The war in space


IT cannot have been a coincidence that days after President Donald Trump announced the formation of the US Space Force as the sixth American armed service, a Washington official should have revealed the “very abnormal behavior” of a Russian space satellite.

State Department assistant secretary Yleem Poblete told a conference in Switzerland that the satellite, launched last October, could possibly be a weapon since it was not operating in a way consistent with standard observation and communications satellites. The implication is it could be an anti-satellite weapon, which Poblete said would raise a “serious concern”.

This of course is cant. American research has been going on for years into just such a device and it will doubtless be one of the very first programs to be placed under the control of the US Space Force. And if Moscow raises its own “serious concern” about such an American weapon, it will be dismissed in much the same way that the Russians this week mocked Poblete’s remarks. A senior Russian diplomat said her comments were “the same unfounded, slanderous accusations based on suspicions, on suppositions and so on”.

As a future potential war in space takes firmer shape, it can be expected the propaganda war back on earth will also hot up. There is a very great deal at stake here, not simply for the leading space players, China, Russian and the United States but for every country, whether or not they have already embarked upon a space program. Put bluntly, just as the world is almost entirely reliant on electricity to power the computers that run most everything these days, so satellites are essential for communications and for global positioning systems that dictate everything from the movement of agricultural machinery to individual motorists finding their way around town, perhaps looking for the nearest gas station or a fast-food joint.

The world’s power grids already face the double threat of being sabotaged by hackers or knocked out by electromagnetic pulses. The danger to communications and global positioning satellites is no less acute and in the event of conflict, belligerents would also seek to disable each other’s intelligence-gathering satellites. The Chinese appear to be well advanced on the development of destructive space lasers and the Americans and Russians have similar programs. Blueprints for spacecraft that will collect up the millions of items of space junk currently in orbit are almost certain to include the ability to disable or capture opponents’ satellites.

It could be argued that the war in space has already begun but open hostilities have yet to actually break out. The battle is currently being waged in advanced technology labs and by rival propagandists. One interesting comment from the Russian diplomat who rubbished US speculation about the mystery satellite was that the Washington should involve itself in a Sino-Russian treaty to prevent an arms race in space. There are many reasons why the Americans might recoil from the mutual inspection regime any such agreement might involve. But this does not mean that some form of high-level negotiations would not be extremely useful. Superpower deals on nuclear weaponry have by and large worked. A similar agreement of a war in space could be equally beneficial and would have the support of the entire international community save perhaps pariah regimes such as Iran and North Korea.