Loom­ing threat of new arms race in space

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Lau­rent Barthelemy

Killer satel­lites, blind­ing lasers, so­phis­ti­cated jam­mers: The world’s mil­i­tary pow­ers are qui­etly ready­ing for a war in outer space - at the risk of fuel­ing a dan­ger­ous new arms race. US mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have in re­cent years sounded grow­ing alarm about the po­ten­tial vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of their satel­lites, which un­der­pin US mil­i­tary power. Ini­tially, the re­serve of the United States and the Soviet Union, space has now be­come ac­ces­si­ble to an ever-ex­pand­ing mul­ti­tude of na­tions and pri­vate firms.

And Mos­cow and Beijing are keen to show off their space-at­tack ca­pa­bil­i­ties, a deep worry for US strate­gists. “We are chang­ing the cul­ture in our space en­ter­prise be­cause we need to get our heads around... what hap­pens if a con­flict on Earth ex­tends to space. How will we de­fend our as­sets?” Air Force Sec­re­tary Deb­o­rah Lee James said at an event last month.

In 2015, the mys­te­ri­ous be­hav­ior of a Rus­sian satel­lite fu­eled spec­u­la­tion about Mos­cow de­vel­op­ing pos­si­ble at­tack satel­lites, ca­pa­ble of ma­neu­ver­ing through space and ap­proach­ing a tar­get. With­out warn­ing or ex­pla­na­tion, the craft po­si­tioned it­self for sev­eral months be­tween two In­tel­sat satel­lites in geo­sta­tion­ary or­bit, com­ing to within 10 kilo­me­ters of one, be­fore even­tu­ally mov­ing away again.

“Our satel­lites are cru­cial for our na­tional se­cu­rity in­fra­struc­ture,” said Vic­to­ria Sam­son of the Se­cure World Foun­da­tion, which works to de­velop the safe and sus­tain­able use of space “The fact that an­other en­tity can come close to them and in­ter­fere with their work is very un­set­tling to US na­tional se­cu­rity,” she added.

A ‘Mil­i­ta­rized’ Space

China, too, has demon­strated its abil­ity to send a small, low-or­bit satel­lite ca­pa­ble of ma­neu­ver­ing to­ward an­other craft. Teresa Hitchens, se­nior re­search scholar at the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional and Se­cu­rity Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, said that China in 2013 launched three small satel­lites into or­bit, one of which had a robotic grap­pling arm. For the Pen­tagon and many US ex­perts, it is clear Amer­ica should speed up mil­i­tary ef­forts in space, and pre­vent its com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work from be­com­ing the armed forces’ Achilles heel.

“The De­part­ment of De­fense has ag­gres­sively moved out to de­velop re­sponses that we see com­ing from China and Rus­sia. I be­lieve it’s es­sen­tial that we go faster in our re­sponses,” Gen­eral John Hyten, head of the Air Force’s Space Com­mand, told law­mak­ers in Septem­ber. El­bridge Colby, se­nior fel­low at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity said the United States must de­velop the abil­ity to de­fend its own space as­sets. “As hu­man be­ings and more states are able to op­er­ate in space, it will just be­come a re­al­ity that it will be­come more mil­i­ta­rized,” he told AFP. “The United States should de­velop ef­fec­tive but lim­itable forms of space at­tack, par­tic­u­larly non-ki­netic ones that do not result in space de­bris.”

But other ex­perts say the United States should show re­straint, not­ing the Pen­tagon may al­ready have some of the of­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties that China and Rus­sia are hop­ing to ac­quire. “I think it’s be­ing hyped some­what by those in the US na­tional se­cu­rity com­mu­nity that have never felt com­fort­able with the US los­ing its role as the dom­i­nant space power,” Sam­son said.

The United States has since 2004 pos­sessed a mo­bile jamming sta­tion which, from the ground, can block satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Amer­ica has al­ready tested us­ing a mis­sile to blow up a satel­lite, and has re­cently ac­quired four satel­lites that can ma­neu­ver in or­bit and in­spect or mon­i­tor other space ob­jects.

In­ter­na­tional Code of Con­duct

Hitchens, the Mary­land re­searcher, said Rus­sia and China are quickly catch­ing up to where the Amer­i­cans are. “What you have is a brew­ing,” she said. It’s a lead up “to a po­ten­tial arms race in space, where peo­ple start de­vel­op­ing things for real.” Space war could be dev­as­tat­ing for hu­mans, as a sin­gle ex­ploded satel­lite would leave a trail of de­bris that in turn could dam­age other satel­lites in a chain re­ac­tion of de­struc­tion. “We are at a very dan­ger­ous place right now: if we ac­tu­ally ever fought a war that would in­volve anti-satel­lite weapon, we would dam­age the space en­vi­ron­ment to such an ex­tent that it would make it very dif­fi­cult to have the ben­e­fits that satel­lites pro­vide to so­ci­ety,” Hitchens said.

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