Observations of an ex pat: Space Wars

In the distant past, 1967 to be precise, world leaders hammered out something called “The Outer Space Treaty.”

It remains in effect, but for how long? And what would be the result of its disappearance from the international statute books?

The reason it may be overwhelmed by circumstances is that thousands of satellites have been launched into space since 1967. They have become an essential part of modern life.

They are vital weather satellites; GPS systems that direct are travels; link our mobile phones and banking business and they are the space-based links for the all-powerful worldwide web.

The satellites are also a formidable military tool, providing vital intelligence about troop dispositions which can be immediately transmitted to ground forces. American satellite intelligence is a vital part of Ukraine’s war effort.

All of this, means that the orbiting satellites are an important target in case of war. And at the moment, they are completely unprotected. If they can be quickly knocked out then your enemy’s economy would be instantly destroyed and its satellite eyes pulled from their space sockets.

But for such an instant attack to be effective it has to be big and instant. That probably means a nuclear bomb, or series of nuclear bombs or some other as yet unknown weapon of mass destruction.

The Outer Space Treaty forbids this. The prescient clause reads: “States shall not place nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other way.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, is no respecter of international treaties. That is why a sort of panic ensued when Congressman Mike Turner, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warned of a “serious national threat” from the Russians.

Publicly his lips were sealed. But in off the record briefings with journalists it was made clear that the threat involved space and nuclear weapons. It was also unambiguously stated that the Russians have not yet deployed such a weapon.

Putin, of course, denied that he is planning to base a nuclear weapon in space with the implicit threat of detonating it. But then he denied that Russia would invade Ukraine.

However, it is unlikely that Russia would go nuclear in space. It would be tantamount to shooting itself in the head at the same time as its enemies. A nuclear explosion in space would knock out Russian and Chinese satellites as well as American. The unpredictability of the consequences should be enough to hold back Putin.

So would the unpredictability of the inevitable nuclear cloud. Would it disperse into a far-flung galaxy? Or, more likely, would gravity pull it to Earth to pollute wide areas of sea and land.

That does not mean that a space war is out of the question. America, Russia and China are busy preparing for a battle in outer space.

The Chinese have tested a satellite equipped with metal arms that can pluck satellites out of space. The Chinese claim it was developed to collect space debris. The Americans say it has a dual military use.

The Russians have the Kozmoz satellites. The first generation (launched in 2017) was able to sidle alongside other satellites and read their memories. The second Kozmoz satellite (launched in 2019) could read memories and then destroy the enemy satellite.

Russian advances was one of the impetuses for the US launch of its space force in 2019. The USSF (to use its official acronym) has a budget this year of $13 billion and employs 16,000 personnel.

The main mission of the USSF is to protect the thousands of American satellites orbiting the Earth. One way it plans to do this is by launching many thousands more satellites so that it would become near impossible to knock them all out. The satellites would be interlinked so that if one or more were disabled the remaining satellites would instantly fill the gap.

The US is also developing space weaponry, especially lasers. America leads the field in ground-based laser weaponry. China is number two.

But because a weapon works on the ground does not mean it will work in space. For a start, the laser beam has to hit a satellite which is moving at speeds of up to 20,000 Mph. But the Americans are working on developing laser weapons that can be deployed alongside existing communications satellites and defensive weapons that can be mounted on future satellites.

The fact is, that if there is another war one of the key battlefields will be hundreds of miles above our heads. Star Wars and Star Trek are no longer a thing of the future.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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4 Comments

  • A nuclear Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) could also cause huge damage to terrestrial infrastructure. Military equipment is generally EMP protected; radars, for example, incorporate PIN (Positive-Intrinsic-Negative) diodes to short such pulses, but most civilian infrastructure, such as communication networks, is largely unprotected. Fibre optic links do improve resilience as voltage spikes cannot be induced in optical cables.

    Similar or greater electro-magnetic damage could also occur due to Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) events from the sun — the mother of all nuclear detonations. Hopefully, a large CME like the Carrington Event of September 1859 won’t occur for several decades at least as we’re about to enter a Grand Solar Minimum.

    ‘The Carrington Event: History’s greatest solar storm’ [June 2022]:
    https://www.space.com/the-carrington-event

    It’s been conjectured that a storm on the scale of the Carrington event, if it happened today, could cause an internet apocalypse, sending large numbers of people and businesses offline. For this reason, the U.K. government lists adverse space weather as one of the most serious natural hazards in its National Risk Register, and companies have contingency plans to deal with severe events — as long as they have sufficient warning of them.

    Researchers from Lloyd’s of London and the Atmospheric and Environmental Research agency in the U.S. have estimated that a Carrington-class event today would result in between $0.6 and $2.6 trillion in damages to the U.S. alone, according to NASA spaceflight.

  • @Jeff. Great contribution. Thank you.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 24th Feb '24 - 10:26pm

    A very interesting and engaging article.

    I hope that our party will become more ambitious about policy planning with regards to Space related issues. I find these times exciting with National Space Strategies being released by our government. There is a world of possibility out there, as well as danger. And if we don’t get innovative and enthusiastic ourselves other powers will.

    I for one am in awe at the admirable work carried out by the European Space Agency (ESA). Thankfully the Brexit legacy spared us from being separated from that!

  • Peter Hirst 1st Mar '24 - 3:19pm

    This interesting article spells out the danger of being too reliant on satellites as with AI. The more advanced our systems become the more we are reliant on them. So back up must include the capability to revert to telecommunications and maps.

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