Losing the space war to “irresponsible” Russian and Chinese actions could cost the UK £1billion every day, the Chief of the Air Staff has warned.
Aggressive activity by nations such as Russia and China “threaten the peaceful use of space” and could leave parts of the low earth orbit region “completely unusable” according to Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston.
The head of the RAF warned of “directed energy weapons” which can dazzle sensors or damage satellites such that they tumble out of stable orbit and burn up as they fall through the Earth’s atmosphere.
He criticised China for developing “Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite” rockets, capable of being fired from the ground to destroy satellites in orbit.
In 2007 China destroyed a weather satellite using a rocket, creating more than 3000 pieces of debris greater than 10cms in one single event.
“When you consider that the number of objects that size or greater is approximately 22,000, that one irresponsible action represents a significant portion of the total debris in orbit today.
“The increased debris density may contribute to reaching a threshold in low earth orbit that could start a chain reaction of follow-on collisions – the Kessler effect; leaving parts of space completely unusable.
“A future conflict may not start in space, but I am in no doubt it will transition very quickly to space, and it may even be won or lost in space.”
Speaking at the virtual Defence Space conference, other military and industry leaders have called for continued development of rules governing activity in space.
General Sir Patrick Sanders, head of the UK’s Strategic Command, said satellites were so crucial to everyday life in Britain it would cost the country £1 billion a day if the signals were disrupted.
“Access to global assured resilient secure satellite communications is fundamental to our ability to project our power and meet our national security objectives,” he said.
Gen Sanders said Precision Navigation and Timing (PNT) signals from satellites were critical to military operations and the economy.
“It helps us find our friends in town or on the road. It provides our financial sector with a timing backbone, enabling trillions of pounds of business every day.
“Every single person with access to technology is now fundamentally and critically reliant on PNT derived from space.
“Imagine a world without this access. What would we do? How would we cope? It would be incredibly challenging.”
He cited an MoD report from 2018 that said a five-day disruption to the PNT signal would cost £5.2 billion.
The conference heard how Russian satellites have been manoeuvred suspiciously close to those belonging to other nations.
ACM Wigston said this was “possibly an indication of commercial and military espionage activities”.
One Russian geostationary satellite has for several years been moved repeatedly and “parked up” next to other nations’ commercial satellites.
He said China planned to become the world’s pre-eminent space power by 2045, “an aspiration supported by developments in cyber, electromagnetic and kinetic systems that potentially could threaten other users in space".
On Nov 6 the UN voted in favour of a UK resolution to introduce rules and principles of responsible behaviour in space.
The Russian delegate to the UN body said a number of Western countries were attempting to discredit Moscow’s efforts to prevent an arms race in outer space.
However, Germany’s representative, said: “Russia has failed to reconcile its approach with the fact that it already possesses and continues to develop capabilities that can be regarded as weapons".