UK space chief: Britain's spy satellites 'not safe' from attack

Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey tells The National military equipment in space has little defence against potential aggressors

A computer-generated image of a Skynet 5D satellite in orbit. Photo: Ministry of Defence
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Britain’s military Skynet satellite system is “not safe” from attacks by hostile states, the head of UK Space Command has admitted.

Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey warned the system, which provides sensitive communications for British forces around the world, was vulnerable to attack in space from Russia and China.

Civilian satellites could also be legitimate military targets, The National has been told.

AVM Godfrey was asked about lessons learnt from the Ukraine war during a panel discussion at the UK Space Conference in Belfast.

He referred to two incidents in which satellites had proved defenceless against attack. In November 2021, a Russian missile destroyed a 40-year-old intelligence satellite called Kosmos 1408. The resulting debris field threatened to collide with the International Space Station, forcing the crew to take shelter in escape capsules.

A few months later the Shijian-21 satellite “grabbed” another defunct Chinese navigation satellite and towed it to a high-orbit graveyard 36,000km above Earth.

The incidents demonstrated that Britain’s own highly sensitive military satellites had little defence against potential aggressors, said AVM Godfrey.

Skynet, operated by Airbus on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, provides encrypted voice and data communication covering almost the entire globe.

“Moving a defunct satellite into a graveyard orbit is great for debris clean-up but not so great if it's used for other purposes,” he said. “We in the UK have got six Skynet satellites that we rely on from a military perspective, in order to provide global communications, that are not as safe nor as assured as we previously thought.”

He said the way Britain and its allies would bring “resilience” in space was the same as “you would do in any other domain, by providing targeting problems for potential adversaries”.

With their effectiveness proved beyond doubt in Ukraine, civilian satellites had now become legitimate targets in warfare, said Major Jeremy Grunert, a lawyer in the US Air Force.

Commercial satellite companies such as Maxar Technologies had provided key battlefield information, including imagery of the 40km convoy of Russian armoured vehicles stranded outside Kyiv in the first weeks of the war in Ukraine.

It also documented, via satellite, alleged Russia atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol.

Elon Musk’s 5,000 Starlink satellites in low-Earth orbit have also been a vital tool for Ukraine’s drone warfare.

“The Ukraine war has demonstrated in a very public way the manner in which commercial satellites could be military targets,” Maj Grunert said in response to The National’s question.

Under the laws of armed conflict an “otherwise civilian target could perhaps be targeted, if it was providing military benefits”.

He gave the examples of bridges and railheads being heavily bombed by the Allies in France just before the D-Day invasion in Normandy in 1994 “because of the military benefits that those provided to the Germans”.

“It's the same thing in outer space and certainly the way in which civilian systems like Starlink have been used for drone targeting.”

He suggested Starlink would "arguably make a potential military target under the laws of war”.

Updated: November 23, 2023, 2:12 PM