UK preparing for ‘exo-atmospheric nuclear attack’ as greatest threat in space war, government report warns

Such an event would be a ‘permanent kill’ scenario worse than any electronic weapons or orbital anti-satellite weapons, a new report states

Adam Smith
Wednesday 02 February 2022 13:46 GMT

The government says space will be a key future battlefield with the most dangerous threat being a “exo-atmospheric nuclear attack”.

In a report from the Ministry of Defence, the government body described such an event as a “permanent kill” scenario; this would be vastly more dangerous than either electronic warfare, laser dazzling, cyber attacks, or orbital ASATs (anti-satellite weapons).

“The space domain could be disrupted (either temporarily or long-term and potentially at critical moments) or targeted by threats ranging from non-kinetic effects and electronic warfare to kinetic attack”, the report states.

The report, however, does not go into further detail about the likelihood of such an attack. The Independent has reached out to the Ministry of Defence for more information.

“Space has brought unprecedented advantages and new threats. Daily life is reliant on space and, for the Armed Forces, space underpins vital, battle-winning technologies”, Ben Wallace, the MP Secretary of State for Defence, wrote in the report.

“Space enables our ability to command and control globally, provide surveillance, [and] intelligence”, as well as warning against missiles.

Access to space has become cheaper and easier with the deployment of mega-constellations and re-usable rockets, such as those being developed by SpaceX and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, making the area more “competitive, congested and contested”.

Countries that could be hostile to the United Kingdom such as Russia and China – both mentioned specifically in the report – will be able to use electronic warfare, direct energy weapons, co-orbital anti-satellite weapons and direct ascent anti-satellite missiles to “intercept and exploit satellite communications and threaten and potentially destroy our space systems”.

In order to protect against this, the government is “considering potential opportunities” for improving Skynet – the defence satellite – with greater sensors, including quantum field sensors, secondary payloads, and more space-based reconnaissance.

The report focuses on pre-emptive defences through intelligence gathering. “We will continue to monitor, seek to understand and, where appropriate, respond to actions that are contrary to our interests in space”, it says.

“We welcome NATO’s recognition that attacks to, from or within space represent a clear challenge to the security of the Alliance and could lead to the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. We will seek appropriate responses in accordance with international and domestic law.”

The report also mentions that there are “numerous environmental hazards that have significant potential to disrupt our capabilities both in space and on the ground”, such as space debris and weather such as solar flares “which could reduce the effectiveness of satellites or induce undesirable effects.”

These challenges will be addressed in a later report from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Experts have suggested banning all anti-satellite weapons because of their potential impact on space debris. Astronauts, space agencies, and government officials asked the United Nations in a letter to ban weapons that “employ high velocity physical strikes through the use of a ‘kill vehicle’ or shrapnel to destroy or disable objects in orbit.”

Russia ”conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon” in July 2020, according to United States Space Command, and again in December that year.

China is also developing missiles and electronic weapons that could target high- and low-orbiting satellites, according to a Pentagon report.

The United States, too, is exploring the space. Reports suggest it could unveil its own space weapon that could apparently degrade or destroy a target satellite or spacecraft. Such a weapon would have been unveiled in 2020, but the pandemic and plans to withdraw from Afghanistan under the Trump administration delayed such an announcement.

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