STAR WARS: THE FIRST STRIKE?

Geopo­lit­i­cal ten­sions on Earth are mov­ing to the skies as mar­kets and states in­creas­ingly rely on space tech, writes Hasan Chowd­hury

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page -

When the US first caught a Rus­sian satel­lite tail­ing its own space­craft in Jan­uary, there was rea­son to be sus­pi­cious. But af­ter a near-iden­ti­cal Kos­mos 2543 satel­lite fired a mis­sile­like pro­jec­tile on July 15, that sus­pi­cion turned into pub­lic alarm and anger.

Gen­eral John Ray­mond of Don­ald Trump’s newly minted US Space Force claimed the move was “con­sis­tent with the Krem­lin’s pub­lished mil­i­tary doc­trine to em­ploy weapons” that threat­ened its hi-tech gear in space.

The head of the UK’s space direc­torate fol­lowed suit. “Ac­tions of this kind threaten the peace­ful use of space and risk caus­ing de­bris that could pose a threat to satel­lites and space sys­tems,” said Air Vice-Mar­shal Har­vey Smyth.

Though the pro­jec­tile didn’t hit a tar­get, the in­ci­dent, which Rus­sia claimed was not a step-up in weapons test­ing, threat­ens a great es­ca­la­tion in ten­sions in the skies.

“Any con­flict in space will be as a di­rect re­sult of con­flict on Earth,” says Chris Newman, pro­fes­sor of space law and pol­icy at Northum­bria Univer­sity.

Rus­sia isn’t the only one. North Korea has shown that it has bal­lis­tic mis­siles and space launch ve­hi­cles that can reach or­bit, while China and In­dia have shown their abil­ity to shoot satel­lites out of the sky.

With thou­sands of satel­lites in space dic­tat­ing ev­ery­thing from nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems to fi­nan­cial mar­kets, at­tacks on them hold un­par­al­leled risks.

A mis­sile pro­jec­tion that hits a satel­lite tar­get could lead to a “sig­nif­i­cant de­bris-gen­er­at­ing event” that Newman says would “harm the space en­vi­ron­ment”. If even one satel­lite were de­stroyed, the reper­cus­sions would be sig­nif­i­cant. In what’s known as the Kessler syn­drome, the gen­er­a­tion of de­bris could lead to a cas­cade of col­li­sions that rip­ple out­wards and cause dam­age to any num­ber of space­craft. “Do­ing that is po­ten­tially putting one’s own space as­sets at risk,” Newman says. “To ac­tu­ally see a de­struc­tion of a satel­lite is, I would say, quite far down the line of op­tions in space.” An at­tack in space could just as eas­ily be­gin on Earth. Jam­ming in­volves the in­ter­fer­ence of com­mu­ni­ca­tions with sig­nals of a sim­i­lar ra­dio fre­quency to those oc­cur­ring be­tween satel­lites. Satel­lites must stay in con­stant con­tact with ground sta­tions, which gives ma­li­cious hack­ers am­ple op­por­tu­nity for dis­rup­tion.

“One might ar­gue that space war­fare is al­ready oc­cur­ring through ter­res­trial sys­tems,” says Ralph Dins­ley, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of North­ern Space and Se­cu­rity, a satel­lite track­ing firm. “It is known that in cer­tain re­gions of the world there are in­ter­fer­ences with GPS sig­nals on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.” There have been var­i­ous at­tempts over the years to have a space arms treaty in place but they have mostly failed to ma­te­ri­alise. The Outer Space Treaty, es­tab­lished in 1967, pro­hibits the sta­tion­ing of nu­clear weapons and weapons of mass de­struc­tion in space. But there is no to­tal ban on weapons.

Track­ing what’s in space is dif­fi­cult too. A so-called space cat­a­logue man­aged by the US gives in­sight into how many ob­jects are within prox­im­ity to the Earth, but as Dins­ley says, there is “scant in­for­ma­tion” and know­ing what the true func­tion of a satel­lite is in space is dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine. That’s be­cause many satel­lites have dual func­tions which can be both be­nign and dan­ger­ous at the same time. GPS, for ex­am­ple, is pri­mar­ily a mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tion that just so hap­pens to also have uses in nav­i­ga­tion and as a tim­ing sig­nal for trades in bank­ing. “A sin­gle-use satel­lite with a malev­o­lent pur­pose, it’s easy to say that should be pro­hib­ited,” Newman says. “Where in­ter­na­tional law strug­gles is the tech­nolo­gies where com­mu­ni­ca­tions can be used on the bat­tle­field as well as for ter­res­trial com­mu­ni­ca­tions.” With the threat of both cy­ber and phys­i­cal at­tacks on satel­lites ris­ing, stake­hold­ers have had to step up prepa­ra­tions to de­fend against such an event. Last year, the Min­istry of De­fence awarded £1.5m to UK com­pa­nies who could help pre­pare it for the “in­creas­ing mil­i­tari­sa­tion” of space within the next 15 years. Among the de­fence tech­nolo­gies are an in­frared cam­era de­vice de­signed by Har­well-based MDA Space and Ro­bot­ics that can no­tify satel­lites of any ap­proach­ing threat. Ox­ford Space Sys­tems is de­vel­op­ing tech that con­founds at­tack­ers by “chang­ing the sig­na­ture of a satel­lite”, while Har­well As­so­ciates Lim­ited is work­ing on tools to keep a close eye on ob­jects “around strate­gic as­sets” more than 20,000 miles above the Earth’s sur­face. An­other firm called Ve­oware is us­ing gy­ro­scopes to give satel­lites an un­prece­dented de­gree of

‘One might ar­gue that space war­fare is al­ready oc­cur­ring. There are in­ter­fer­ences with GPS sig­nals on a reg­u­lar ba­sis’

‘I don’t think peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate how much we don’t know about what’s go­ing on up there’

con­trol for move­ment and ro­ta­tion. Ear­lier this week, Ben Wal­lace, the De­fence Sec­re­tary, said that the UK would look to bol­ster its abil­ity to thwart threats in space as part of the in­te­grated de­fence re­view. “The world I knew while a serv­ing sol­dier at the end of the Cold War has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion,” he said.

“It is mov­ing at an un­prece­dented pace and de­fence must move with it. Our ad­ver­saries go fur­ther, deeper and higher.”

For years, the UK’s re­sponse to ad­ver­saries in space has long de­pended on the lead­er­ship of the US, but this may not cut it for much longer. As Newman points out with the Rus­sian pro­jec­tile, “we only know about this be­cause the US has said it”. “I don’t think peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate how much we don’t know about what’s go­ing on up there,” he says.

“I think we can say with a de­gree of cer­tainty that what has hap­pened is a Rus­sian satel­lite has ejected a high­speed ob­ject in what is likely an anti-satel­lite test.”

The lack of independen­t ver­i­fi­ca­tion may be a grave is­sue for the UK. Ear­lier this month, the Gov­ern­ment won a fiercely fought con­test with a $500m (£388m) bid, in tan­dem with In­dia’s Bharti En­ter­prises, to take a 45pc stake in col­lapsed satel­lite op­er­a­tor OneWeb, putting it in the fast lane in an in­ter­na­tional race to de­velop next-gen­er­a­tion satel­lite tech­nol­ogy.

The suc­cess­ful bid means the UK will po­si­tion it­self at the front of a pack of global play­ers aim­ing to cre­ate an al­ter­na­tive to the age­ing GPS sys­tem that has come to power so many of our vi­tal ser­vices on the ground, while po­ten­tially un­lock­ing ul­tra-high-speed broad­band with a con­stel­la­tion of hun­dreds of satel­lites. But with new power comes new dan­ger, and the threat the UK faces in space could be its most dif­fi­cult chal­lenge yet.

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