Satellites have long been closely associated with the military. We’re taking a look at this connection and how it has grown recently. It may quite accurately be said that into the dreams of scientists, the heavy tread of military boots soon follows.
Throughout a range of scientific disciplines, from physics to meteorology, military funding is often the prime driver behind scientific innovations – particularly during the 20th and into the 21st century. This has led to some pretty strange experiments, including in America where millions of dollars was pumped into schemes researching the possibility of psychic powers such as remote viewing.
One type of technology that is literally ‘out-of-this-world’, albeit far more grounded in science than sci-fi, is satellite technology, which from its early days of creation has drawn a strong interest from world governments and armed forces.
Conflict and the Creation of Satellites
In the early days of satellites the technology itself was a key area of inter-nation conflict as the US and USSR strove to outdo each other. The first accolades fell to the USSR when on 4 October 1957 the Sputnik I satellite was successfully launched into space.
Tellingly, the US Navy’s research laboratory had already been investigating satellite technology but after the success of Sputnik, American efforts were redoubled and the Defense Department put funding into the Explorer program. A satellite of the same name was launched on 31 January 1958 and the space race had begun in earnest.
Since then, satellite technology has been harnessed for increasingly complex military uses and military communications satellites have been and still are vital in global defense. Every day, satellites are used to send important data around the globe at high speeds for military purposes, whether in the form of real-time footage of military conflict zones or sensitive information.
However, sometimes the application of satellite technology to military uses has gone in a more spectacular, and sometimes controversial, direction. Scientists who have striven to expand the reach of humanity to the fringes of space have found the military using their advancements in unexpected ways. Here are a few of these areas…
Real World Star Wars
The Cold War between the USSR and America which precipitated the early developments of satellites was continuing to dominate global geopolitics in the early eighties when Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, or as it became more widely known, the Star Wars Program.
The idea behind the program was to create a network of earth and space based defensive systems that could bring down any nuclear warheads launched against the US. The massive cost and seemingly unrealistic aims of the system were lambasted by many at the time.
Among the more outlandish plans were X-ray lasers which could be fitted to satellites and then deployed against enemy warheads, bringing down missiles from above. Such suggestions were branded unscientific by many and after a prolonged period of development, during which billions of dollars had been spent on the technology, President Clinton renamed the scheme, shifting focus away from the original conception to a more general missile shield proposition.
Another area in which satellites often play an integral part is the very modern, relevant and controversial area of pilot-free drones which are currently being deployed by military forces around the world.
Remote controlled aircraft are nothing new, with a history stretching back to 1916. However, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) only found useful applications in the second half of the twentieth century when United States Air Force chiefs became worried about losing pilots in areas of conflict.
During the Vietnam War UAV’s were used in highly classified missions and since then they have become a feature of military operations, providing intelligence from dangerous areas and supporting combat interventions. UAVs quickly became a feature of military forces around the world, and reports have it that up to 50 countries use the technology.
However, the UAV drones that we are currently hearing about really started in the wake of the 11th September terror attacks in New York in 2011. After that deadly incident, the CIA began funding the development of unmanned drones that work with satellite technology to carry out strikes on remote and dangerous locations.
They have become such an important focus in the war of terror that instructions in how to dodge drone attack from the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda have recently been revealed. However, even though the proponents of the technology can highlight many advantages in the use of UAVs in combat zones, such as minimizing military casualties, many are unhappy at the situation.
There are numerous reports of drone strikes affecting civilians and causing deaths among innocent people. Despite the protestation of officials who claim that drones have barely affected non-combatants, estimates put the figures of innocent deaths between 556 and 1,128.
In addition to the tragic human cost, the US government’s use of drones is still shrouded in secrecy and doubts are being raised over the legality of their operation. One leading lawyer looking at the use of drones even suggested recently that the program threatened to legalize the al-Qaeda cause.
Regardless of these arguments, the use of drones is likely to become more prevalent as the technology continues to develop – and underpinning it all will be the network of military satellites that pass through the unseen heights above us all.
What do you think about the use of drones?
Author Mhari Steele is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of topics including technological advances.