Surge of action essential if space warfare is to be avoided

President space cadet: the US recognises the rights of private companies to claim resources in space

by David Webb, chair of UK CND

· The US and the UK claim that they have caught Russia making an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test. Testing an ASAT weapon is not unusual—the US, Russia, China and India have all done it, sometimes by destroying one of their own satellites with missiles fired from Earth or from a high-flying plane.

However, in this case the ASAT is claimed to be a projectile fired from a satellite on 15 July.

The Russian satellite, Cosmos 2543, was released in December 2019 from another satellite, Cosmos 2542, launched the previous month. This action aroused interest and then suspicion when they both altered their orbits to match the orbit of a classified US reconnaissance satellite.

General John Raymond, the Commander of the US Space Force was seemingly annoyed that the long held US position of ‘dominating space’ may be challenged and told reporters that this action was “consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk.”

New vulnerability
The increasing military and civilian use of satellites exposes a new area of vulnerability for those states (such as the US and UK) which have become dependent on space for information, communication, banking, and political and strategic decision making.

Military operations around the globe are also dependent on and managed through satellites.
However, satellites are difficult to defend and therefore vulnerable to attack. A lack of trust and international cooperation means that the actions of one state are often seen in the worst possible light by another and then used as reasons for accelerating their own military space programs.

The US, China and Russia have all tested the manoeuvring of small satellites and Rendezvous and Proximity Operations with others placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or Geostationary Earth Orbit.

Satellite manoeuvring has many possible applications, including the inspection, repair or refuelling of space objects, the removal of space debris and ASAT activity. The US has a Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP, aka Hornet) in which satellites routinely carry out so-called satellite inspection operations.

‘Kill vehicle’
The new development is that Cosmos 2543 is accused of firing a projectile close to another Russian satellite. This kind of operation was also a problem in 2004 when the US Missile Defence Agency were planning to launch a Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE)—an experimental satellite designed to pick out a missile from its exhaust plume to improve the targeting of interceptors.

NFIRE was also to carry a sensor platform, aka a ‘kill vehicle’, which would be fired from the satellite to get as close as possible to its target.

Although the Pentagon insisted that the term “kill vehicle” referred to a category of space vehicles, rather than its function on the test, there was huge controversy, with Russia accusing the US of breaking “a long-held taboo” and launching “the first weapon into the global commons of outer space.”

The kill vehicle was removed from the test and replaced it with a laser communications payload and NFIRE was retired in 2015. Now it is likely that the Russian test will be used by the US to justify developing and testing its own killer satellites.

The US will also, of course, be supported by the UK which will be keen to promote the development of mini-satellites and launches from the newly developed spaceports (see Voice 538).

The idea that outer space should be a ‘global commons’ comes from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) initiated by Russia, the US and the UK with 110 state parties.

Space arms race
But it looks like the OST is another treaty that the US is walking away from. The US, the UK both talk of taking warfighting into space, Donald Trump’s aggressive military Space Force and the US now formally recognise the rights of private companies to claim resources in space are not in the spirit of the OST.

All this, and the refusal of the US to support moves in the UN on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Space put forward for many years by Russia and China, indicate that an arms race in space is most definitely with us.

It will need a surge in popular and political resistance to prevent a disastrous war in space and we need to be organising and mobilising against it now.

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