Half a century after the first moon landing, there is a surprising entry into the geopolitical tussle over space — Norway.
The Nordic nation plans to launch two satellites in 2022 to bring strong broadband coverage to its strategically important Arctic north. Satellites were once able to roam freely without fear of interference, but that is no longer the case as the great powers fight for supremacy in space.
As a result, Norway is taking undisclosed defensive measures. These could include anti-jamming and anti-radiation technologies as well as other new systems to protect its satellites.
“We never thought about it before, but now the issue of security has come into space,” says Colonel Stig Nilsson, head of the defence ministry’s space programme for Norway, a Nato member that borders Russia. “It’s the dilemma that the more dependent you become on technology, the more you need to build resilience — so technology doesn’t become your Achilles heel.”
Space has long been a forum for geopolitical competition, but in the past few years it has become emblematic of a brittle international order where assertive countries such as China and Russia are looking for new ways to challenge American military dominance.
The starting gun was China’s 2007 test of an anti-satellite missile, which thrust the issue of satellites’ safety to the top of the military agenda. The emerging arms race has now evolved to include the development of electronic warfare, directed energy weapons and cyber assaults, according to a report published by the US Defence Intelligence Agency this year.
Over the past decade, militaries have grown increasingly dependent on satellites to monitor troop movements, detect missile launches and organise battlefield communications. But those same satellites have become more vulnerable to attack or disruption by rivals.
“In space, we [in the west] still collectively maintain the edge,” says one European military official. “The problem is that edge is a target.”
The gradual build-up in space capabilities has gathered pace. President Donald Trump invited mockery last year when he announced the creation of a dedicated US “space force”, but it is an initiative that has been copied in some respects by allies, notably France.
Nato launched its first ever space policy this year and diplomats from the western alliance’s member states say there is a good chance a leaders’ meeting in London in December will declare space a “domain” of operations. That would give it the same status as land, sea, air and cyber space, where an assault on one country would trigger a collective response — as happened after the September 11 2001 terror attacks.
Yet for all the attention now paid to space, there are few rules or procedures to manage disputes, or even to deal with the growing amount of debris, such as collision damage or disused satellites.
“We are absolutely going to see space playing a role in future conflicts on Earth,” says Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation, who said that satellite-jamming was coming within reach of militant groups such as Isis. “It’s easy to do — and it’s relatively cheap.”
The significance of space has risen as societies have become more dependent on signals directed through constellations of governmental and commercial satellites. They have a host of uses from entertainment to navigation. But they are also central to military operations. “Everything we count on — rapid deployment, intelligence sharing, pictures of the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea — all of these have space-based platforms,” says General Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army Europe.
That increased reliance on space is evident in the growing hazards presented by defunct craft and other waste. The European Space Agency said earlier this year that there are now about 5,000 satellites in space. More than 3,000 of these are no longer operational. Break-ups, explosions, collisions and other events mean about 34,000 pieces of debris, longer than 10cm, 900,000 between 1cm and 10cm and 128m between 1mm and 1cm are estimated to be in orbit — all capable of causing damage.
Recent headlines highlight the tensions. In July, the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system suffered a near week-long outage, although officials insisted there was no evidence of foul play. In September, the European Space Agency had to perform its first ever avoidance manoeuvre to protect a spacecraft from a possible collision with a vessel in another satellite constellation.
Skirmishes between rival countries have grown as the means of interference with space infrastructure have become more sophisticated. Last year, Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, accused Russia of spying when it manoeuvred a craft to eavesdrop on a Franco-Italian military communications satellite called Athena-Fidus in 2017 — an allegation the Kremlin denied.
It is an indication of the lack of regulation in a zone owned by no one and still governed largely by general principles first enshrined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Article 1 says “the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies . . . shall be the province of all mankind”. But the only explicit restriction on the use of weapons outside the Earth’s atmosphere is a ban on nuclear arms.
The combination of the rising importance of space and the light regulation of it has opened up many opportunities for ambitious governments — most notably China and Russia.
In the case of China, President Xi Jinping has prioritised and accelerated Beijing’s space programme, which included the first landing on the far side of the moon last year. Beijing even notched more rocket launches than the US last year — 38 versus 34 — although it still lags far behind American rocket power.
The Chinese leadership has set still more ambitious goals in an effort to become an “all-round space power” by 2030. It aims to complete its global navigation satellite system Beidou by 2020, an operating space station by 2025 and a permanent lunar research station by 2035.
Russia’s own renewed effort marks a revival after a slump in research and funding that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, three decades after it had beaten the US into manned space flight with the 1961 voyage of Yuri Gagarin. While there are still areas of co-operation with Washington — US Atlas rockets are powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines, for example — there is also a hardening edge of rivalry. In May, Russian president Vladimir Putin said the “preservation of strategic stability and military parity” depended on Russia’s “ability to effectively resolve security tasks in outer space” and develop military and dual-purpose spacecraft.
In 2015, Moscow created an air defence command to oversee all levels of the Earth’s atmosphere — and beyond. In 2014, western space agencies were spooked by the appearance of Russian satellite Kosmos 2499, with some fearing that it was a satellite-destroying weapon like those under development during the cold war but mothballed after the Soviet Union fell apart. Similar alarms were raised last year over the introduction of Russia’s ground-based Peresvet laser weapons system, which experts believe has the potential to damage and destroy satellites.
One of the reasons space has become so contentious is the dual-use nature of space technology, which means supposedly non-military developments can be interpreted as potentially threatening, according to Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, Rhode Island.
There are multiple forms of interference that could lead to confrontation, including the use of lasers to dazzle satellites. In 2013, Beijing demonstrated a prototype robotic arm for “debris removal”, which could also be used to grab other satellites. Add in the “chest-thumping” tendencies of the current Chinese and US administrations and the potential for a clash is great, warns Prof Johnson-Freese.
Colonel Du Wenlong, of China’s Military Culture Research Society, said earlier this year that “space weaponisation” by the US could lead to a kind of strategic competition within the Earth’s orbit. India also demonstrated its anti-satellite weaponry capabilities this year.
“If your satellite goes down during a crisis, do you assume that it was nefarious intent? Do you react?” asks Prof Johnson-Freese. “There is a lot of potential for misunderstanding that could very easily escalate.”
Despite the spending disparity, China’s space programme has begun to eke out advantages over the US — notably by focusing on the Moon as a base for future space exploration. “Under the Trump administration, the US lacks a coherent space strategy . . . unlike China’s long-term clear focus on them Moon,” says Namrata Goswami, a space analyst.
Wang Yiwei, an international relations professor at Renmin University, warns that not enough is being done to stop space “becoming the next battlefield”. Mr Wang adds: “China and Russia have put out several statements on space rules, but it’s not enough. In the future we should have some sort of code of conduct, like in the South China Sea.”
The US, watching closely the developments in Beijing and Moscow, has launched its own campaign to try to maintain its post-cold war supremacy. A new space command has “combatant” status, giving it increased firepower and strategic control over operations. The planned space force would be a new branch of military service — although this is still awaiting approval from Congress amid a debate over whether it would better if it were integrated into the existing air force.
General John Raymond, head of US Space Command, says the US already sees the “full spectrum of threats” against it, such as the reversible jamming of communications and attempts to down satellites. It is an unprecedented problem for American soldiers, pilots and sailors, who use GPS to navigate, as well as for US intelligence operatives, who use satellites for surveillance.
“We project power globally through space-related capabilities,” says Steve Kitay, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for space. “This is about protecting and defending . . . and ultimately about our way of life here on Earth.”
Some of Washington’s western allies have also started to take important steps. France formally entered the military space race on the eve of its July 14 Bastille Day parade, when President Emmanuel Macron told defence chiefs the country would have its own armed space command with an initial staff of 220. Paris plans to monitor dangerous debris and enemy activities, according to senior officials and defence industry executives. It will also deploy defensive weapons such as nano-satellites, some perhaps fixed liked detachable guard dogs to larger craft.
These announcements prompted a sharp response from Moscow. “France became the second country (after the US) to officially recognise the possibility of armed conflict in outer space,” the Russian foreign ministry said in July.
France also wants to spend an additional €700m on surveillance and “active defence” in space by 2025, on top of €3.6bn already budgeted for the period. The Franco-Italian alliance of Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio last year bought a stake in NorthStar, a Canada-based company planning a constellation of 40 satellites to “look up” and monitor near-space as well as “looking down” for more traditional imaging of Earth. Such data on space debris and on other satellites have both civil and military applications.
France and other European countries including Germany and Italy are also investing in a range of new kit. These include high-definition radars to monitor objects in space, software systems to integrate and manage data, and cyberdefence for ground stations, satellites and related communications. “France has to give itself the means to ensure surveillance of space — and to act in space,” says one French executive at a company active in the sector.
With few constraints on behaviour, it will require co-operation to stop the competition in outer space degenerating further. Until then, countries are taking their own precautions.
“Norway should have the ambition of becoming a leading space nation in the Arctic,” Col Nilsson says of his country’s venture. “We aim to be as civilian as possible — but as military as required.”
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Moscow and Victor Mallet in Paris
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