Militarization of Space: US X-37B Space Plane Lands After Two-Year Mission

By Andrei Akulov | Strategic Culture

With public attention focused on other things, the United States has been deploying new and more sophisticated weaponry in space. Step by step the Earth’s orbit is becoming primed for war.

On May 7, the X-37B landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a 718 days mission in space. All in all, there have been four missions since 2010, each lasting longer than the previous one. Launched atop Atlas 5 rockets, the vehicles land like airplanes. The twin reusable vehicles, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle program, have amassed 2,086 cumulative days in space. The payloads and activities are largely classified. It is widely believed that the space planes are used for military purposes or are a weapon of some sort.

This X-37B carried at least two payloads on its latest voyage. The military revealed before the ship took off that it was carrying an experimental electric propulsion thruster to be tested in orbit and a pallet to expose sample materials to the space environment.

The unmanned X-37B resembles a miniature space shuttle. The vehicle is 29 feet (9 meters) long and has a wingspan of 15 feet, making it about one quarter of the size of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle. The unmanned robotic reusable vertical takeoff, horizontal landing spacecraft can re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land autonomously. The robot can even adjust its course in space instead of following the same predictable orbit once it’s aloft. The spacecraft’s orbital endurance is enabled by its solar array, which generates power after deploying from its payload bay.

The altitudes used for military and exploration purposes today range from 0 to 20 km and from 140 km up. There is a void to be filled in between that is considered a potential theater of warfare. The X-37 is clearly a means to fill the void from «above» going down, while the Boeing X-51 (also known as X-51 Wave Rider) does it from «down» or from lower level going up. X-51 is an unmanned scramjet demonstration aircraft for hypersonic (Mach 6, approximately 4,000 miles per hour (6,400 km/h) at altitude) flight testing.

The X-37B project’s total cost is unknown because the budget has been classified since it was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It’s almost certainly a spy plane, or, at least, a testbed for space surveillance gear and a launch platform for miniature spy satellites. The vehicle’s payload is enough to accommodate some spy equipment like cameras and sensors.

The vehicle has no docking hatch, so it cannot be used for small-size deliveries to the ISS or any other orbital station. It was also called a testing model for a future «space bomber» that will be able to destroy targets from the orbit. Some question whether the X-37B itself might be a delivery system for a nuclear bomb – whether the spaceship is intended to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on autopilot and dive-bomb an enemy target.

Dave Webb, chairman of the Global Network Against Weapons Nuclear Power in Space, said the X-37B «is part of the Pentagon’s effort to develop the capability to strike anywhere in the world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour», known as Prompt Global Strike. Some surmise the X-37B is a satellite-tracker or a satellite-killer. Or both.

It is generally believed that until now arms systems have not been stationed in space. Weapons of mass destruction are banned from space under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. But the Treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit. No international agreement on non-nuclear arms in space has been reached due to the objection of some states, including the United States. The US argues that an arms race in outer space does not yet exist, and it is therefore unnecessary to take any actions.

The US ballistic missile defense systems, its X-37B space planes, airborne lasers and GSSAP (Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program) spacecraft could be easily repurposed into weapons of space war. For years, Russia and China have pushed for the ratification of a legally binding United Nations treaty banning space weapons – a treaty that US officials and outside experts have repeatedly rejected as a disingenuous nonstarter. The United States does not come up with any initiatives of its own.

SALT I (1972), the first Soviet-American treaty on limiting strategic arms, included a mutual obligation not to attack spacecraft. In 1983 US President Ronald Reagan turned the tide by promoting the Strategic Defense Initiative that envisaged placing in space strike weapons to hit Soviet strategic missiles in flight. In 2002 President Bush Jr. abandoned the ABM treaty of 1972, which limited missile defense systems. Missile defense allows countries to develop offensive technologies under the pretense of defense. For example, Kinetic Energy Interceptors deployed in California and Alaska are launched into space to smash incoming missiles which presupposes the capability to destroy satellites as well. Obviously, the United States is ready to return to developing potential space strike systems, like, for instance, lasers, kinetic and particle beam systems.

The first ever draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), was developed by Russia and backed by China to be introduced in 2008. The US opposed the draft treaty due to security concerns over its space assets despite the treaty explicitly affirming a State’s inherent right of self-defense.

In December 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a Russian resolution, ‘No first Placement of Weapons in Outer Space‘. The United States, Georgia and Ukraine were the only countries that refused to back the Russian initiative. Russia said it was prepared to work in the context of other initiatives, and had been an active and constructive participant in European Union-initiated activities on a draft International Code of Conduct for Outer Space. However, progress can only be achieved through fully-fledged negotiations with the participation of all interested States on the basis of a clear mandate under the auspices of the United Nations.

The current administration is bent on achieving space supremacy. Mark Wittington writes in a Blasting News article, «One of the significant changes that the incoming Trump administration is contemplating in defense is the development of space-based weapons». It adds, «One idea that has kicked around for decades is a system that would consist of a tungsten projectile and a navigation system. Upon command, these ‘rods from God’ as they are poetically called would re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and would strike a target».

President Trump’s policy advisers Robert Walker and Peter Navarro call for bringing the «Star Wars» concept back. They want the president to make the US lead the way on emerging technologies that have the potential to revolutionize warfare. According to them, an increased reliance on the private sector will be the cornerstone of Trump’s space policy. Launching and operating military space assets is a multibillion-dollar enterprise employing thousands, spurring innovation, spinning off civilian applications like GPS, and fueling economic growth. Defense Secretary James Mattis calls for bigger investments into space exploration for defense purposes. A provision to encourage the Defense Department to start a research program for space-based anti-missile systems was inserted into the 2017 defense authorization bill.

The weaponization of space will undermine international security, disrupt existing arms control instruments and entail a string of negative effects (things like space debris). It may spark a devastating arms race distracting resources from the real problems faced by humanity today. Strategic stability would be destroyed because space weapons are global in scope and capable of covert and surprise attacks on any point on the planet at any point in time. The deployment of space-based technologies will result in the rejection of new treaties to regulate nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.

This year the world marks the 50th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, which entered into force in October 1967 – an arms control deal reached in the heat of the Cold War. It was possible then, it is possible today. The issue of preventing weaponization of space through an international treaty should become part of the Russia-US-China agenda. If these states come to agreement on the issue, the world would become a much better place.

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