An Iranian satellite launched by Russia lifts off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan in August amid controversy Moscow could use it for Ukraine surveillance. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty
By Ian Sample,
Published by The Guardian, 28 May 2023
Threat posed by ‘provocative’ Russia and China has left US no choice but to prepare for orbital skirmishes
The US is ready for conflict in outer space, according to a senior military official, after developing anti-satellite technologies to counter the threats posed by “provocative” countries such as Russia and China.
Brig Gen Jesse Morehouse at US Space Command, the arm of the military responsible for space operations, said Russian aggression and China’s vision to become the dominant space power by mid-century, had left the US with “no choice” but to prepare for orbital skirmishes.
“The United States of America is ready to fight tonight in space if we have to,” Morehouse told reporters in a briefing at the US embassy in London. “If someone was to threaten the United States of America, or any of our interests, including those of our allies and partners with whom we have treaties of mutual defence support, we are ready to fight tonight.”
Satellites underpin great swathes of modern life, from banking systems to weather forecasting, and are crucial for military operations through intelligence gathering, communications, navigation and guidance. But an overreliance on satellites means that an attack on a country’s orbital assets could have far-reaching consequences.
Four countries, namely China, the US, India and Russia, have tested anti-satellite capabilities by destroying their own satellites with missiles from the ground. But such demonstrations, which the US unilaterally banned last year, create vast clouds of debris that put other satellites at risk for decades.
When Russia shot down one of its own satellites in 2021, the explosion showered its orbit with more than 1,500 trackable fragments. “When you create that debris cloud and it lingers on orbit for decades, it’s almost like detonating a nuclear weapon in your own back yard,” Morehouse said. “You pay the price too.”
Faced with a new space race, Morehouse said on Thursday the US would continue to develop anti-satellite technologies “not because we want to fight tonight, but because that’s the best way to deter conflict from happening”, adding it would do so “without engaging in irresponsible tests”.
Russia and China are working on spacecraft capable of anti-satellite operations. In 2020, the US accused Russia of launching a projectile from one of two satellites that were trailing a US spy satellite.
Meanwhile, China has launched a satellite with a robotic arm capable of grabbing other satellites, and has developed a way to place explosives in the thruster nozzles of adversary’s satellites. The explosives are designed to go undetected for long periods and when detonated resemble an innocent engine malfunction.
Beyond weapons that grab, crash into or shoot down their targets are other approaches that jam satellite broadcasts, or damage the hardware with lasers, chemical sprays or high-power microwaves.
“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,” Morehouse said. “Can you develop a capability that can be used to counter satellites, that works very well, and validate that it works without having to create a debris cloud on orbit every time you do so? Absolutely.”
Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has threatened to target western commercial satellites it considers to be involved in the war. Shortly after the invasion began, Elon Musk agreed to supply Starlink constellation satellites to Ukraine, which rapidly became crucial to the country’s military. But in February, Starlink said it would prevent the satellites from being used to control Ukrainian drones, saying it never intended the technology to be used for “offensive purposes”.
Morehouse said one of the lessons from the conflict was how resilient Starlink proved to be. The communications network comprises thousands of small satellites in low Earth orbit which are easily replaced and updated to counter the threats they face. “It makes no sense for Russia to even try to shoot one down because there’s thousands of them and they don’t have thousands of anti-satellite missiles,” he said.
“Clearly the Ukrainians have no organic military space capabilities to attack in any way shape or form,” he added. “But … they’ve been very aggressive in trying to negate those commercial services, which I think is going to be a normal part of warfare in the future. Satellite communications are becoming more and more common across many militaries, and so countering them is something that many nations are interested in.”
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