Future wars which begin on land or sea could quickly escalate and be “won or lost” in space, the head of Britain’s Royal Air Force has said, as he warned that Russia and China are developing anti-satellite weaponry. Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, chief of the air staff, said that while it was still considered “contentious” to talk about space as a military domain, it would be “tantamount to negligence” if the UK armed forces failed to take seriously the threats posed to crucial satellite functions such as communications and GPS navigation.
“A future conflict may not start in space, but I am in no doubt it will transition very quickly to space, and it may even be won or lost in space,” the air chief marshal told an online audience at the UK’s Defence Space Conference on Tuesday. “So we have to be ready to protect and if necessary defend our critical national interests in space . We see nations like China and Russia and others developing anti-satellite capabilities.”
Earlier in 2020, the US and UK accused Moscow of testing a new space-based weapon from its Cosmos 2543 satellite, marking a new frontier in the militarisation of space. The projectile, which was released into orbit, could have been used to target an enemy satellite. Gen John W Raymond, head of US Space Command, said at the time that the test fire was “consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk”, while Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth, head of the UK Space Directorate, said the projectile had the “characteristics of a weapon”.
The fear among western allies is that the use of space weaponry not only threatens the peaceful use of space but also risks creating debris which could damage satellites and space systems. As the density of debris grows, it could cause follow-on collisions and make parts of space too hazardous to enter. China has already faced criticisms for its role in creating space debris: in 2007, it shot a missile 500 miles into space to destroy one of its own ageing weather satellites. The test created thousands of pieces of debris — which ACM Wigston described as an “irresponsible action” — and sent the signal that Beijing would also be capable of targeting enemy satellites.
The US conducted a similar operation a year later when it shot down one of its own spy satellites, which had malfunctioned, because it said the toxic fuel onboard would be dangerous if it came back to earth. The Pentagon said the timing of the intercept, close to re-entry of the rogue vehicle, minimised any space debris. However, Russia suggested the operation was being used as cover to test an anti-satellite weapon.
In 2019, India became the fourth country to shoot down a satellite in space. Sir Mike added that China’s ambition to become the world’s pre-eminent space power by 2045 had already involved developments in cyber, electromagnetic and kinetic systems “that potentially could threaten other users in space”. Moscow, meanwhile, is also accused of using satellites to conduct what Sir Mike described as “suspect rendezvous proximity operations”: this could be an attempt at commercial and military espionage.
Space Age Weapons of War
But how would sabotage and warfare happen exactly? One method involves firing an intense beam of microwave radiation at an object. In fact, such concepts have been tested before by the police as a means of bringing a speeding car to a halt by disabling electrical devices on the vehicle. Such a concept deployed on satellites would constitute a “directed-energy weapon”, enabling nations to disable other countries’ satellites without creating large clouds of orbital debris. You could potentially make such an attack look like an accident and deny involvement.
The use of “radio jamming” to disrupt radar and communications dates back to World War II. By swamping a radio receiver with, effectively, radio noise, one can obscure the reception of genuine signals and render the system inoperative. This is a little like trying to spot the light from a candle against the glare of car headlights.
Satellites are thoroughly tested for self generated radio noise before going into space. But if a “hostile” satellite nearby were to deliberately direct broadband radio transmissions at the target satellite, then communications could be completely disrupted.
A US Air Force Delta II booster with a GPS satellite. U.S. Air Force photo Space-based electronic warfare is likely to become an increasing concern for military planners. In fact, many military services on Earth now depend on space technology to work.
Kinetic kills and lasers
By far the most obvious method of interfering with a satellite is a solid projectile. Moving satellites have very high kinetic energy and momentum. If a slower moving object can be placed briefly in the path of a satellite, then the resultant collision will be particularly devastating.
These so called “kinetic kills” have previously only been used to take satellites out of commission at the end of their life, with the US, Russia China, and India demonstrating their ability to perform this. This type of removal consists of a ground-launched missile aimed at the satellite. If aimed at an adversary satellite, such a missile would be fairly obvious and could be tracked by other nations using radar.
A more subtle method would be to destroy a satellite owned by the country or company launching the missile and aim to produce as much debris as possible, which then lies in the orbital path of the intended target. This could look like an accident and actually accidently occurred in 2007.
As far as kinetic weapons in space are concerned, machine guns are generally problematic due to the recoil involved. If the weapon is fired at any angle which is not in the exact direction of the orbital path the satellite is travelling along, then a torque will be applied, rapidly changing the direction of it. The idea of kinetic weapons has been attempted before. The Soviet space station Salyut-3, for example, was armed with a rapid fire cannon in the mid 1970s.
Lasers are also being considered as defensive weapons, with the idea being to take out attacking satellites’ solar panels. With no power, the satellite will be unable to communicate with the ground station and is essentially lost. The recoil from a laser is much smaller and the lack of atmosphere would allow them to perform better than on the Earth’s surface. A laser could be used to blind instrumentation on an opposing satellite thereby reducing the efficacy of either rendezvous or aiming software.
The most likely satellites to be targeted would be those dedicated to communication or observing. With the newest research satellites able to take images down to a 30cm resolution, military versions are likely to be even better. A nation with no communication facilities or ability to observe others will never know who has launched an attack against them.
But what would a space war look like from Earth? While sci-fi films have conditioned us to believe that space lasers would use visible light, shorter wavelengths actually produce more power. Any observers on the surface would be unlikely to directly see any effects from space warfare, unless a kinetic kill actually breaks a spacecraft up – with debris lighting up as it re-enters the atmosphere. That said, attacks could still affect our lives on Earth, disturbing GPS, television services and even cash withdrawals.
The use of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in space is currently banned under the Outer Space Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty. But not all nuclear armed nations have ratified the latter, including the US and North Korea.
A small number of nuclear tests in space were conducted in the 1960s including Starfish Prime. These resulted in artificial radiation belts forming around the Earth which were still detectable decades after the event – posing a danger for astronauts. Operation Dominic Starfish Prime nuclear test from plane. These radiation belts also disabled half a dozen satellites in low Earth orbit. If the results of Starfish Prime are anything to go by, then clearly it would take only a handful of nuclear detonations to make space unusable for any satellites for decades to come.
- Wars Of The Future May Be Won Or Lost In Space – https://www.ft.com/content/18d81681-f6da-4715-854d-16d1a9216404
- Space Age Weapons of War – https://theconversation.com/space-may-soon-become-a-war-zone-heres-how-that-would-work-125460