May the fourth be with you!

May the fourth be with you!

by Dave Webb

The Star Wars movies make it quite clear who the good and bad guys are. The bad guys do evil things all the time and the good guys have a mysterious space force that helps them overcome the evil.

In reality, back on Earth, space forces are lining up for a battle for space domination!

The major military forces of the world have become increasingly reliant on space satellite systems, for communication, navigation, surveillance, reconnaissance and the command, control and targeting of missiles and drone operations. Military Space Forces are common and have been established by NATO and the U.S., Russia, China, India, the U.K. and elsewhere. Outer space is seen as a new arena for warfare with satellites becoming integral components of war-fighting on Earth.

However, satellites are vulnerable to attack and a range of anti-satellite weapons are being developed by the major military space powers. There are cyber, laser and microwave systems to disable satellite functions, and even satellites that can rendezvous with target satellites and either capture or disable them. The most demonstrated weapon though, is an anti-ballistic missile launched from the ground (or at sea) to hit a target satellite in space and disable it by the energy of the impact. No warhead is required. The U.S., China, Russia and India have all demonstrated their ability to do this, mostly by destroying one of their own satellites. Direct impact systems are not idea though. They result in a great deal of space debris which, travelling at some 25,000 kph become hazardous to other space objects. Certain areas of space are already becoming overcrowded, so thousands of pieces of additional debris create difficulties for any space-faring nation.

The idea of conflict in space is not new. The US military has been concerned about maintaining a dominance in outer space since the launch of the Russian Sputnik in 1957 that highlighted the possibility of long- range nuclear missiles reaching the U.S. mainland. The race to the moon was really a race for superiority in space technology and, when President Reagan proposed the creation of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) in 1983, the program of ground and space-based weapons systems and an anti-missile shield to protect the US became known as “Star Wars”.

In 1997 the U.S. Space Command openly stated its aim to dominate and control space in its Vision for 2020 document which describes the goal of the US as being, to achieve  “Full Spectrum Dominance” – military superiority on land, at sea, in the air, in space, and of information. When Donald Trump launched the U.S. Space Force in 2019, he said that it marked “a big moment” and that there was “going to be a lot of things happening in space. Because space is the world’s newest warfighting domain” and Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, added: “Maintaining American dominance in that domain is now the mission of the United States Space Force.”

Of course, this comes at a cost and, in 2023, the U.S. spent $38.9 billion on military space projects. China spent $8.8 billion, Russia $2.6 billion, and France $1.3 billion. Japan, the U.K., the EU and Germany also spent over $500 million each.

A recent article in the Guardian reported how Russia had vetoed a UN resolution to prevent a nuclear arms race in space. Previously there had been headlines that the US had warned that Russia was working on a new nuclear space-based anti-satellite weapon.

Details of the new weapon remain vague, but it seems that it is nowhere near actually being deployed. However, if and when it were to be, then it would be in violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST). The OST was initiated by the U.S., the Soviet Union (Russia) and the U.K. declares that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind” and forbids placing “in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction”. The OST forms the basis of International Space Law, and 115 states are party to it, including the U.S., U.K., Russia, China and India.

Although the treaty does not allow the stationing of nuclear weapons in orbit, it unfortunately does not prevent them from passing through space, and so long-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that enter outer space on the way to their targets are not covered by the Treaty.

An electromagnetic pulse resulting from a nuclear explosion in space would damage any electronic device in the vicinity. However, such an explosion would cause indiscriminate damage to unshielded systems in space and on Earth, meaning that Russian infrastructure could also be knocked out.

So, why did Russia vote against the UN resolution? Do they have something to hide? Maybe they do, but many political games are played out in the UN and a number of resolutions on the militarisation and weaponisation of space are tabled regularly at the UN General Assembly (GA). A resolution calling for “International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space”, is adopted every year without a vote. Russia and China also introduce an annual resolution on a treaty for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. The resolution is overwhelmingly supported – except by the U.S. who vote against and Israel, who abstain. The UK has supported, abstained, or voted against in different years and resolutions to the GA cannot be adopted unless all agree to them.

It seems that some nations are so suspicious that they will not support resolutions put forward by certain other parties.

In May last year, Brigadier General Jesse Morehouse at U.S. Space Command, said that Russian aggression and China’s vision to become the dominant space power by mid-century, had left the U.S. with “no choice” but to prepare for orbital skirmishes.

Morehouse said “We have a variety of capabilities we can bring to bear, and we’ll continue to develop capabilities that allow us to maintain a credible deterrence posture.”

And so, it goes on – accusations, threats and counterthreats.

As international tensions increase and all sides build up their space dependent military forces, the possibility of a war in or from space is becoming a real possibility.  If a vital satellite should malfunction at such a time and another nation is blamed – it could lead to nuclear disaster.

Advanced space weapons increase vulnerabilities and threats, transforming space from the “common heritage” of humanity into a “high frontier” for space warfare where weapons are used “to, from, in and through” space, contains considerable risks for all states, making attempts to defend “space assets” potentially obsolete.

Meanwhile, we should not forget that we have ground-based facilities in Yorkshire that support the U.S. Space Command. The U.S. spy base at Menwith Hill, near Harrogate, is also a downlink station for the U.S. space-based missile defence system. Satellite data on the detection and tracking of space objects is downloaded there and passed on to the U.S. The powerful Ballistic Missile early Warning radar at Fylingdales on the North Yorkshire Moors is also part of the US Space Command’s space tracking and surveillance system that monitors all activity in space.

The U.K.’s days of empire are over, and we should have learnt that nobody wins when empires clash – in space or on Earth.