A Brief History of the Development of Space Warfare

by W. Samuel Hargesheimer

For thousands of years, humans have only been capable of imagining what lies beyond the sky and among the stars. It has only been within the last century that the human race has developed the technologies that allow for space exploration, a drastic change from the ancient methods of speculating and theorizing what is in space and how space actually works outside of our home environment. Many of these technological developments were catalyzed by the tensions of the Cold War era, and if not for the tensions between the USSR and the United States in the late 1940s and through the “Space Race” era in the early 1970s, there would most likely not be as many or as advanced space travel technologies as there are today. In other words, the tensions of imminent war and catastrophic destruction had actually led to quicker scientific and engineering advancements for the sake of exploring and travelling space.

Early forms of rocket development (the earliest stages of space ships) can be dated as early as 400 BC, with the Greek inventor named Archytas flying a “wooden pigeon” using steam and a winged, wooden model connected to a string line, but the advanced development of rockets for the purpose of warfare started primarily during World War II. Germany’s Society for Space Travel developed the V-2, which was used in London during the war, but it was far too late into the war to change the outcome and Germany eventually surrendered to Allied forces. After the Soviet Union and United States received the plans and outlines for this missile technology, a race to space was bound to happen.

Essentially, disputes over territorial divisions throughout post-World War II Europe led to increasing tensions between the Allies and communist countries. This was further ensured when President Harry S. Truman enacted the Truman Doctrine in 1947, which basically guaranteed that the United States would aid democratic nations in resisting communist threats. Over the span of a few decades, the two international powers (The U.S. and the U.S.S.R.) intervened in different anti-colonial movements to spread the influence of democracy or communism, with the Soviet Union having an influence in the Chinese civil war and America having an influence on Vietnam and the Koreas. The United States and Soviet Union had a competitive international relation that was represented by the actions that each nation took in response to the other.

As a result of improving the German rocket design, the Soviet Union displayed its technological advancements by launching Sputnik I, the world’s first man-made artificial satellite that orbited Earth, on October 4 of 1957. Not only did this shock the world, but it also militarily and technologically challenged the United States, so on January 31 of 1958, the U.S. Army launched their equivalent, the Explorer I, and in the following October, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded, acting as the leading agency for United States space advancements.


By 1959, Cuba became one of the nations susceptible to communism and ultimately posed a threat to the United States after the nation became dependent on the Soviet Union under Fidel Castro’s leadership. As a result, there was a communist nation with a strong Soviet foothold just 90 miles off the shores of Florida, and this posed a great threat to the United States. On top of this, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States should rise to the role of international leaders of space exploration and eventually land a man on the moon, so there was an inherent competitive quality behind the U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations.

During the summer of 1962, the US acquired intelligence through espionage that showed evidence of Soviet nuclear missile presence within Cuba. Although this prompted the removal of the warheads and missile sites, it sparked a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union in an effort to prove militaristic dominance and hopefully deter any considerations of attacking one another. Several years of trial and error in spaceship design finally led to the July 20, 1969 moon landing of Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin upon the Apollo XI spacecraft.

These advancements in space exploration also ushered in the era of specialized satellites used for communication and imagery from space. At first, most unmanned spacecraft were used for photographing the moon and other relatively close objects of interest, but with advancements in communications technology came the incorporation of that technology into satellites for a far-reaching effect. Originally, they were used for navigator and orbital purposes, measuring distances and analyzing positions. By the 1980s, television started to broadcast on these satellites on an international scale and telescopic satellites were able to capture photos of the Earth and other planets in our solar system.


With these satellite developments came an opportunity for advanced defensive measures originating from outer space. On March 23 of 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced an ambitious defense program called the Strategic Defense Initiative that was intended to act as an all-encompassing missile defense for the nation. While the plan called for technologies and calculations that weren’t feasible at the time, it was a bold acknowledgment by the United States that space warfare has grown to the point that national security now calls for preventive measures that will defend against strikes from missiles and other aircraft.

Early on in the development of long-range missiles, militaries adopted an offensive doctrine of mutually-assured destruction (MAD) that was due to the powerful weaponry accessible to a number of nations and the lack of any way to defend against them other than to retaliate, but improvements and additions to satellite technology changed the perspective on space and aerial warfare. Now, the United States started to invest in land-to-air weaponry and calculative technologies from orbiting satellites to coordinate anti-missile defense systems to ensure national safety.

According to John M. Collins in Military Geography, there are a number of strategic positions that a nation can place satellites in for surveillance and communication purposes. Specifically speaking, “three geostationary communications satellites positioned equidistantly around the circular track that runs 22,300 miles (35,885 kilometers) above our Equator can receive signals from, and relay them to, any place on Earth except the poles.” This knowledge was incorporated in the United States’ numerous strategic satellite deployments, even after the Cold War and Space Race era.

Eventually, by the time Bill Clinton became President, the far-fetched goals of the Strategic Defense Initiative were closer to coming to fruition with the implementation of the somewhat equivalent National Missile Defense initiative. The key difference between this system of defense and the Reagan “Star Wars” defense system was that the technologies and strategies of implementation were much more realistic and feasible; much of the defense comes from land-to-air technologies intended to simply shoot missiles down from a regional distance rather than a longer distance.

These defense systems caught the attention of many nations, even neutral ones without any nuclear weapons. After the quick-paced technological advancements for space exploration during the U.S.-U.S.S.R. “Space Race” era, there were many new technologies and resources available for conducting new kinds of warfare, so many nations had no choice but to adapt their defenses to these advancements. In modern warfare, even the smallest of naval vessels are capable of locating and anticipating missile attacks from a far distance through satellite defense systems.

In essence, the Cold War acted as a catalyst for the consequential “Space Race” and nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II. With tensions high and national security at risk, both nations worked tirelessly and quickly to churn out newer and better space technology in an effort to dominate the space frontier. As a result of this so-called race, many monumental and vital technologies for communications, travel, and science in general have been adopted internationally and incorporated into the world of warfare, changing how nations view outer space from a region of wonder to a strategic position for national defense and offense.



Collins, John M. Military Geography: For Professionals and the Public. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1998.