The Ripple Effects of a Military Space Skirmish
Article by Ramin Skibba and Undark July 12, 2020 (theatlantic.com)
• On April 22, with the successful launch of a military reconnaissance satellite, Iran joined a growing list of nations having weapons and military systems in orbit. In April, Russia tested a missile program designed to destroy satellites, and in March 2019, India launched an anti-satellite weapon. Many more countries now have space programs, including Iran, North Korea, France, Japan, and Israel.
• Two think-tanks, e.g.: the Secure World Foundation in Broomfield, Colorado, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., both released reports this year (see SWF report here; see CSIS report here) pointing to an increase in countries deploying satellite-destroying weaponry and disruptive technologies that could put all peaceful activities in space at risk. Many of these technologies could ratchet up an arms race or spark an actual skirmish in space.
• “What worries us in the international community is that there aren’t necessarily any guardrails for how people are going to start interfering with others’ space systems,” said Daniel Porras, a space security fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva.
• Thousands of satellites already circle low-Earth orbit (below an altitude of 1,200 miles) to provide key services such as internet access, GPS signals, long-distance communications, and weather information. More than half of those satellites are from the U.S., and most of the rest are from China and Russia. Any missile that smashes into a satellite would disperse thousands of bits of debris. “If you create debris, it might just as well come back and hit one of your own satellites,” says David Burbach, a national security affairs expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “So I think we’re pretty unlikely to see countries actually use those capabilities.”
• When China conducted an anti-satellite missile test in 2007, it created a massive cloud of space junk that drew international condemnation. India’s engineers tried to limit debris from their recent test by conducting it at a low altitude, so that Earth’s gravity would pull the pieces down and they would burn up on descent. But some pieces were flung up to the International Space Station’s orbit. There were no collisions; as of February, only 15 trackable pieces of debris remained in orbit.
• A number of countries are developing new military technologies for space. France is working on laser beams that could dazzle another country’s satellite, preventing it from taking pictures of classified targets. North Korea is studying how to jam radio frequency signals sent to or from a satellite. And Iran is devising cyberattacks that could interfere with satellite systems. Meanwhile, the big three space heavyweights – the U.S., Russia, and China – are already capable of all three approaches, according to the SWF report.
• The big three have also begun to develop satellites that can be used as surveillance devices or weapons. A satellite could maneuver within miles of a rival’s classified satellite, snap photos of equipment and transmit the pictures down to Earth. Or the satellite could sidle up to another and spray its counterpart’s lenses or cover its solar panels, cutting off power and rendering it useless. Russia may be ahead with this technology. Last fall, Space Force General John “Jay” Raymond accused Russia of deploying a satellite near a U.S. spy satellite, which he called a “potentially threatening behavior.”
• The SWF report notes that an incident or misunderstanding could escalate tensions if it’s perceived as an attack. With the new Space Force, the U.S. Defense Department seeks to “strengthen deterrence” and improve capabilities to “defend our vital assets in space,” says Space Force spokesperson Christina Hoggatt. The U.S. military will focus on making satellites more resilient to attack, however, rather than developing offensive weapons, said Hoggatt.
• Tense regional relationships could be particularly unpredictable. For example, if North Korean leaders found themselves in a standoff with South Korea and the U.S., they might launch and detonate a nuclear weapon in space where the radiation would disable most satellites. The U.N. and other international groups – including SWF and the Outer Space Institute, a global research organization based in British Columbia – are working to avoid such scenarios.
• Existing international laws offer little guidance. While the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibit weapons of mass destruction in space, they don’t explicitly limit other kinds of space weapons, tests, or military space forces. So until non-interference rules involving space weaponry are hammered out, unexpected satellite tests will inevitably fuel speculation and paranoia.
On April 22, after several failed attempts, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced a successful launch of what it described as a military reconnaissance satellite. That satellite joined a growing list of weapons and military systems in orbit, including those from Russia (which in April tested a missile program designed to destroy satellites) and India (which launched an anti-satellite weapon in March 2019).
Experts like Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation (SWF), a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado, worry that these developments—all confirmed by the newly rebranded United States Space Force—threaten to lift earthly conflicts to new heights and put all space activities, peaceful and military alike, at risk. Researchers at SWF and at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., both released reports this year on the rapidly evolving state of affairs. The reports suggest that the biggest players in space have upgraded their military abilities, including satellite-destroying weapons and technologies that disrupt spacecraft, by, for instance, blocking data collection or transmission.
Many of these technologies, if deployed, could ratchet up an arms race and even spark a skirmish in space, the SWF and CSIS researchers caution. Blowing up a single satellite scatters debris throughout the atmosphere, said Weeden, co-editor of the SWF report. Such an explosion could hurl projectiles in the paths of other spacecraft and threaten the accessibility of space for everyone.
“Those are absolutely the two best reports to be looking at to get a sense of what’s going on in the space community,” said David Burbach, a national security affairs expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who was not involved in the new research.
Today, Burbach added, the world is very different compared with the Cold War era, when access to space was essentially limited to the United States and the Soviet Union. Many more countries now have space programs, including India, Iran, North Korea, France, Japan, and Israel.
Despite this expansion—and the array of new space weapons—relevant policies and regulatory bodies have remained stagnant. “What worries us in the international community is that there aren’t necessarily any guardrails for how people are going to start interfering with others’ space systems,” said Daniel Porras, a space security fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. “There are no rules of engagement.”
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Center for Strategic and International Studies, Christina Hoggatt, Daniel Porras, David Burbach, General John "Jay" Raymond, Outer Space Institute, Outer Space Treaty of 1967, Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, satellite, Secure World Foundation, space debris, space force, U.S. Defense Department, U.S. Naval War College, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva