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The Growing Importance of Space as the Fourth Military Operational Domain

In December 2019 NATO declared Space one of the “operational domains”, considering it a place where military actions of nations can take place.

The technological advance for greater spatial participation has been one of the major investments today. Countries such as China and Russia are already showing advance and interest in a larger structure of action outside the atmosphere, as well as the US and its Spaceforce and many other nations.

What are the “domains of war” or “dimensions of war”

The domains of war are the spaces where the war battles take place, defined mainly by the concepts of NATO and the Armed Forces of the United States. They are: air, sea, land, space and cyber combat (the latter two are the result of the advancement of humanity’s technologies and are relatively new).

They are determinants to define different military strategies, creating specific tactics for each domain.

Space is an area that has gained great importance since Operation Desert Storm in 1991 by the United States, where satellite GPS tracking has been widely used in the air attack against Iraq.

Since then, space equipment has been used only as a support for combat in other dimensions. But in recent years, this vision has changed, with a greater investment of integration between space and the Earth.

The rules on how to act in space are still a field of discussion and formation without defined global governance. NATO recognizing space as a useful dimension, has the need to reformulate its two main legislations, Article 5°and 6°, to cover these types of new conflicts.

Article 5° and 6° of NATO concern the mutual defense of countries, in which the attack on a member country of the organization must be taken as an attack on all NATO participants. This way, an attack that happened in space would also count for mutual defense agreements.

Why Space is becoming one of the most important “operational dimensions of war”

The sending of equipment to space is something that, in the 20th and 21st century, became a basic and even necessary thing, evolving towards the growth of military investment in this region.

For example, the US created its 6th military branch called Space Force, England appointed a “Director of Space” to deal with the issues of this area, France created a Space Command, Russia is testing its military missile structures on its own satellites.

China, on the other hand, is the only country after the US to put a rover on Mars, in addition to many other space conquests such as its recent space station.

The militarization of space in the international political field has been taking place since the Cold War and the Moon race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Currently, tensions are mainly between Russia-China-US: Russia and China develop space technologies with an exceptional breakthrough in recent years, which, no matter how advanced the American bases may be, was somewhat surprising when these Eastern powers began to collaborate on space issues, meeting the ambitions of the United States.

Among the main space systems for military purposes we have:

  1. Reconnaissance Satellite

Reconnaissance satellites, also known as spy satellites, are one of the space tools used in the military field. He’s one of the bases for military intelligence, with an Earth observation for communications. They capture images and send to the bases by means of encrypted radio.  

They can be used to obtain warlike information from other countries. The countries that have a reconnaissance satellite are: United States (with the largest quantity and oldest use), China, Germany, France, United Kingdom, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, Egypt and South Korea.

  1. Satellites to guide ammunition/missiles

These satellites are positioned in Earth orbit and can guide missiles both on Earth and in space. The objective of satellite ammunition guides was first thought out in 1930, gaining more value in the present times by the distance attack it allows.

They use global navigation systems like the American GPS, the European Galileo, the Russian Glonass, and the Chinese Beidou to guide their targets to precision missiles.

With the popularity of this system, there are “anti-satellite” weapons (ASAT) that attack other objects in orbit, being able to leave the satellites of enemies inoperative.

  1. Secret/encrypted Communication Satellites

When we talk about military intelligence, cryptography is used as a form of security and privacy. The information that is captured is translated into code, usually a state intelligence code, and stored privately.

China has innovated technologies with the new quantum satellite, where communication between the earth stations, using the satellite Micius, is made by particles called qubits that have a randomly created meaning correspondent. Thus, with this innovative technology, military communication becomes extremely secure.

The fifth domain: Cyberspace

The cyber domain is due to the combination of the impacts caused by the Internet and its use in hybrid or disguised military attacks. This is one of the new military camps for technological advancement, widely used in hybrid warfare attacks and grey areas.

[Cyberspace is the] global domain within the information environment consisting of the interdependent networks of information technology infrastructures and resident data, including the Internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers

The Strategy Bridge

The growth of this type of military strategy is great, but its difficulty is due to the insecurity of a tactical military training, since the Internet and technologies advance at high speed and without stability. Future predictions to prepare in cyberspace are difficult to make, something you don’t have in the physical domains.

So, what we can observe is that when we deal with cyber attacks and their conflicts, we have much more direct attack tools than defense against these attacks.

Military combat has many nuances to be considered in tactical planning, and domains (whether traditional or new) are nothing more than one of the ways to plan and have a base of preparation in combat. Thus, we can only hope for greater militarization of space by the great powers.


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