The Escalating Tensions in Space: How Major Powers are Competing for Dominance in Cosmos

Space is becoming an increasingly important part of modern warfare, posing new challenges and opportunities for the defense and intelligence communities.

Space is becoming an increasingly important part of modern warfare, posing new challenges and opportunities for the defense and intelligence communities as a result of growing significance in modern warfighting and security operations, with major space-faring countries such as China, Russia and the United States preparing to develop advance defense and other space capabilities to outmaneuver and deter other nation.

The United States’ pursuit of space weaponization signals the begining of a space race. Notable advancements, such as the 2001 space commission’s recommendation to investigate space-based weapon deployment to protect US interests, represent a substantial step toward achieving this aim. Following its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, the United States has made great progress toward improving missile defenses, notable space-based system, as part of its strategic plan. The deployment of the Ground-based, as well as projects such as the NFIRE satellite, which collects data on ballistic missiles, and the pentagon’s development of advanced target monitoring satellites and space-based kinetic energy interceptors, have raised concerns about space’s potential militarization.

These initial initiatives by the United States sparked the space race, resulting in a competitive era of space exploration and development among major nation such as China and Russia, which are investing billions of dollars in their space projects. This competition for space dominance is becoming more intense with each passing year, as Earth’s orbit becomes increasingly congested. Currently, 90 countries operate in space. According to Union of Concerned Scientists’(UCS) database the number of active satellites in the orbit has risen to 7560 as of May 2023 ,with the United States leading the way (5,184), followed by China (628), Russia (181). By the 2031, this figure is predicted to increase to nearly 24,500, with commercial satellites accounting for more than 70% of the total.

In a cosmic quest for domination, China is reviving up its engines to dethrone the United States as the Ultimate space power! Under President Xi Jinping’s visionary leadership, China’s space program is reaching new heights, threatening to upend the established order in the last frontier. China intends to become a space power equal to United States by roughly 2030. China is developing its own version of star Link, a Satellite internet network that uses low Earth orbit, with plans to launch over 26,000 Satellites to cover the entire planet, led by state-owned businesses.

China has launched thousands of satellites into space, with the most recent being four Beijing-3 satellites launched on May 19, 2024. This launch raises China’s total number of orbital launches of 2024 to 23. The Beijing-3 satellites will work alongside previously launched satellites to offer high-resolution remote sensing data. Othe notable Chinese satellite launches in 2024 include Shiyan-23, Chang’e 6, Yaogan-42, and Jilin-1. 

As the race for space dominance heats up, growing global tensions exacerbate risks to critical space assets, putting them at danger. Analysts warn that protecting these assets in Earth’s orbit has grown increasingly difficult, and that a major attack may have disastrous implications, destroying life on Earth in in time.

In response to this increased danger environment, countries are preparing for possible space warfare, with major powers such as China and Russia developing strategies and technology to target space systems. These countries are already exhibiting “Unfriendly behavior “, constantly attacking US satellites with non-kinetic weapons such as lasers, radio frequency jammers, and cyber-attacks. Moreover, satellites are being utilized for orbital grappling, as evidenced by China’s Shijian-21 satellite launch in 2022, which sparked worries about its potential use in this capacity. Furthermore, Russia has been accused of planning to place nuclear weapons in space, and the US has expressed severe concerns about a new anti-satellite missile being developed. In light of these developments, the White House has labeled Russia’s efforts “troubling” and is taking the danger seriously, with President Joe Biden demanding direct diplomatic interaction with Russia to resolve the matter.

Additionally, these states have conducted destructive anti-satellite missile tests (ASATs), endangering the security of satellites in orbit. These tests entail targeting and destroying US and ally satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), according to the US intelligence annual threat assessment report. In 2021, a Russian ASAT test threatened the whole international space domain, including China’s Tiangong space station. Similarly a 2020 Pentagon assessment warned that China was developing missiles and electronic weapons capable of targeting satellites in both low and high orbits, with operational ground-based missiles already capable of destroying satellites in low-Earth orbit.

The Centre for strategic and international studies (CSIS) underlined the vulnerability of space assets in its 2024 Space Threat Assessment Report, emphasizing the contested nature of space and the growing risk to space systems. According to Clayton Swope, deputy head of CSIS Aerospace Security Project, counter space activities are becoming more covert and frequent, with Chinese or Russian military satellites making unexpected maneuvers near US or European Satellites on a regular basis.

Efforts to limit space militarization have failed, as indicated by Russia’s recent veto of a UN resolution aimed at preventing an arms race in space. On April 24, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution urging governments to prevent the deployment of nuclear weapons in space and to refrain from developing weapons of mass destruction for use in Earth’s orbit. This move has sparked fears about Russia’s goals in space, notably regarding weaponization. Experts view Russia’s veto as evidence that the country prioritizes its military interests in space over international efforts to prevent weaponization. Recently, US Deputy Ambassador Robert Wood accused Russia of launching a satellite on May 16, which was most likely a counter space weapon capable of striking other satellites in low Earth orbit. Wood pointed out that Russia launched this weapon in the same orbit as a US government satellite, forcing the US to wonder if Moscow is hiding something.

The space race has reached a watershed moment, prompting a careful examination of its consequences for world security and stability. As strategic balance and stability are threatened, dangers to national and international security escalate, undermining existing arms control accords. The increase in attacks against navigational satellites endangers civilians while also affecting critical infrastructure such as GPS signals, shipping, and warfare, given the reliance on navigational satellites for military command and control and precision weapons. The preservation of these space-based systems is critical to maintaining global stability and technical harmony. Given these issues, the need for new laws and revised treaties has grown urgent, especially in the absence of strong space rules and treaties addressing cyber-attacks on satellites. As the rhetoric around space conflict grows, with the US expressing its preparedness to engage in space combat if necessary, it becomes evident that diplomatic attempts to develop a framework for responsible space behavior are urgently required. In conclusion, the space race has reached a tipping point, necessitating concerted action to prevent space weaponization and assure the security of crucial space-based assets for the benefit of all nations.

Anum Zahra
Anum Zahra
Anum Zahra is an international Relations student at National Defence University (NDU). She's a young researcher interested in exploring global politics, particularly the competition among major powers. Her research focuses on international relations, geopolitics, and strategic studies, with an emphasis on analyzing shifting power dynamics and their impact on global security and diplomacy.