Space is now final frontier in global conflict, RAF chief warns

Hostile countries may seek to challenge Britain in space

Kim Sengupta
Defence Editor
Wednesday 16 September 2020 18:14
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'We can no longer assume the unchallenged access to air or space that we have enjoyed for the last three decades'
'We can no longer assume the unchallenged access to air or space that we have enjoyed for the last three decades'

Britain needs to prepare for a new type of conflict with space becoming a dangerous final frontier in which hostile powers are carrying out aggressive acts, the chief of the Royal Air Force has warned.

The lack of an international rule system in an increasingly crowded arena with countries seeking to establish a military presence has created a fraught and risky scenario, said air chief marshal Mike Wigston.

“Space is now a contested warfighting domain, so today we can no longer assume the unchallenged access to air or space that we have enjoyed for the last three decades,” he said.

“We are struggling to find a set of international rules and norms of behaviour that operators in space can apply. People are abusing what until now has been a benign and incredibly useful domain for all of humanity, there is now a militarisation of space.”

The threats in space need to be confronted as much as those in other areas of combat, held the chief of air staff. Speaking at RAF Waddington, the RAF’s main surveillance and reconnaissance centre, he continued: “In an increasingly unstable world, what the RAF does on behalf of the nation is as important as it has ever been. Air and space power gives our government the ability to act worldwide, at range, at speed, precisely and with minimal physical and political risk.

“We continue the fight against the violent extremists of Da’esh, but that represents just a small part of what the RAF is doing at home and abroad, from tackling Russian adventurism in eastern Europe and around our skies and shores, to monitoring threats to our national interests in Space.

“Last year we announced that the UK has become the first formal partner in the US-led Operation Olympic Defender – a multinational military effort and collation formed to strengthen deterrence against hostile actors in space, and we are continuing to build on our ambition of a low earth constellation of responsive small satellites under the Artemis programme."

The RAF currently has around a hundred personnel dealing with space security. The plan, it is believed, is to significantly raise this number in the near future. Cooperation is also being explored with private companies which are involved in putting satellites into the skies.

As well as the threat posed by hostile states, there is the risk of immensely costly accidental damage. Around 900,000 pieces of defunct hardware is now estimated to be floating around in space with the risk of collisions with spacecraft. The UK Space Agency announced this week that it has handed a million pounds to a number of companies to develop advanced sensor technology and other warning systems.

Air Chief Marshal Wigston was one of a number of senior military officers to speak as the Integrated Review into defence, security and foreign policy gets underway. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, is said to have given himself a key role in the review. On Tuesday he was photographed arriving at Downing Street carrying a letter written in 1986 by a retired US Air Force general who had advocated modernisation through embracing technology of the country’s armed forces. The feeling in Whitehall is that the exposure of the letter was not accidental – Mr Cummings intended the letter it to be seen by the media.

Two months ago the UK and US accused Russia of launching an anti-satellite space weapon in what was claimed to be a breach of trust, and a dangerous escalation of the arms race, with risky consequences for the international community.

The Western allies had previously accused the Kremlin of testing anti-satellite weapons. But this is the first time there has been an accusation that an “on orbit” weapon, one that is based in space, has been fired.

Washington and London charge Russia with using subterfuge to hide the operation. They claim that the anti-missile weapon was sent from Cosmos 2543, which was supposedly in space for survey and inspection.

Britain subsequently introduced a UN resolution on security in space, the first of its kind, calling for an urgent discussion among UN members with the aim of reaching a global agreement to avoid actions that may have grave unintended consequences.

The states taking part, it is suggested, should present their views on “on responsible and threatening behaviour” to the UN secretary general for inclusion in a report to the UN General Assembly.

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