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Countries increasingly rely on satellites as a crucial part of their national security strategies. As a result, large parts of defense budgets are being allocated toward space technologies and satellite superiority. Space is a realm where an arms race could not have been imagined decades ago but it is now a distinct possibility.

Satellites are not just tools that help us find the nearest Starbucks, but they also assist in countering the changing dynamics of the world. Military forces today rely on space-based equipment for a variety of purposes including intelligence gathering on adversaries. The United States, along with Russia, are leading the way in developing satellites for a range of purposes, while China could outstrip the two in the not too distant future.

Relevance of space

Scientists have tried to understand the enormous aspects of space and still are baffled by unknowns. With the benefits of new microsatellites, a lot has come to light. Not only can these microsatellites be produced quickly, allowing for the replacement of on-orbit resources in considerably less time, but 2020 also was a milestone year for smaller satellites as around 1,200 of these were launched into orbit.

While the launches were primarily for commercial interests, they also carried military applications. Military planners see opportunities to provide soldiers with frontline imagery, to help make tactical decisions in real time. The only downside remains that small satellites don’t operate for years, in contrast to traditional large satellites, which may be built to last for decades.

The advantages of utilizing and investing in space technologies have been acknowledged by numerous countries. The private and public sector use space-based satellite images, telecommunication, and GPS technologies. Location, navigational, and timing services send timing signals for a variety of uses, including tracking inventory, precise weaponry guidance, and route planning in the sky, ground, and ocean.

The United States

In 2020, the U.S. military launched Project Convergence. The Congressional Research Service describes the excercise as “what the Army calls a ‘campaign of learning,’ designed to further integrate the Army into the Joint Force. It is how the Army intends to play a role in Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2), the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) plan to connect sensors and weapon systems from all the military services—Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Space Force—as well as Special Operations Forces (SOF), into a single network which, theoretically, could prove faster and more effective in responding to threats from peer competitors.” The main objective was to accelerate decision-making and reduce the risks to the U.S. military in the unlikely event of a major conflict.

System harmonization between military branches enables faster sensor-to-shooter capacities and almost instantaneous judgment calls, promoting the ideal environment for tactical supremacy across domains. Lt. Gen. James M. Richardson stated that “Speed enhances lethality, and also improves long-term survival.” U.S. Space Force General David Thompson stated that U.S. satellites are constantly being attacked by jammers, laser beams, and cyber warfare. “We have reached a stage when a wide range of potential threats to space systems exists.”

President Biden has proposed a 25% budget increase for agencies focused on the heavens which will create parity with NASA’s 2023 budget.

China and Russia

China has committed significant financial and scientific resources to expand all parts of its military-industrial complex. China has deployed a new atmospheric and oceanic space program, improved military space applications, and gathered enormous amounts of data. China has a total of 262 satellites in space. China has a satellite with a mechanical arm that can capture other satellites, clearly highlighting its advancements in space.

In 2007, China developed and tested an anti-satellite missile. It has also been successful in disguising its space program with the private sector that is collaborating with the Chinese military, a phenomenon known as civil-military fusion.

Russia last year deployed a missile on one of its satellites to obliterate other satellites, leaving vast wreckage. It demonstrated its capability to use at least one of its satellites to directly and digitally attack other orbiting satellites.

Russian military commanders have expressed that their counter-space capabilities offer a way to re-establish strategic stability. Defense experts studying NATO and the U.S. military point out that the U.S. strategy of war is growing reliant on high-precision aerial missiles accompanied by space-based information. Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, described the experiments as regular use of “future defense systems and capacities.” These developments are designed to bolster Russia’s retaliation and security against American ambitions in space.


It’s unclear whether the United States has combat power in space comparable to Russia or China. According to Frank Kendall, the head of the U.S. Air Force, investments are necessary because of China and Russia’s anti-satellite technologies. Clearly, the dangers in space are driving U.S. military spending.

According to the United States, China and Russia are capable of carrying out cyberattacks against GPS satellites along with multiple business and weather satellites. The White House confirmed in a budget report that “space is essential to American national [security].”

Tejvir Bawa is a graduate in political science from Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. His areas of interest are energy security, military history and war studies.

Anmol Rattan Singh is pursuing his MA in Public Policy and Governance from Centre for Federal Studies, Public Policies and Governance from Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi.