During the Cold War, the US tested a slew of anti-satellite weapons, including detonating a nuclear weapon in space, which damaged a Soviet satellite. However, only recently has Washington worried that space was becoming militarized – now that other nations are developing similar capabilities.
On Tuesday, Germany became the latest NATO power to inaugurate a separate space command, following the United States’ delimitation of space as a warfighting domain in need of a separate branch of the armed forces dedicated to preserving US supremacy in it.
In a speech at the German Space Situational Awareness Centre in Uedem, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said “space has become a critical infrastructure that we need to secure.”
In a separate statement, the defense ministry said it was “responding to the increasing significance of space for our state’s ability to function, the prosperity of our population, and the increasing dependency of the armed forces on space-supported data, services and products.”
Germany has just six satellites in orbit; by comparison, the US has by far the world’s largest number of satellites at 1,897, according to a January 2021 count.
Kramp-Karrenbauer said the new command’s main job will be protecting satellites from both enemy threats and more innocent dangers, such as space debris. According to the European Space Agency, Uedem is already tracking roughly 30,000 pieces of orbital debris with a diameter of 4 inches or greater, which could seriously damage or destroy a satellite if it were to impact it.
— Verteidigungsministerium (@BMVg_Bundeswehr) July 13, 2021
That’s a big spike from just a few years ago, and it’s driven in large part by the huge increase in satellites being put into orbit, which has necessarily led to an increase in dead satellites, too. According to data obtained by Reuters, there are roughly 5,000 active and 3,400 dead satellites orbiting the Earth – a number that’s doubled in the last two years, thanks to close-in satellite constellations like Starlink, a high-speed internet service by private space firm SpaceX.
The occasion makes Germany the fourth NATO power in the last two years to establish a space command.
The US led the charge when it re-established US Space Command after a 17-year hiatus, during which its duties were folded into multiple other commands as the Pentagon focused on the US War on Terror. 2019 is also when then-US President Donald Trump ordered creation of the US Space Force (USSF) as a sixth branch of the armed forces dedicated to what the new service called “spacepower,” or the defense of the ultimate “high ground.”
French President Emmanuel Macron created a space command in 2019 as well, renaming the air force to the French Air and Space Force in 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled the UK’s new Space Command in late 2020 as part of the largest defense expansion the country has seen in decades.
In all cases, the heads of state pointed to the increasing space capabilities of Russia, China, and India, claiming the development of anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles and directed-energy weapons had imperiled US satellites like never before. In fact, the US has long possessed such ASAT weapons, but between GPS navigation, guided munitions, communications, and cloud-based information exchange by US and partner forces, satellites have become indispensable to how they wage war.
Russia, China and India have all denied they have any intent to militarize space as the US claims, saying it’s the US who is creating an arms race in space.