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Episode 93. Satellite Surveillance: The New Orbital Arms Race

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In this episode, we explore the intensifying arms race between the US, Russia, and China in orbital satellite surveillance technology. Delving into the advanced capabilities of these countries' satellite systems and how they are changing the landscape of modern warfare.

From enhanced intelligence gathering to the potential for pre-emptive strikes, we discuss the implications of this technological race on the future battlefield. Will this theatre become more aggressive, will more and more players enter the race, and will we see the growing collaboration between Russia and China extend to space? We ask our panel of experts.


Episode Overview:

Part 1: There's Always a Bigger Fish (2:33)

  • Tim Marshall begins our discussion by identifying the first tier of space players; US, China, and Russia, second tier powers such as Japan, UAE, and multiple European powers, and increasingly new entrants as the price of entry decreases.

  • We discuss the Chinese space program and how it has advanced past its genesis in the Russian space program through cooperation during the Cold War. This gap has widened as the War in Ukraine has impacted funding, despite a recognition of the importance of space surveillance in modern warfare.

  • We explain the development of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), which may be either co-orbital or direct ascent, and increasingly laser weaponry to prevent space debris created from a kinetic impact.

  • We talk about the increasing role of the private sector in the space race lowering the barrier to entry for potential space players, as well as the role of sub-orbital surveillance devices, such as the recent well-publicised Chinese balloon over US territory.

  • The potential use of missiles launching from satellite, including nuclear weapons, creates a significant increase in first-strike capability by reducing detection and reaction times.

  • We explore a legal hypothetical for a space conflict, given the unestablished legal basis for adjudicating space disputes, noting the real example of Elon Musk's Starlink technology aiding the Ukrainian armed forces.

Part 2: An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilised Age (23:01)

  • Keith Masback discusses the increasing surveillance capabilities including spatial resolution, as well as temporal and spectral resolution, and the potential applications of such imagery, including the ability to identify individuals or handheld technology.

  • Masback discusses the potential of 3D imaging to detect and map out the layout and activity happening inside structures for reconnaissance and military advantages.

  • We discuss what LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is and the advantages this technology has in surveillance capabilities.

  • We break down the impact of increasing commercial remote sensing and significant investment in the private sector, creating what the US describes as a hybrid architecture to create a single system creating both commercial and classified data.

  • Given the cost associated with satellite surveillance, we discuss the role of high altitude vehicles in supporting the generation of imagery and information and the advantages they offer over satellites.

Part 3: Starting Down a Dark Path (49:00)

  • George Nacouzi begins our final segment by describing the impact of the proliferation of LEO (low earth orbit) satellites in recent years on geospatial and electronic surveillance, including an explanation of their capabilities.

  • The conflict in Ukraine has exposed difficulties for the Russian forces connecting with the Russian GLONASS global positioning system, exposing the relative ease of jamming signals on the battlefield. We discuss the possibility of intercepting and sending false signals to battlefield actors.

  • We discuss the impact of smaller satellites such as CubeSats, allowing for the release of harder to track or identify space satellites

  • We discuss the consequences of kinetic attacks on satellites and the potential of a Kessler syndrome situation where space debris grows exponentially, effectively rendering entire orbits and sections of space unusable.

  • While it's too late to prevent the militarisation of space, we discuss the potential to establish norms of behaviour to prevent events such as ASATs, as well as creating offensive and defensive deterrents to prevent space conflict.


Episode Guests:

Tim Marshall

  • New York Times bestselling Author and Foreign Affairs Journalist with more than thirty years of reporting experience.

  • Previous he was Diplomatic Editor at Sky News and before that worked for the BBC and LBC/IRN radio.

  • He has reported from forty countries and covered conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.

  • Author of the book The Future of Geography: How power and politics in space will change our world

Keith Masback

  • Former Chief Executive Officer of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF)

  • Prior to joining USGIF, Mr. Masback spent over 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Army and in the government civilian service, culminating as a member of the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)

  • Previously he was a senior executive civilian on the Army Staff, responsible for planning the future of Army Intelligence and serving as the Army’s first Director of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Integration

George Nacouzi

  • Senior Engineer at the RAND Corporation, where he supports projects within Project AIR FORCE and the National Security Research Division

  • He is also a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty, where his research focus on subjects such as assessing the performance of space systems including resiliency, commercial space contribution to national security, traditional and non-traditional space domain awareness (SDA), space resilience, small satellite applications including proliferated LEO (PLEO), hypersonic missiles, nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) systems, and missile defence systems


The Red Line's Space Surveillance Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of space and the emerging race for satellite capabilities.


The Future of Geography

Tim Marshall

War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitcs

Bleddyn E. Bowen

The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interets

James Clay Moltz


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to our Patreon member Bettina Baur, Tony Zee, Scott Ortell, and Rai



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