetic pulse – from which Trump is protected in the plane of the last judgment – damaged three communications satellites in orbit and left several electronic equipment inoperable.
What was learned in these tests resulted in a cadence of anti-satellite missile programs designed to be launched from the ground as if they were rockets.
In addition, they considered integrating thermonuclear warheads to make the launch even more effective.
The first of these programs was the so-called 505 that used Thor missiles with a launch base in the United Kingdom.
Shortly thereafter, Program 437 was added, which remained operational on a small Pacific island until 1975. As of that year, both the 505 and 537 programs were closed.
Although they invested a lot, the Americans considered that the projects did not present a special relevance at the military level; until the intelligence of the country discovered that the still burgeoning Soviet Union had a successful anti-satellite missile program.
At that time, in 1982, the United States developed its particular missile capable of being launched from a modified F-15 fighter.
The only moment of glory they achieved occurred in 1985 when a missile hit a satellite in the North American country.
The show was canceled in 1988 and, without much else to scratch, we are almost today. In 2008 the United States destroyed another spy satellite using a missile launched from a Navy ship.
Being the ‘bedside’ method in the US at present, or at least the most recent that is officially known.
Now we are turning to the Soviet Union as the other historical pillar of the anti-satellite missile industry. His first projects on the subject are practically contemporaneous with the United States, although the strategy has been, over the years, different.
The first -official- approach of the USSR took place at the hands of the former president of the Council of Ministers in 1960, Nikita Khrushcev, who gave the green light to the Istrebitel Sputniko project (Satellite Destroyer, in literal translation) with the UR missile. 200 as a bet.
The operation of the devised system would approach the target and, when close enough, would explode a shrapnel warhead to knock the satellite out of play. All this in a time that ranged from 90 to 200 minutes from launch.
The UR-200 missile had several problems in development causing it to chain several delays and the Soviet army commanders chose to park this project to support another model of missiles.
The R-36s, as they were called, performed well with 23 launches as part of the Istrebitel Sputniko (IS) program. In the same way that it happened almost throughout the decade of the 50s and 60s, the Soviets were leading the space race.
This time to destroy a satellite with a missile. It happened in 1970 and, with 32 hits received capable of penetrating 100 mm of armor, the Soviets destroyed the first satellite in history.
The IS program was closed in 1983 as the United States resumed its anti-satellite program at full throttle.
Both the USSR and the US had several parallel projects using novel technologies. According to statements by the Pentagon in 1984, the Soviet Union would have “blinded” several US spy satellites during the 1970s and 1980s using laser emitters from military complexes on land.
In the early 1980s, the USSR also worked on an adaptation of the Mikoyan MiG-31 fighter called the MiG-31D to equip it with a missile capable of hitting satellites.
A program, very similar to the one that the United States carried out with the F-15, which seems to be in force with a new type of weapon and which could have unleashed Russia’s last diplomatic crisis against the United States and the United Kingdom a few weeks ago.
China, as one of the world powers that emerged in the most recent decades, was not going to give a millimetre in this particular space war.
In 2007 they managed to destroy a meteorological satellite using a modified DF-21 missile powered by two stages.
This move put China on the map of anti-satellite missiles and the United States looked suspiciously at the eastern country.
The 2007 launch was the first interception – at least officially – since the Douglas F-15 referenced a few paragraphs above destroyed the satellite in 1985.
From that moment on, and always taking the different US intelligence agencies as a reference, China has been ‘disguising’ some anti-satellite military tests as scientific launches .
We then turn to India as another of the countries that have emerged with the most force in the aerospace sector in recent years.
Officially, the Indian program kicked off just 8 years ago with the Indian Ballistic Missile Defense Program.
Already in 2019, India carried out the Shakti mission, in which an interceptor struck a satellite in low Earth orbit.
The reactions did not take long to appear, although in this case warning of the dangers of the remains of the explosions, which can freely roam through space without an assigned orbit or even fall uncontrollably to Earth.
Following the success of the mission, Russia invited India to join the alliance for the non-proliferation of weapons in space that currently Russia itself together with China.
The poker of countries with the capacity to send a missile against a satellite is completed by Israel. Being one of the nations with the largest military and security industry in the world also means having the possibility of taking down one of these space devices.
Although it has not been put into practice, the Israel Space Agency claims that its Arrow 3 interceptor missiles, in which the United States has been investing hundreds of millions of dollars since 2008, are capable of the task.
Although the concept of ‘space war’ may seem like something out of any George Lucas movie, the United States already has a Space Command powered by a multi-million dollar budget.
Taking a look at the allocation of the government led by Donald Trump, we find an amount of 15,400 million dollars for the year 2021, which contrasts with the ‘scarce’ 40 million of this 2020.
Of these, just over 10 billion will go directly to the research and development department as part of a medium and long-term project.
The plans of the US Space Command (United States Space Command, in Spanish) are to create a complete army under the umbrella of the country’s Department of Defense with which to “carry out operations in, from and to space to deter conflicts and, if necessary, defeat aggression, provide space combat power [to the Joint/Combined force] and defend the vital interests of the United States with allies and partners,” according to the official website of the Command.
While China has positioned itself totally against the United States Space Command, Russia looks askance, trying to go as unnoticed as possible.
When US Vice President Mike Pence announced the creation of the Space Force in 2018, the world was divided in two: those who saw it as a crazy idea and those who immediately feared for their lives due to the militarization of space.
What many did not know is that Russia had and still has its own special Space Forces program.
It was a dependent branch of the country’s armed forces launched in 2001. An idea that was born to operate the particular anti-missile shield that Russia has over Moscow and that brings together design and development tasks for new spacecraft as well as the maintenance of existing ones.
The Russian Space Force as such closed its doors in 2011, being replaced by the Aerospace Defense Forces, which are still operational today with the same mission as the original.