The independent resource on global security

11. The military uses of outer space



I. Introduction

II. The United States

III. Russia

IV. Other countries

V. Commercial operators

VI. Prevention of an arms race in outer space

VII. Ballistic missile defence

VIII. Conclusions

IX. Tables of operational military satellites [PDF]


Read the full chapter [PDF].


Space-based systems are becoming an increasingly important component of military power, above all for the United States. The USA is currently investing billions of dollars annually in the development and deployment of a wide range of new precision-guided weapons which are revolutionizing the conduct of warfare. These weapons rely heavily on an integrated ‘system of systems’ that combines intelligence, communications, navigation and other military space systems.

At present no country can rival or contest US space dominance or the advantages that this provides to its terrestrial military operations. At the end of 2001, the USA had nearly 110 operational military-related satellites, accounting for well over two-thirds of all military satellites orbiting the earth; Russia had about 40 and the rest of the world about 20.


While it is difficult to overstate the singular advantages of US military space systems relative to those of the rest of the world, it would be a mistake to underestimate the rapidity with which other states are beginning to use space-based systems to enhance their security. Although commercial satellite imagery provides capabilities that are almost trivial compared to those of advanced US systems, these capabilities are revolutionary compared to what was available only a decade ago.


The ‘weaponization’ of outer space has reappeared on the arms control agenda. There is growing international concern that the USA’s quest for ‘full-spectrum dominance’—a key dimension of which is the USA’s ability to dominate space and to deny its use to other countries—will give rise to a destabilizing arms race in space. This concern has become more urgent in the light of the Bush Administration’s plans for an expansive ballistic missile defence system architecture featuring space-based components.


China and Russia have taken the lead in calling for the negotiation of a new multilateral treaty prohibiting the deployment of weapons in space and restricting its use for peaceful purposes. For its part, the USA has shown little interest in agreements that would constrain its military activities in space.



John Pike is Director of, a non-profit public policy group focused on defence, space and intelligence issues, which he founded in 2000.