UK warns of growing threat from space wars

Military coalition recording daily near misses from hostile actions thousands of miles from earth

US Air Force Gen. John Raymond speaks at the launch of Spacecom at the White House last month. Reuters
US Air Force Gen. John Raymond speaks at the launch of Spacecom at the White House last month. Reuters

Rival nations are ramping up their efforts to seize control of outer space with daily hostile incidents targeting hundreds of military satellites in orbit around the world, Britain’s top space defence official said on Monday.

Modern militaries increasingly rely on satellites to provide communications to ground forces and for accurate targeting with GPS technology that has turned space into a new front in great power competition.

Countries could programme satellites to move close to their rivals and then use jamming software to disrupt their signals, air vice marshal Simon Rochelle, the UK’s most senior space defence official, told the National.

He said that those near misses – so-called on-orbit proximity – were a “daily thing” that have sent military officials scrambling to draw up alliances and plans to protect their multi-billion-dollar assets circling the planets.

“Space is a contested environment today,” said Mr Rochelle at the world’s largest arms fair in London. “The fight is on… we need to speed up our response to this issue.”

He said the implications for the military were “scary” but declined to specify the impact of knocking out GPS systems.

Dr Stuart Eves, a space consultant, told the conference that weapons using lasers and high intensity radio waves to disrupt satellite operations are “rising in likelihood” and the most probable weapons of the future.

More than 2,000 satellites are currently in space, with nearly half of those put into orbit by the United States.

About 20 per cent of the 900 US satellites are run by the military, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists which has compiled a database of the crafts in orbit. The US’s geopolitical rivals, Russia and China, have about 150 and 300 respectively, it said.

Donald Trump last month announced the creation of a new space defence command, Spacecom, because of concerns its satellites were being targeted, which could harm its ability to shoot down missiles targeting the US.

“As the newest combatant command, Spacecom will defend America's vital interests in space — the next warfighting domain. And I think that's pretty obvious to everybody. It's all about space,” Mr Trump said.

An intelligence-building alliance of five nations – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US – have joined with France and Germany to build a coalition to defend their interests in space, said Mr Rochelle.

The number of craft launched is expected to increase dramatically as costs fall with governments and private developers planning huge constellations of satellites for both military and civilian use.

Mr Rochelle said that satellite developers should consider incorporating defensive systems to prevent them from being damaged. Cameras and sensor could be incorporated into new designs to block attacks and identify the perpetrators, he said.

The growing exploitation of space has also raised concerns about the failure of international bodies to grasp the problem of space junk when they fall out of service or malfunction. Dr Eves said there were up to 900,000 pieces of space junk that had the capability of destroying a satellite.

“That congestion, that risk of debris, that risk of fratricide is just going to increase,” said Mr Rochelle.

Published: September 10, 2019 07:03 PM


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