The Soviet Union, now modern-day Russia, holds the distinction of being the first country to launch a satellite into space, marking the commencement of the Space Race. Notably, Russia also achieved the milestone of sending the first human into space.
However, the United States decisively concluded the Space Race by successfully landing a man on the moon. Today, numerous countries actively participate in space exploration, deploying satellites for various purposes.
While space exploration has long been a focal point for scientific inquiry, it has increasingly garnered attention from defence experts. Satellites, initially designed for peaceful endeavours, have evolved to serve crucial roles in military applications, including navigation, intelligence gathering, and military communications.
During the intense rivalry of the Cold War era, both the United States and the Soviet Union contemplated the development of satellites armed with weapons capable of striking terrestrial targets.
However, these ambitions were curtailed with the establishment of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty under the auspices of the United Nations. This treaty explicitly prohibits nations from engaging in non-peaceful activities in space, including the stationing of weapons of mass destruction.
TOP 5 COUNTRIES WITH THE HIGHEST NUMBER OF MILITARY SATELLITES
United States (218 Military satellites)- The United States boasts the highest number of military satellites in orbit, with a total of 218. These satellites play a pivotal role in furnishing essential services such as navigation, reconnaissance, and communication for the U.S. military. Additionally, some of these satellites are equipped to provide advanced capabilities like missile warning systems, contributing to the safeguarding of American security interests and those of its allies globally.
China (125 Military satellites)- China currently operates 125 military satellites, signifying a significant advancement in its space capabilities. With the aid of modern and improved satellites, China has expanded its military presence, projecting power extensively, especially in the Pacific region and posing a specific threat to Taiwan. The country has made notable progress in space technology, reaching a level comparable to that of the United States a decade or more ago, as noted by defence experts. In 2022 alone, Beijing launched over 200 satellites into orbit, serving both civilian and military purposes, with an estimated 125 satellites exclusively dedicated to military applications, as reported by the Power Atlas.
Russia ( 102 Military satellites)- Russia currently operates 102 military satellites, solidifying its position as a key player in space technology alongside China, both vying to challenge the United States. In 2022, Moscow conducted 14 launches specifically for military satellites, encompassing navigation, intelligence, reconnaissance, and optical-imaging satellites, as reported by the Jamestown Foundation. The heightened frequency of launches during that period can be attributed to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Despite possessing numerous space communication assets, Russia faces challenges with some of its navigation systems becoming outdated and undergoing degradation.
France ( 10 Military satellites)- France operates a total of 10 military satellites, holding the distinction of having the highest number among European countries. In July of this year, France successfully launched the Syracuse 4B satellite, anticipated to become operational approximately nine months after reaching geostationary orbit. This satellite is an integral component of the Syracuse IV program, which was initiated in 2015 and involves a communication satellite system equipped with proximity surveillance capabilities in orbit. The Syracuse IV program has an overall budget of $3.9 billion.
India ( 9 Military satellites)- India operates a total of 9 military satellites, showcasing its commitment to space technology for defence purposes. Since 1975, India has successfully launched 129 satellites, with an additional 342 satellites orbiting for at least 36 foreign countries. Notably, 9 of these satellites are exclusively dedicated to military applications, according to the information provided by Power Atlas in its 2021 report. Among the prominent military satellites are GSAT-7, serving the Navy, and GSAT-7A, specifically developed for the Air Force. Furthermore, ongoing efforts are directed towards the development of a dedicated military satellite for the Indian Army.
Other countries with the highest number of military satellites
There are many other countries that are operating their military satellites, following the above nations. These include Israel, Italy, Germany, the UK, Australia and many more.
Israel operates a total of 8 military satellites, primarily for defence and intelligence purposes. The Ofek series, initiated in 1988, is the most recognized among these satellites. Notably, Ofek 13, an intelligence satellite, was launched in March of this year from Tel Aviv. The main objective of Ofek 13 is to provide crucial intelligence support to a secretive military unit in Israel.
Italy currently operates a total of 8 military satellites, securing the second-highest number among European nations. Italy is actively enhancing its space presence and capabilities, as reflected in its recent defence budget.
In the latest budget, Italy has allocated substantial funds, exceeding 900 million euros, for the launch of new military satellites over the next five years. This strategic investment underscores Italy’s commitment to advancing its space-based military capabilities.
Germany currently operates seven military satellites in orbit, primarily serving purposes related to communication and reconnaissance. The satellite systems include SARah satellites developed by Airbus, SAR-Lupe, Georg, CSO 3, COMSATBw, and Heinrich Hertz, among others. These satellites contribute to Germany’s military capabilities, supporting communication networks and gathering crucial reconnaissance data.
The United Kingdom currently operates six military satellites, playing a vital role in supporting military communications. The UK has made significant investments in the development of advanced satellite communication networks, with a focus on modern and sophisticated systems.
Notable programs include Skynet 5, which offers secure data, voice, and video coverage for British troops deployed in various locations. Skynet 5 is managed by the UK Ministry of Defense. Additionally, the Strategic Communications Satellite System (SCSS) facilitates high-speed communication between the UK and its military bases located overseas.
Australia operates four military satellites, contributing significantly to the country’s space capabilities. These military satellites play a crucial role in providing the Australian Defense Forces (ADF) with long-range communications. In April 2023, the Australian government selected Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE: LMT) as the preferred bidder for its JP9102 multi-billion-dollar military satcom project, further enhancing Australia’s space capabilities.
Spain operates four military satellites, utilizing them for various military purposes. The country is actively involved in developing advanced thick-film circuits, which will be integrated into the antennas of its military communications satellite, Spainsat NG. This initiative aims to enhance the capabilities of Spain’s military satellite infrastructure, making it one of the most advanced in the world.
The United Arab Emirates has positioned itself as a growing force in space exploration. Since the inaugural launch of Thuraya-1 in 2000, the UAE has continued its advancements, deploying multiple satellites into orbit. Among these satellites, three are specifically designated for military applications. Notably, FalconEye, launched in 2020, stands out as the latest addition to the UAE’s military satellite capabilities, serving the strategic requirements of the UAE Armed Forces.
Turkey has significantly advanced its space technology endeavours, with approximately six satellites currently in orbit. Notably, two of these satellites, Göktürk-1 and Göktürk-2, are specifically designed for military applications. Developed by the Turkish Ministry of National Defense and Turkish Aerospace Industries, these satellites play a crucial role in providing satellite imagery to meet the intelligence needs of the Turkish armed forces.
Mexico has actively participated in space exploration over the past four decades, launching more than 15 satellites into space. Some of these satellites serve military purposes, offering support to the armed forces. The Terminal Satellite, in particular, contributes to the deployment of the Emergency Military Unit in Mexico. This unit enables troops to access internet and telephone services, facilitating communication with the national armed forces’ central command.
Japan operates a diverse array of satellites in space, serving both civilian and military purposes. Two key military satellites are DSN-2 and X-band, primarily employed for military communications. According to a report from June this year by Reuters, the Japanese military is also exploring the possibility of adopting Starlink satellite services.
It’s noteworthy that these countries are actively leveraging satellite technology for various applications, including defence and intelligence purposes.