The world risks sleepwalking into a space war

The hand-painted matryoshka doll that separates into ever smaller components is more than a tourist cliché for visitors to Moscow. It is also the design principle of a daunting weapon in the new battle zone of outer space.

The Russian satellite Kosmos 2542, launched last November, gave birth to a sub-satellite, Kosmos 2543. Baby Kosmos started to stalk an American spy satellite. Then, last month, 2543 released a high-speed projectile in what appeared to the United States and Britain to be something like a weapons test.

The Kremlin says that these manoeuvres are all about inspecting damage to Russia’s space fleet. Space, after all, is full of flying debris. But the West is rightly rattled. Suddenly, the prospect of being blinded by aggressive action in space is no longer the stuff of science fiction. GPS satellites, so vital to everyday life but also to winning terrestrial wars, could be knocked out like coconuts at a village fête. Credit card transactions, nuclear warning; all this could go. The whole globalised economy is dependent on satellite transmission.

The early thinking about a military operation in space was that it could be the final stage of a great power conflict after a nuclear exchange. That did not bear serious thought since the nuclear bombs on Earth would already have dragged us back into the Stone Age. Now it seems that the weaponisation of space could bring about similar levels of paralysis without the need for nuclear Armageddon at home. The mass of traffic in space — more than 100 states have a presence there, along with non-governmental organisations and commercial operations — no longer just gathers and transmits information. It is a warfighting domain.

In the 1980s I visited in Cracow the futurologist Stanislaw Lem, a polymath who was regarded as potentially dangerous by a martial law regime that saw enemies under every bed. He had just completed a satirical novel, Peace on Earth, which posited a future in which the world’s nuclear weapons were dismantled and then reassembled on the moon. The moon, in this novel, would be divided into sectors, run by an international lunar agency. The Polish state censor did not know what to make of the book but eventually allowed it to be published.

In those days it was still possible to talk about the Earth and outer space as two quite separate entities. Despite Ronald Reagan’s push for space-based weapons to shield the US from the Soviet Union, a space war between the superpowers seemed to most people to be a very remote possibility. In fact the use of American and Soviet reconnaissance satellites almost certainly helped to stabilise East-West relations during the Cold War. The 1967 Outer Space treaty banned the deployment of nuclear weapons in space or on “celestial bodies” but few saw the necessity to go much beyond that.

Now though there is a pressing need to establish basic codes of conduct in outer space. What happens up there has an immediate impact down here. It is too crowded a place for Russia and China to charge around as if it’s an extension of the Wild East. There are talks in Vienna and Russia has put forward the idea of a treaty on “the prevention of placement of weapons in outer space”. And it wants a ban on the “first placement” of weapons. That has been couched to sound reasonable. But it overlooks that Vladimir Putin’s regime has been developing ground-based anti-satellite technology. It has mobile lasers that can dazzle the satellites of other states. The fact is that Russia and China are only interested in creating new norms if they serve to bind and contain the US, which remains the dominant force in space.

For the US and Britain the antics of Kosmos 2543 demonstrate that Russia is actively trying out warfighting techniques. It does not require much, certainly not nuclear arms, to send a western satellite spinning out of its orbit. A celestial car crash is quite enough. The Kremlin’s diplomatic efforts are thus a diversion from the real task: managing outer space. It can certainly build on the Outer Space treaty but it has to be clear what constitutes an unacceptable act of aggression. An attack on a satellite that harms the civilian infrastructure of another state has to be seen as a hostile act. There should be an immediate moratorium on testing weapons in space.

America would be ready to sign up to treaties that help to prevent accidental war in space but not to abandon its superiority in the domain. It is counting on its ability to deter further weaponisation yet it is hasn’t devised a comprehensive deterrence strategy. On Earth the Trump administration withdraws from international nuclear agreements fearing that such accords would sap its ability to act, as the great power rivalry with China gathers pace. Yet in space it demands that others abide by rules which it hopes to set together with its allies.

These are the real paradoxes of American power and the more dangerous that outer space becomes, the more the tensions within US defence policy will be exposed. So now is the time for it to be clear: to set out a proportionate response to the war against satellites. All sides should recognise that a kinetic war in space is unwinnable; that high-tech military equipment is uniquely vulnerable to low-cost attack; that the terrestrial implications of celestial combat are, well, Earth-shattering. Russia has to understand that its space provocations will carry a heavy cost.

Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.

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