If a major superpower war were to erupt – and the drums have recently been beating both on the farthest reaches of eastern Europe as well as the South China Sea – then the new Pearl Harbour will not be on a naval or airbase (though these will be targeted, too), it will be in space.
Satellites will stop working, screens will go blank, military communications will break down. For the person in the street, Google Maps will stop working, and at home, Alexa won’t reply to you. But, actually, war in space is already underway.
The testing of a Russian Anti-Satellite weapon (ASAT) this weekend caused a major stir. With no prior warning, a Russian space weapon was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, near the Arctic Circle, travelled 300 miles above the Earth, and successfully obliterated a defunct Soviet-era spy satellite called Kosmos-1408. The resulting explosion created a cloud of more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris, which pose risks to other orbiting bodies, such as the International Space Station. After the test, the seven astronauts on board retreated to emergency vehicles and warned to take cover in case of impact.
News of the event reverberated through the Pentagon and White House, not least because Washington had not been informed of the operation in advance. It was only the fourth time that a satellite has been taken out by a missile from the ground. Perhaps more importantly that the mess it has created, it signalled that Moscow can “shoot down” satellites in low earth orbit (LEO: up to 2,000km from the Earth), if it so desires.
The test was also a major ratcheting-up of at least five years of Russian ASAT tests. Previous attempts had all missed the intended targets – and analysts at space companies such as Airbus Space say all the evidence is that these previous misses were deliberate. By hitting a target, with the resulting dangerous debris, Moscow was sending a major signal.
It declared that space is a vital area, a new “high ground” for commanders, while showing potential foes that Russia has the weaponry that can deny space to us and our allies, with disastrous consequences for our armed forces.
Space is so vital to militaries that denial of space-based capabilities is an essential task for adversaries. High-speed, long-range communications? Satellites are western militaries’ turn-to systems. Surveillance of potential enemies? Again, space gives you the ability to “fly” over Russia or China, and they can do nothing about it (although, actually, they can – and are). Listening to enemies’ communications? Space gives excellent capabilities to commanders. And geo-location to let soldiers and airmen know where they are, as well as to guide weaponry with incredible accuracy? The US’s Global Positioning System, whose first prototype spacecraft was launched in 1978, revolutionised geo-location and became the military navigation system of choice; the acronym GPS is now synonymous with space-based navigation.
And plans for future defence systems are even more wedded to the use of space. The current F-35 Lightning II fighter (used by the US, as well as over a dozen air forces) is set to use space-based communications satellites to enhance its passing of data between other entities; the Franco-German SCAF fighter programme, as well as Tempest, a fighter aircraft under development by the UK, Italian and Swedish air forces, both involve the use of a Combat Cloud: a system, largely space-based, to share, store and process information.
The importance of space as a domain is also shown by the fact that in 2019, to great fanfare (and no little amount of ridicule), president Donald Trump established US Space Command, complete with suitably Star Trek-like dress uniforms; even the US Space Command logo appeared to boldly go where Captain Kirk et al had gone before. However, France has since renamed its air force as Air and Space Command, and earlier this year, the UK created its own version, under RAF tutelage. This isn’t a rearranging of deckchairs, it is an acknowledgement that, in military terms, space is now seen as a prime combat domain, one worthy of mention in the same breath as land, sea and air.
It was the 1990s that saw a Big Bang in the use of space for military purposes. No longer was it just the generals who had access to space surveillance and communications – troops on the ground and pilots all had GPS embedded into radios and their tanks and aircraft. Satellite technology meant that cruise missiles could now be provided with navigation data over immense distances, allowing them to hit targets with accuracy often measurable in centimetres.
For most of the years since, the West has had near-complete unrestricted access to and use of space. But lately the balance has started to shift. Russia is now a regular jammer of GPS in radios and satellites around the Baltic region, routinely targeting NATO exercises; RAF Typhoons flying on operations to defeat Isil have experienced Russian jamming. The A400M Atlas transport aircraft used in the evacuation of Kabul reported operational failures in their space-based navigation and communication systems. The eastern Mediterranean is regularly jammed across many frequencies.
To show how widely adversaries have been looking to deny access to space systems, Iran has repeatedly jammed GPS used by ships in and around the Straits of Hormuz, and seems to have used the same technology to bring down an American stealth drone in 2011. There have even been reports that terror groups have been testing satellite jamming systems. If one needs proof that a space war is underway, surely this is it?
China has been developing and testing laser-jamming equipment on a wide range of satellites, and is considered by US Space Command to be a potentially major threat. Although not as advanced as Russia, Beijing has also tested ASAT weapons, and seeks to pursue this capability. With the pace of development of an astoundingly wide range of military technologies, no one should doubt China’s capability to up the ante. In August, it tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that flew in a low-earth orbit and circled the globe before hitting its target – in an aggressive display that stunned US officials, and was described by one military expert as a “game-changer”.
Can the threats be met and reduced? Yes: but it will almost certainly have to be an international effort. Even the US cannot afford to develop, deploy and run all of the ground and space-based systems that will be needed to defend surveillance and communications satellites – and there is the issue of where a lot of these have to be based. Yes, the UK sees itself investing many billions in space-based defence capabilities. But we cannot do it on our own, and it would be a waste of money to try to do so.
War in space is here today. But as it is being fought, it’s a long way from space combat as depicted in Star Wars, or in James Bond Moonraker. But the massive technological and market disruption caused by the billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk means that the types of manned craft that was once the dream of sci-fi enthusiasts are now far closer. It is arguably just a question of when, not if.
The Telegraph, UK.
Pic: The Daily beast