Britain’s largest weapons manufacturer, BAE Systems, is finalizing the purchase of U.S. space technology titan Ball Aerospace for an impressive $5.55 billion, in a move that speaks volumes about the perceived future of warfare.
BAE announced its plans to acquire Ball Aerospace in late August, pending customary closing adjustments. The acquisition represents the most significant bet by any major defense company on space becoming the next dominant battlefront in future wars.
Over the past decade, experts have warned that as private companies and governments intensify their focus on outer space, the likelihood of a significant conflict arising in space has increased.
In response, defense companies and nations have been urgently advancing the infrastructure and technologies to improve off-world combat capabilities.
In 2019, the United States established the U.S. Space Force, the world’s first independent military branch dedicated to conducting operations in outer space and space warfare. That same year, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, announced the “London Declaration,” formally declaring space as a fifth operational domain, alongside air, land, sea, and cyberspace.
At the 2021 Brussels Summit, NATO leaders further reinforced that “attacks to, from, or within space” could meet the criteria for invoking the intergovernmental military alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense clause.
The U.S. and its allies assert that the heightened attention to space defense relates to Russia and China’s expanded development of space-based weapons.
In 2021, Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile by destroying one of its defunct satellites. The test created over 1,500 pieces of space debris and was condemned by the U.S. as “a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations.”
“Russia is developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies and partners,” U.S. Space Command commander, U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, said in a statement. “Russia’s tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons clearly demonstrate that Russia continues to pursue counter-space weapon systems that undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all nations.”
China tested its secretive space plane in May, dubbed the “Reusable Experimental Spacecraft” or “CSSHQ. The space drone was observed releasing and being trailed by a secondary object during a two-month test flight in Low Earth Orbit. Few details about the mysterious object are publicly known, only that it was “capable of broadcasting transmissions.”
Recent satellite imagescaptured by BlackSky Technology Inc., an independent provider of real-time geospatial intelligence, reportedly revealed a new laser anti-satellite weapon being developed by China. Experts say the direct energy weapon (DEW) is likely intended for cyber or electronic warfare against foreign satellites.
A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Aerospace Security Project described China and Russia’s rapid development of space weapons as “challenging the world order that has been in place and has secured peace since the end of World War II.”
Defense officials have said that war in space would be unlike anything we’ve seen before and could have devastating consequences for life on Earth. Attacks on global satellites could take out GPS systems, banking systems, power grids, communication networks and disrupt military operations.
“I don’t want to be dramatic,” said the U.S. Space Force staff director, Lt Gen Nina Armagno, at the 2022 Australian Strategic Policy Institute conference. “What does war in space look like? We probably won’t see it with our naked eye, but we will definitely feel the consequences from the moment it begins.”
When asked about the eventual impact of a space war, Lt. Gen. Armagno said, “Life as we know it would no longer be as we know it.”
BAE’s recent $5.6 billion acquisition of Ball Aerospace further underscores the sense of urgency that defense corporations and nations are placing on space.
Ball Aerospace is a subsidiary of Ball Corporation, which has roots dating back to the 1880s as a paint can and glass jar manufacturer.
While the Colorado-based Ball Corporation is primarily known for producing millions of beer cans and aerosol bottles, its aerospace division has become an industry leader in space and defense technologies and is at the forefront of advanced satellite technologies.
Ball Aerospace’s known defense portfolio includes laser communication systems linking infantry with drones via satellite and advanced satellite tracking systems capable of monitoring threats from other space vehicles. However, much of Ball’s defense potential is shrouded in secrecy and remains classified.
It is believed that several of its existing space-based technologies employed to monitor weather patterns and search for Earth-like planets, such as those used in the Hubble space telescope and the Kepler telescope, are now being reimagined for defense.
And with space wars becoming a real possibility, BAE Systems is betting billions that Ball’s military tech portfolio will become invaluable in defining the future of warfare.
In an August announcement, BAE Systems described Ball Aerospace as a “highly complementary fit” with the company’s portfolio and culture.
“The proposed acquisition of Ball Aerospace is a unique opportunity to add a high quality, fast-growing technology-focused business with significant capabilities to our core business that is performing strongly and well positioned for sustained growth,” a statement by BAE reads. “It’s rare that a business of this quality, scale, and complementary capabilities, with strong growth prospects and a close fit to our strategy, becomes available.”
BAE’s purchase of Ball Aerospace isn’t solely focused on space warfare.
“We are making this acquisition from a position of strength. Ball Aerospace hits the mark in terms of a number of our strategic priorities… [including] defense, intelligence, and scientific missions,” BAE Systems CEO Charles Woodburn explained.
Woodburn cited Ball Aerospace’s existing partnerships with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as underscoring the company’s role in scientific endeavors and deepening BAE’s commitment to environmental monitoring and urgent concerns with climate change.
Ultimately, companies like BAE Systems are preparing for the eventuality that our next global conflict might be waged in outer space.
The acquisition of Ball Aerospace showcases BAE’s belief in space as the next battleground and underlines the intricate dance between science, environmental concerns, and defense. The move also serves as a stark reminder of the delicate interplay between earthly concerns and the vast unknown expanse above.
The Debrief reached out to BAE Systems for comment. BAE representatives indicated they could not discuss the acquisition of Ball Aerospace as it is still pending regulatory approvals. The deal is anticipated to be finalized by the spring of 2024.
Tim McMillan is a retired law enforcement executive, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing covers defense, national security, and the Intelligence Community. You can follow Tim on Twitter:@LtTimMcMillan. Tim can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or through encrypted email:LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com