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Defence Notes

UK vows to defend itself against Russian and Chinese space threats

17th November 2020 - 17:45 GMT | by Tim Martin in London

The UK has warned that the anti-satellite capabilities of China and Russia are threatening safe and peaceful behaviour in space.

Should a future conflict transition from conventional warfare to involve the space domain, the UK must be able to ‘protect and if necessary defend our critical national interests,’ the RAF Chief of Air Staff has said.

Pointing to China and Russia’s development of anti-satellite capabilities, including Moscow’s COSMOS 2542 and COSMOS 2543 on-orbit tests, Air Chf Mshl Sir Mike Wigston told a Defence Space 2020 virtual audience that ‘actions like this’ threaten peace and ‘risk creating debris’ which could harm the safe use of satellites.

His perspective echoed that of US Space Command, which has accused Russia of acting irresponsibly by conducting manoeuvres with its COSMOS 2542 and COSMOS 2543 satellites near USA 245/KH11 – a satellite belonging to the National Reconnaissance Office.

Wigston added that China wants to become the ‘world’s pre-eminent space power by 2045’, suggesting that Beijing’s accumulation of cyber, electromagnetic and kinetic systems could prove threatening to other space operators.  

‘Just as we protect and control the skies, we must protect the security of the space domain, not only for our access to those vital space-based services, but also to protect and enable multi-domain activity by land, sea, air and cyberspace,’ Wigston explained.

He spoke of three areas that the UK will focus on to address space-based threats and counter state-led, adversarial activities: contributing to the making and observance of new international laws; building a collective understanding of risk; and ‘reinforcing responsible behaviours’ through international partnerships.

Wigston referred to a UK-sponsored draft resolution on ‘Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviours’ that was approved by the UN General Assembly on 6 November. This resolution will allow national actors to create a ‘more secure space environment', he said.

Committing to increasing international partnerships has already led to the UK’s participation in the US-led Operation Olympic Defender – a coalition first announced in July 2019 and which holds the primary ambition of strengthening deterrence against hostile actors in space.

Wigston said the UK is also continuing to work with NATO on the alliance's 'Initial Implementation Plan for Space as an Operational Domain', although he did not share any additional details about the programme itself or the UK’s role within it.

Progress has, however, been made with respect to improving situational awareness in space courtesy of the AURORA cloud-based system, while Wigston noted that the ambition of creating a sovereign low-Earth constellation of small satellites under the ARTEMIS programme has reached an ‘understanding key requirements’ with industry stage.



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