The War Satellite Cometh – New Technology Definition Research Note



A shift in Space Security and Warfare is taking place seeing the creation of the ‘War Satellite’ as a specific category of orbiting uncrewed Satellite-Spacecraft. While currently, there is no distinct War Satellite classification, the purpose of this Technical Definition Research Note is to look at an emerging phenomenon, namely a satellite specifically designed to be in a combat situation in orbit around the Earth, and the Moon. The category began in the 1950s, with several designs for attacking satellite to attack another satellite in Earth Orbit, which has continued to develop into a variety of Anti-Satellite Weapons Technology: ASAT in orbit. The contemporaneous development of a Guardian-Bodyguard Satellite-Spacecraft is used to protect more vulnerable craft in orbit from another attacking satellite. The new War Satellite are a combination of: (1) Armour-protection; (2) Manoeuvre ability – can travel and manoeuvre in orbit; (3) Withstand an Electromagnetic Pulse; and, (4) Carry weapons to fight-off an attack from a variety of Anti-Satellite Weapons Technology.


FIGURE 1: Broadly, Space Warfare has two fundamental rubrics: Ground-Based, and Space-Based. Either a satellite is directly attacked from the Earth’s Surface with a missile, or it is attacked in Space by another craft. The next variant is the introduction of a Guardian-Bodyguard Satellite-Spacecraft operating more like a conventional Spacecraft, than a satellite, as it has the ability to travel and manoeuvre frequently in orbit. It is designed to prevent an attack reaching a Vulnerable Critical Satellite. It also has three tactical modes: (1) Interposes itself between the target satellite (it is protecting), and the attacker; (2) Manoeuvres to interdict the attacker; or, (3) Counter-attacks with its Shoot-Back System.

FIGURE 1: The Earth Circumnavigation Battle Model: is warfare between uncrewed satellites in orbit that have been specifically made into weaponized craft. The notion of an Earth Circumnavigation Battle: a battle between orbiting satellite foes occurs early in the development of Space Warfare concepts. It was noted in the 1950s, by United States Air-Space Force thinkers looking at early Space Warfare Strategies:

  • “It is worth pointing out here that … Deep Space itself could not be the site of battle, as man has always known it, between giant fleets or armies of opposing war vehicles. Instead – as a battlefield – Space would serve as the ‘high ground’ for reconnaissance and missilry, as envisioned in the earlier suggestions of … [United States Air Force Brigadier General Homer A. Boushey] … As we approach the reality of Space travel, the science fiction buffs among us will have to leave much of our romance behind. For it would be difficult indeed, if not impossible, for great Space fleets to meet in combat, unless they both left from the same place at the same time in the same predetermined paths. This is hardly likely. Other­wise, moments after they had ‘passed’ each other in Space, they would be thousands of miles apart, and the weapons, again in the classic use of the word, they ranged at each other would be utterly useless. This does not, of course, preclude combat in near Space between orbiting satellites of opposing nations. It would be possible, indeed quite simple, to demolish or puncture a manned satellite with a missile fired into its orbit.” (Leavitt, 1958)

The progenitor of the War Satellite in Earth Orbit, in the modern era is the Soviet Polyus Spacecraft. This craft crashed after failing to reach orbit in 1987. It was designed to carry a load of Nuclear Mines that could be laid in Space, it had a projectile firing cannon for self-defence, and had a main laser cannon to attack other satellites in orbit.


The Istrebitel Sputnikov: Satellite Fighter System concept dates-back to the late 1950s, and it began development in the 1960s (Zak, 2017; Martin, 2021). An interceptor launched into orbit would separate from its booster, making multiple orbit changes, allowing it to pass close to a target exploding releasing shrapnel that had an effective range of 50 meters (Martin, 2021). Soviet orbit tests suggested the, “shrapnel ejected by the ‘killer’ satellite … [moved]… at a relative speed of 1.2 – 2.1 kilometres per second.” (Zak, 2017) It is also known, in regards to the interceptor, that:

  • “At that time, the onboard radar system guides the interceptor to within tens of meters of the target, then detonates an explosive that damages the target with shrapnel propelled by the explosion.” (Grego, 2012)

The 15 May, 1987 launch of the Soviet Polyus Spacecraft intended as an Orbital Battle Station, failed to reach orbit. It broke-up, partially burning-up on its re-entry crashing into the South Pacific. Its wreckage currently lies on the floor of the South Pacific (Grondine, 2019). If it had achieved working orbit it would have occupied an altitude of 280 kilometres: 170 miles above the Earth’s Surface, at an inclination of 64 degrees.

The Polyus Spacecraft had a gross mass around 88.1 tons. It was 37 meters: 121.39 feet long, and its maximum diameter was 4.1 meters: 13.5 feet. A repurposed Mir-2 Space Station Core made-for the rear-end of the vehicle. This contain rocket engines for orbital insertion, along with exterior solar panels and power system, mated to a long cylinder main module.

The Polyus main module contained a One-Megawatt Infrared Carbon Dioxide Laser. This type of Gas Laser produces a Continuous Wave Beam of Infrared Light. Carbon Dioxide, like other Infrared Lasers are most commonly associated with thermal burns. The Laser Refractor was placed at the ‘muzzle-end’ of the main module.

The Polyus Spacecraft had another cannon mounted on it for defence (Grondine, 2019). As to what form this cannon would have taken it is not known. However, the earlier 1975 arming of the Soviet Salyut-3: OPS-2 (Almaz-2), was a machine cannon – a specially adapted R-23M Kartech, originally a powerful aircraft weapon, used on the then Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder Supersonic Bomber (Zak, 2015). This was externally mounted and intended to defend against American Astronaut attacks (Reesman, 2020). The once only firing of the Almaz machine cannon in 1975, not being recoilless had to be compensated for, as its firing had the potential for shock and recoil:

  • “to damage the Station but, in the vacuum of Space, those forces raised the possibility that shooting the weapon could send it flying in a dangerously unpredictable fashion … [the solution was]… ignited its … thrusters simultaneously with firing the cannon to counteract the weapon’s powerful recoil” (Zak, 2015; Trevithick, 2021).

Design drawings show the Polyus Spacecraft had provision for an, “anti-recoil exhaust system for cannon and mine launcher.” (Wade, 2019) Which suggests the Soviets may have contemplated using the same version of the R-23M Kartech. It is also known, during the Cold War, the Soviets had designed a shotgun-style pellet cannon for use as an anti-satellite weapon (Hendrickx, 2016; Martin, 2021).

The Soviet Polyus Spacecraft design drawings also show a bay containing several Nuclear Space Mines (Wade, 2019). It is believed, the craft was to have bused a load of the mines, and launch these from orbit. The issue of Nuclear Space Mines will be addressed at the end of this paper.


In 2019, France was reported as having by 2030 military satellites armed with lasers and guns (Doffman, 2019). In some other reports, the guns used to arm the French satellites were characterised as: ‘machine guns’, and using high-tech cameras to identify enemy satellites before spraying them with bullets in Space, and these would be in service by 2023 (Moynihan, 2019). A defensive machine-gun used to protect a satellite is also known as a Shoot-Back System, that either applies to a kinetic discharger, or a laser weapon. It is either located on the satellite it is intended to defend or on a protective satellite in a similar orbit, in a nearby orbit, or carried by a craft roaming among satellites, creating a Zone Defence with a weaponized satellite (Harrison, 2021). The Shoot-Back System, is based on the concept:

  • “Satellites can be equipped with systems that … fire a physical projectile at an incoming … [Anti-Satellite Weapons Technology] … to have physically destructive effects … The number of shots would be limited by the number of physical projectiles that could be stored on the satellite” (Harrison, 2021).

It can be broadly argued that once the initial momentum is lost from the gun-cannon used in Space, its projectile will begin to travel a path taking it into potential Earth Orbit. A projectile fired in Earth Orbit will be the equivalent of any of the nuts and bolts that currently form part of the growing Space debris,

  • “[and]… they all travel at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a Spacecraft.” (Garcia, 2017)

It is known that the full-orbit of a Space debris nut or bolt is roughly-speaking, every 92 minutes. It is also plausible, that any projectile fired earlier, would be coming around, potentially passing through the position of the craft that had fire the projectile initially.

Another variation of the Shoot-Back System is use of a laser. Said to be part of France’s ‘Mastering Space Plan’, this is understood to call for an Active Defence using,

  • “a constellation of miniature Space-Based guardians armed with lasers that could strike at other satellites if the country’s orbital assets come under attack, along with increased surveillance capabilities in orbit to spot potential threats.” (Trevithick, 2019; Mackenzie, 2019)

Largely viewed as an Active Defence measure in Space, the Guardian-Bodyguard Satellite-Spacecraft are designed to prevent an attack reaching a Vulnerable Critical Satellite (Chow, 2019; 2019; 2020) A Guardian-Bodyguard Satellite-Spacecraft can be weaponized. However, its laser, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities are dialled-down operating only to temporarily disable an enemy craft. This is seen as a basic de-escalation strategy. In other words, the satellite is able to make ‘Reversible Attacks’: meaning attacks that do not permanently damage satellite using non-kinetic means, including: (1) Lasers; (2) Radio frequency jammers; and, (3) Cyber-attacks (Rogin, 2021). Whereas a more aggressive stance, could see the same weapons dialled-up as a deterrent, and use of a projectile firing gun-cannon as the ultimate act of aggression. Causing permanent or significant damage to a satellite that would be considered an act of war.


Since the 1960s, the United States has viewed Space as a contested domain. The 2021 technology iteration of France’s Syracuse 4A Satellite: Comsat-NG (the former Communication par Satellite de Nouvelle Generation), can be looked at as an example how the contemporary War Satellite is designed to act in the Space contested domain. The Syracuse 4A Satellite according to French Armee de l’Air et de l’Espace: Air and Space Force spokesperson is designed to resist military aggression from the ground and in Space (Agence France-Presse, 2021; 2021). One way it does this, it is protected against an Electromagnetic Pulse, the result from a Nuclear explosion (which will be discussed at the end of this paper). France’s Syracuse 4A Satellite has two other War Satellite qualities:

(1) The 2021 iteration of the Syracuse 4A Satellite, it is stated: “[it]… can survey its close surroundings and move itself to escape an attack.” (Agence France-Presse, 2021; 2021) The craft is an all-electric satellite powered primarily with deployable solar arrays and batteries, and uses plasma thruster technology for its propulsion (Krebs, 2021). Designed to operate in high-thrust or high specific impulse mode allowing the craft to manage orbital positioning and station keeping duties, giving high-level of long-term manoeuvrability in Space. The technology also gives the craft an energy efficient option, and offers a long operating lifespan.

(2) France’s Syracuse 4A Satellite, is stated as having a high resistance to extreme jamming methods:

  • “[as it features]… unrivalled resistance to even the most extreme jamming methods, thanks to state-of-the-art equipment, including an active anti-jamming antenna and a digital onboard processor.” (Krebs, 2021)

The craft’s onboard Digital Transparent Processor technology role is to increase connectivity, channelization and frequency flexibility; that guarantees a high resistance to extreme jamming methods.

France’s Syracuse 4A Satellite is designed for an ‘Active Defense in Space’, proposed by the new French Space Defence Strategy (Space Working Group, 2019). The French Government Space Agency – CNES: Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (National Centre for Space Studies) is also understood to be undertaking a study known as the ‘Eyes in Orbit for an Agile Demonstrator [des yeux en orbite pour une demonstration agile –, de surveillance de l’espace depuis l’espace]’ (Lamigeon, 2020; Ferrara, 2020). Also known as the Yoda Program, planned by 2030, this envisages France’s next generation military Space technology will be small patrolling military satellites – the role of which is to document hostile robotic operation against a telecommunication satellite in Earth Geostationary Orbit. The program intends to put into orbit two nano-satellites demonstrators in 2023. Weighing ten to twenty kilograms, the craft will operate in Earth Geostationary Orbit, at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres, where the main telecommunications satellites are in common working orbits. The tests will pave the way for a heavier class of patrol satellite around one hundred kilograms in weight, launched around 2030. Designed to watch over and protect French Space assets in Geostationary Orbit. The role of the French Yoda Program, is to provide evidence of wrong-doing in Space, as a type of aggression deterrence against Space capabilities, and protect them if need be (Gosnold, 2020). This escort is envisaged: “tasked with observing the Space around it and taking pictures of any interference attempts.” (Gosnold, 2019)


In 2019, the French Ministere des Armees announced the, “new generation of Syracuse Satellites would have cameras to help identify and monitor possible attackers.” (Clark, 2021) Part of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales ‘Eyes in Orbit’ Project discussed earlier. Digital images and live-feed are commonplace in International Space Station operations during rendezvous, and docking scenarios via the Engineering Camera Imaging System, and the Engineering Docking Camera attached to the nose of an approaching capsule. In Deep Space, a more technical challenge is having a sensor that can produce a digital image taken in a Space Environment of another craft.

A scenario involving three satellites can be envisaged, these are: (1) The target communications satellite; (2) Attacker; and, (3) Guardian-Bodyguard Satellite-Spacecraft. The craft have all approached and match speed with each other quite closely. It can be imagined, a digital feed displaying an image of a craft taken from another in proximity is viewed, as the operation is conducted from a generic Space Force’s Mission Ground Control. One function of the digital image is to assist Human Controllers better understand the manoeuvre dynamics; another use the image serves, is a purely political function.

Development of a Guardian-Bodyguard Satellite-Spacecraft designed using In-Space Inspections Technology; that is, designed as a manoeuvrable craft that can be used to physically view another Space Object; raises the problem how is this ordinarily identified? Say for instance, that the Guardian-Bodyguard Satellite-Spacecraft has a device that can take a digital image of another craft, and that this can be reproduced on Earth for presentation at an international forum, such as a complaint to the United Nations, along with other electronic data collected on the craft. This can also include Ground Tracking Data taken from a satellite’s beacons-transmitter, or its radar reflectors, such as the solar panels and heat radiators, which reflect a radar signal. Information on an object in orbit is also collected from radars, optical systems, and Space-Based sensors.

The tradition of displaying national livery, or the flag of state, may not be present visually speaking, as a satellite may have little in the way of any recognizable traits. For instance, the Soviet Polyus Spacecraft was finished in black with white lettering on its side in Cyrillic script bearing the name of the craft: ПОЛЮС, and the designation NMP-2 (apparently using European script), which is generally understood to be a reference to the Mir-2 Space Station. This attempt at subterfuge was like, “the Almaz project … disguised as a civilian Salyut series.” (Zak, 2021)

Since 1962, the United Nations has maintained a Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space, “[and]… to date over 88% of all the … [Objects] … launched into Earth Orbit or beyond have been registered” (UNOOSA, 2021). The remainder historically unregistered with the United Nations remains a concern from the perspective of identification of a craft in Earth Orbit, in a potential conflict scenario.

United Nations Instruments Articles IV and V state that Space Objects are tracked via their registration (United Nations, 2017). The information actually collected relates in the main to the Space Object’s launch state, its designator/ registration number, orbital parameters, and its general function.

If the Space Object – craft is unrecognizable, and involved in an aggressive act against another satellite, the understanding from the perspective of traditional Space Laws of War has been:


1. Each State of registry shall furnish to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, as soon as practicable, the following information concerning each Space Object carried on its registry:
(a) Name of launching State or States;
(b) An appropriate designator of the Space Object or its registration number;
(c) Date and territory or location of launch;
(d) Basic orbital parameters, including:
(i) Nodal period;
(ii) Inclination;
(iii) Apogee;
(iv) Perigee;
(e) General function of the Space Object.

2. Each State of registry may, from time to time, provide the Secretary-General of the United Nations with additional information concerning a Space Object carried on its registry.

3. Each State of registry shall notify the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to the greatest extent feasible and as soon as practicable, of Space Objects concerning which it has previously transmitted information, and which have been but no longer are in Earth Orbit.


Whenever a Space Object launched into Earth Orbit or beyond is marked with the designator or registration number referred to in article IV, paragraph 1 (b), or both, the State of registry shall notify the Secretary-General of this fact when submitting the information regarding the Space Object in accordance with article IV. In such case, the Secretary-General of the United Nations shall record this notification in the Register.


▲ United Nations Instruments Articles IV and V (United Nations, 2017).

  • “A necessary precondition for … claiming combatant status … might mean that a … opposing Spacecraft cannot be considered a spy as long as … [the]… vessel bears its prescribed distinctive markings” (Worden, 2002).

A photograph presented to the United Nations Security Council by a state complainant, showing an unrecognizable Spacecraft making an attack would have major political implications. It would not be regarded as a legitimate act of war, and have the added smear of not being regarded as a combatant’s action, likely characterized as an act of spying or sabotage.


The Soviet Polyus Spacecraft was designed to bus a load of Nuclear Space Mines, and launch these from orbit. In relation to the Nuclear Mine launcher, this: “would have been capable of delivering Nuclear warheads from orbit to any point in the … [United States] … in six minutes.” (Grondine, 2019) Which implies that each Nuclear Mine-Warhead was encased in a re-entry vehicle. However, rather than used as an orbital bombarder, it is also known during the Cold War, the Soviets had Nuclear Space Mines on the drawing board as a possible Anti-Satellite Weapon (Hendrickx, 2016; Martin, 2021). Called the Kamin: Fireplace: Space Mines, this was a 1985 concept for a constellation of small interceptors deployed in orbits close to potential target satellites, several were intended to be bused into orbit by a launch vehicle (Hendrickx, 2016). Orbiting craft like the Kamin-N (Low Earth Orbit variety) Space Mines could have circled the Earth very close to their targets. As a final note, the presence of Space Mines close to Global Positioning System satellites, and the possibility of a Space Mine Attack is still identified as a plausible Space Security scenario (Harrison, 2021). This represents the greatest threat to Space Security, as a Nuclear Space Mine is encased in a small vehicle, and can be camouflaged as a satellite. It can orbit for decades in the proximity of a field of target craft. If detonated it destroys with the initial blast, followed by the Electromagnetic Pulse, and then by the longer-lasting residual radiation field created. This is because:

  • “Nuclear detonations in Space increase the radiation exposure of other satellites and can significantly shorten their lifespan.” (Harrison, 2021)

As a counter to the possibility of a Nuclear Space Mine detonation, the French Syracuse 4A Satellite is also stated to be protected against an Electromagnetic Pulse which would result from a Nuclear explosion (Agence France-Presse, 2021; 2021). This is achieved through, “Electromagnetic Shielding … [that]… hardens satellites against High-Powered Microwave and Electromagnetic Pulse weapons.” (Harrison, 2021)

Hardening a satellite to withstand an Electromagnetic Pulse from a near-by Nuclear blast (such as a Nuclear Space Mine detonation), even though this disables/destroys other local satellites, is a type of Deterrence Space Strategy designed to neutralize the weapon’s potency – by ensuring a satellite was able to survive the attack. Perhaps used to launch a retaliation against the attacker. The French Space Defence Strategy identifies using a weapon like a Space Mine, as one of several future potential threats from Earth: Electromagnetic aggression, Cyber-attack, high-altitude Nuclear explosion, which need a response (Space Working Group, 2019).

Putting a Nuclear weapon in Space is normally associated with a launch from the Earth’s Surface of a specially adapted rocket booster, to then launch a second or third stage with a Nuclear warhead into Earth Circumnavigation Orbit, where it can then move into position to detonate. The same can be achieve by a rocket released from an aircraft. However, the notion of a pre-placed Space Mine, which has had its true nature concealed when it was launched remains the greatest threat and strategic shock. A race could emerge, where new War Satellites, and next-generation military-use, and civil communications and other key infrastructure satellites – like the Global Positioning System satellites, which can withstand an Electromagnetic Pulse are raced into replacement orbits replacing older fragile versions. To outpace the potential threat by a rogue state to attack the Earth’s Satellite Layer with a Nuclear weapon in order to destroy it, rendering a devastating blow to the Space Dependent Economies.


Chris Flaherty is a Space & Defense Tech and Security News Regular Contributor.


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