Tomorrow's Battlefield Will Be Much Broader Than Today's

Future wars will take place in low Earth orbit ... and anywhere there's a Wi-Fi connection

In Space

Graham Murdoch

More than 1,200 active satellites circle the globe; the lifeblood of modern military operations flows through many of them. In May, the U.S. Air Force announced a $5 billion budget to develop space-based offensive and defensive weapons. Other countries too are building capabilities on high. To win the next war, any great power will need to hold the ultimate in commanding heights.

A Good Offense

  1. In a chapter from the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia are both reportedly developing anti-satellite systems. Last fall, Russia tested what's believed to be the beginnings of a killer satellite. The Pentagon also admitted, in a 2014 report, that it was investing in offensive space weapons.

  2. China too might be developing anti-satellite systems. In 2013, it launched what it called a scientific mission, but what experts say was a test of the Dong Ning-2, a surface missile that could strike enemy targets in low-Earth, high-Earth, and geostationary orbits.

  3. After launching the Tiangong 3 space station sometime after 2020, China will become the only country with its own multimodule craft in space. China has said that the Tiangong 3 (which means "Heavenly Palace") is for scientific research, but to military planners, it will be an enviable asset—especially as the International Space Station readies for decommission sometime in the mid-2020s.

Defense In Numbers

One response to these new risks is to make too many satellites to kill. DARPA’s water-cooler-size SeeMe project—short for Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements—would flood space with hundreds of cheap, tiny satellites.

Conflict Comes Home

Geography has always been one of America’s greatest strategic advantages. During World War II neither German nor Japanese planes could reach the continental United States. In the cyberage, digital weapons know no such limits. More than 100 nations have cybermilitary units. America has the U.S. Cyber Command. But even nonmilitary groups, such as the tens of thousands of hackers in China’s university-linked cybermilitia or nonstate hacktivist collectives like Anonymous, might play a role in a cyberwar. Chances are in any new conflict, the first shot fired will now be virtual.

This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of Popular Science, as part of our Future Of War feature. Check out the rest of the feature here.