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Communications: The Space War

We are, globally, ever-more reliant on communications technology which of course, includes the internet for our daily lives. Yet we are also equally increasingly reliant upon nothing happening to disrupt that technology.

Left: Getty Images

What if something does? There are growing reports of cyber-technology being used and in the UK, one of the most notorious was the adverse effect on the National Health Service (NHS) recently, when an attack rendered its computer systems virtually inoperative.

One of the criticisms aimed at the NHS was that its systems were out-of-date, which is why they were so easily compromised. But is the UK, and for that matter elsewhere, really ready for any sustained or comprehensive attack on our ability to communicate? With a general election in the offing, UK attention has been focused on that and a domestic agenda for a new government but are there other aspects to running the country that are being missed?

An article in the Daily Telegraph, written by Sarah Knapton, this week suggests that this may be so, although something is being done. The article says:

The Ministry of Defence is preparing for a space war within the next 15 years, and has awarded £1.5 million to companies who can devise ways to protect UK satellites. Britain currently has more than 50 satellites in orbit, and also relies heavily on international systems such as GPS, telecommunications networks and weather monitoring services.

But countries including China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are developing anti-satellite missiles, jammers, high-power microwaves, robots, lasers and chemical sprayers which could bring the country to a standstill.

This week, the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) announced major funding for 12 projects selected from its ‘Space to Innovate’ competition which aims to boost resilience to space threats. Speaking at the UK Space Conference in Newport, Andrew Ash from the space team at DSTL, said the government is planning for the ‘increasing militarisation’ of space and the possibility of a conflict within the next 15 years.

“We’re trying to think about where we could be in 15 years hence,” he said. “We’re looking at a range of possible futures to try and make sure we are robust as we can be to future circumstances. One of the things when discussing the future of space that we start to see is increasing move towards the normalisation of space as a war-fighting domain.

“There could be a space conflict that has actually occurred within this time frame. When we start to think about conflict in space, we look at how we can enhance our space situational awareness systems so that we can understand what other nations are doing - are they actually aligning with the international norms of behaviour? - so we can start to build things like deterrents.”

Projects to be funded include an infra-red system for spotting approaching threats, designed by MDA Space and Robotics based in Harwell, Oxfordshire. Oxford Space Systems is also developing a method of changing the signature of a satellite using origami techniques, to confuse attackers. The money is for initial development and further investment is expected next year

Dr Matthew Broadhead, Principal Advisor for the Space Programme at DSTL said: “Characterising space objects and their intent is a massive challenge when things are 36,000km away. We’re trying to leverage the best of space technology for defence advantage and drive that innovation where we think its absence.”

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on a celestial body and also prohibits using celestial bodies for military bases, testing, or maneuvers. But there is little to stop countries developing anti-satellite technology.

Both Iran and North Korea have demonstrated counterspace capabilities, including GPS and satellite communication jamming. North Korea also has ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles that can reach orbit and could target satellites in a conflict. China is also continuing to improve its anti-satellite weapons and has recently combined its cyberspace, space and electronic weapons units in one single military operation. Beijing has also demonstrated it can shoot satellites out of the sky. According to US intelligence, Russia has developed a wide range of ground-based EW systems to destroy GPS, tactical communications, satellite communications, and radars.

There are also concerns that some robotic technology currently being developed to fix satellites or remove space debris could also be repurposed for military aims. In 2017, Russia deployed an “inspector satellite” which it claimed would diagnose faults in orbiting satellites. But the US said its behaviour was inconsistent with its stated goal.

America also believes Russia will have ballistic missiles capable of destroying satellites within the next few years and is currently building a laser system designed to disable space networks.

President Vladimir Putin called it a “new type of strategic weapon,” and the Russian Defense Ministry asserted that it is capable of “fighting satellites in orbit.”

Commenting after the announcement of the Space to Innovate competition winners, UK Defence Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “Faced with growing threats to UK interests, programmes like those selected today will boost our intelligence capability and help us stay ahead of our adversaries.”

Mysterious US space plane arrives back after long, unexplained mission

Also reported this week, this time in The Independent and written by Andrew Griffin, came brief coverage of a little-known piece of US space hardware. Griffin writes:

The US's mysterious space plane has come back to Earth – and still nobody will explain what it is for.

The craft, known as X-37B, has been in the sky since 2017. When it dropped down at Nasa's Kennedy Space Center over the weekend, it brought an end to the 780-day mission that is the longest ever carried out by the reusable vehicle. The Air Force said the mission was a success and the craft had achieved its objectives, though not what those objectives are.

The X-37B has been on five such flights in the past. The next is planned next year, when it will launch into space from Cape Canaveral.

"Each successive mission advances our nation's space capabilities," said Air Force secretary Barbara Barrett. But she, like everyone else involved wit the project, has not said what those capabilities are or what happens in those missions.

The X-37B looks like a space shuttle but it a quarter of the size, and is only 29 feet long. It is launched on a rocket but then flies around above the Earth on its own, conducting work including experiments from the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Since the US isn't saying what this craft is actually for, its fair to suggest that it may well have something to do with US national security, so we aren't likely to know more anytime soon.

Whatever the purpose and intent of the US spacecraft, what we do know is that a breakdown in our ability to communicate will be much more devastating than merely dropping bombs on the local telephone exchange and one thing does seem apparent; just as control of the skies has always been considered of paramount importance in armed conflicts around the world throughout history (at least since the aeroplane was invented), so control of space around the Earth will, and already is, equally so.

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