factory in space

Credit: Pop Culture Maniacs

The Next Arms Race


Ask the average person about the role of satellites in modern society, and most will quickly think of sports broadcasting and Sky dishes. On deeper reflection they will think of GPS and sat nav, and then quickly progress to military and ‘spy’ satellites. And they’d be right, these are all important examples of space based services which play an increasingly integral role in how our societies operate. However, while these elements are important, they are only part of a much wider scope of influence that is provided from space. Object tracking, secure communication, industrial scale precision farming, weather monitoring and forecasting, asset degradation, environmental monitoring, engineering and construction, shipping control…the list goes on. The point is that our quality of life is increasingly dependent on services provided from space. More and more we rely on these delicate machines silently suspended around our planet, safe in the vacuum of space.

But are they safe? Last month the UK Ministry of Defence published a Defence Space Strategy paper with the catchy title ‘Operationalising the Space Domain’. The point of the paper was to highlight the threats and hazards facing satellites in orbit, and to outline the UK’s approach to defending them. This was a timely piece of research, particularly given the recent act of aggression from Russia. While warfare still involves traditionally destructive weapons, its tentacles extend far out of sight. Cyber warfare is a growing threat and has been a focus of investment across governments of all stripes. Russia in particular is often cited as an aggressive player with already extensive capability to infiltrate and disrupt operational and communication networks. From an offensive perspective, space is simply the final frontier. The information supplied from space can be disrupted on Earth by impeding the means of reception, as experienced in Svalbard in January this year when Space Norway’s main submarine cable was mysteriously severed, or by going to the source.

The strategic significance of the fragile machines in orbit is well understood and has resulted in a sharp increase in anti-satellite weaponry. These extend from laser and microwave jamming techniques to projectile weapons and even other satellites capable of ‘throwing’ other machines out of orbit (such as China’s recently tested Shijian-21 ‘space debris mitigation satellite‘). Protecting our national and global security increasingly depends on protecting our assets in space – and this new chapter of warfare is only just beginning.