Are We at Risk for a Space Arms Race?

The Pentagon’s space-based missile defense plans could escalate tensions with rival space powers

Ramin Skibba
Published in
5 min readApr 18, 2019


Illustration: Victor Moatti

OnOn March 27, India tested its first anti-satellite weapon, an interceptor missile that blew up an Indian military satellite in space. The test put India in an exclusive club of nations — including the U.S., Russia, and China — that are building the capacity to shoot down both missiles and satellites. And the other members of the club aren’t happy.

On April 1, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine criticized India’s test, angry that the resulting debris may have reached the orbit of the International Space Station and other satellites.

“That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said at a town hall meeting that was livestreamed on NASA TV. “And that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see happen.”

Yet the future of human spaceflight looks increasingly militarized. The Department of Defense has declared its own plans to attach missile-detecting sensors on satellites, and more menacingly, to seriously consider building interceptors that could be deployed in space. If Congress approves new funding for these projects, the technology could encourage rivals to ratchet up their own space weapon capabilities, triggering an arms race that could make orbital wars with lasers and satellites a reality.

“Even putting a few interceptors in space under the guise of a test would be very provocative, because they would be potent anti-satellite weapons and would create significant tensions” with Russia and China, says Laura Grego, a California Institute of Technology-trained physicist and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Pentagon’s first Missile Defense Review of the Trump administration, released earlier this year, calls for a networked layer of sensors in orbit that would spot missile launches from anywhere on Earth and monitor them from “birth to death.” That’s a tall order. A satellite passing over North Korea, for example, would be hurtling around the opposite end of the planet 12 hours later. To have global…