Future wars which begin on land or sea could quickly escalate and be “won or lost” in space, the head of Britain’s Royal Air Force has said, as he warned that Russia and China are developing anti-satellite weaponry.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, chief of the air staff, said that while it was still considered “contentious” to talk about space as a military domain, it would be “tantamount to negligence” if the UK armed forces failed to take seriously the threats posed to crucial satellite functions such as communications and GPS navigation.

“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,” the air chief marshal told an online audience at the UK’s Defence Space Conference on Tuesday. “So we have to be ready to protect and if necessary defend our critical national interests in space . . . We see nations like China and Russia and others developing anti-satellite capabilities.”

Earlier this year, the US and UK accused Moscow of testing a new space-based weapon from its Cosmos 2543 satellite, marking a new frontier in the militarisation of space. The projectile, which was released into orbit, could have been used to target an enemy satellite.

Gen John W Raymond, head of US Space Command, said at the time that the test fire was “consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk”, while Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth, head of the UK Space Directorate, said the projectile had the “characteristics of a weapon”.

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The fear among western allies is that the use of space weaponry not only threatens the peaceful use of space but also risks creating debris which could damage satellites and space systems. As the density of debris grows, it could cause follow-on collisions and make parts of space too hazardous to enter.

China has already faced criticisms for its role in creating space debris: in 2007, it shot a missile 500 miles into space to destroy one of its own ageing weather satellites. The test created thousands of pieces of debris — which ACM Wigston described as an “irresponsible action” — and sent the signal that Beijing would also be capable of targeting enemy satellites.

The US conducted a similar operation a year later when it shot down one of its own spy satellites, which had malfunctioned, because it said the toxic fuel onboard would be dangerous if it came back to earth. The Pentagon said the timing of the intercept, close to re-entry of the rogue vehicle, minimised any space debris. However, Russia suggested the operation was being used as cover to test an anti-satellite weapon.

Last year India became the fourth country to shoot down a satellite in space.

Sir Mike added that China’s ambition to become the world’s pre-eminent space power by 2045 had already involved developments in cyber, electromagnetic and kinetic systems “that potentially could threaten other users in space”.

Moscow, meanwhile, is also accused of using satellites to conduct what Sir Mike described as “suspect rendezvous proximity operations”: this could be an attempt at commercial and military espionage.

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The US last December established a dedicated “Space Force” to formalise its recognition of space as a warfighting domain. The Conservative party manifesto published ahead of last year’s UK general election promised to create a UK “Space Command”, which is still being examined by the Ministry of Defence.

Via Financial Times