New briefing: For Heaven’s Sake – Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space

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Drone Wars UK’s new briefing, published in collaboration with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), looks at the UK’s emerging military space programme and considers the governance, environmental, and ethical issues involved.

Space based operations affect many aspects of modern life and commerce.  The global economy relies heavily on satellites in orbit to provide communication services for a variety of services including mobile phones, the internet, television, and financial trading systems. Global positioning system (GPS) satellites play a key role in transport networks, while earth observation satellites provide information for weather forecasting, climate monitoring, and crop observation.

Space is also, unfortunately, a key domain for military operations. Modern military engagements rely heavily on space-based assets. Space systems are used for command and control globally; surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance; missile warning; and in support of forces deployed overseas.  Satellites also provide secure communications links for military and security forces, including communications needed to fly armed drones remotely.  Many precision-guided munitions use information provided by space-based assets to correct their positioning in order to hit a target.

The falling cost of launching small satellites is driving a new ‘race for space’, with many commercial and government actors keen to capitalise on the economic and strategic advantages offered by the exploitation of space. However this is creating conditions for conflict. Satellite orbits are contested and space assets are at risk from a variety of natural and artificial hazards and threats, including potential anti-satellite capabilities.  Satellite systems are defenceless and extremely vulnerable and losing an important satellite could have severe consequences. The loss of a key military or dual use satellite (such as one used for early warning of missile attack) – through an accident, impact of debris or a meteorite, technical failure, or a cyber-attack or similar on critical ground-based infrastructure – at a time of international tension could inadvertently lead to a military exchange, with major consequences.  Read more

(Un)Safe Space: The growing military and commercial exploitation of space

Book Review: ‘War in Space – Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics’ by Bleddyn E. Bowen. Published by Edinburgh University Press, 2020

With the increasing recognition of satellite technology as critical to our daily lives, a number of states, including the US and the UK, now see space as a critical military domain like land, sea and air.  Bleddyn Bowen’s new book ‘War in Space – Strategy, Spacepower, Geopoliticsattempts to place the notion of ‘spacepower’ into the mainstream of International Relations by adding the use of space systems to the preparation for, and execution of, warfare.

Bowen notes that spacepower has provided new methods of political-economic development and poses questions such as ‘will a war begin or be decided in space?’, ‘how do satellites change the way war is conducted on Earth?” and “what difference can space warfare make on Earth?”  While full answers to these questions are not easily provided at a time when rapid change is taking place, Bowen does suggest that wars may not begin in space or be decided by what happens in orbit alone, and that space technology is not going to provide simple solutions to strategic problems.

While the second part of that statement may be true, the first part can be challenged in the light of the recent rush to space activity. Satellite systems are defenceless and extremely vulnerable and now that satellite technology is employed in so many aspects of our lives – from controlling drones to weather forecasting to banking and communications to GPS – the loss of an important satellite could cause havoc. However, the loss (even through an accident such as impact with space debris or a meteorite) of a key military or dual use satellite (such as one used for early warning of missile attack) at a time of international tension could lead to a military exchange and be catastrophic.  Read more

In space (and Afghanistan) no one can hear you scream

Mockup of Solar Eagle Drone

Further evidence of the rise of research into unmanned military systems in British universities comes with the news that engineers from Newcastle University are part of a team working on a giant solar powered surveillance drone for the US military.

The  Solar Eagle drone which is being built by US arms giant Boeing and funded by the Pentagon’s research agency, DARPA , is being designed to fly at an altitude of 18km for five years nonstop. Engineers from Newcastle University’s Centre for Advanced Electrical Drives have worked previously with UK arms giant QinetiQ on the Zephyr drone (see report here) and this work will presumably form the basis of work on this new drone.

USAF X-37B

An altitude of 18km however, is nothing for the USAF’s unmanned space plane which took off for another secret mission last week (5th March). While NASA normally builds and tests US space vehicles, the USAF is running the show for their unmanned space drone. The USAF’s X-37B, called the Orbital Test Vehicle will stay in orbit for up to 270 days, according to Air Force officials.  Little is known about the purpose or budget for the unmanned space drone but speculation is rife on the blogosphere.

Meanwhile, drone strikes have returned with a vengeance in Pakistan after the recent ‘pause’ attributed to the arrest of Raymond Davis. In the past week reported strikes took place on Tues 8th, Fri 11th and Sunday 13th

No doubt US and British military drone strikes continue as well in Afghanistan although these remain unreported.  The silence from the mainstream media on this is becoming deafening.