Satellites Critical to Britain Threatened by China and Russia Warns Defence Chief

By Mary Clark
Mary Clark
Mary Clark
November 18, 2020Updated: November 18, 2020

One of Britain’s top defence chiefs has warned that China’s and Russia’s anti-satellite weapons development threatens both Britain’s critical national security and its everyday life.

Head of the Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshal, Sir Mike Wigston warned the virtual Defence Space Conference 2020 on Tuesday of the vital need to understand “what malign actors are doing in space.”

With countries like China and Russia developing anti-satellite capabilities he said it would be “odd to assume” that “potential adversaries”  would allow the “unique operational advantage” Britain and its allies have enjoyed to continue unhindered.

space junk
File photo of a graphical representation of space debris in low Earth orbit. There are currently around 900,000 pieces of space debris larger than 1 cm (0.4 inches) orbiting the Earth, according to the UK Space Agency. (NASA/Getty Images)

Citing Russia’s controversial in-orbit testing of anti-satellite weapons this year as an example he said that such actions directly “threaten the peaceful use of space.”

“They also risk creating debris that could pose an indirect threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends,” he said.

He added that the debris created could also trigger a “chain reaction of follow on collisions” and make parts of space “completely unusable.”

‘Protect and Defend’

He said that in the face of such a “grim picture” Britain needs to be prepared to “protect and defend” critical national interests.

He added that a war could quickly end up and be “won or lost” in the “far from benign” arena of space once “deterrence has failed and political discourse has run its course.”

In 2007 China, Wigston said, destroyed a weather satellite by firing a rocket from Earth to orbit in an “irresponsible action,” that alone created over 3,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10 cms (almost 4 inches) in size. He said the debris formed a “significant portion” of the around 22,000 pieces of debris of that size or over currently orbiting the Earth.

Meanwhile, he said, Russia continues its “suspect” activities possibly indicating “commercial and military espionage.”

At the same time, he added, China seeks to become the top space power by 2045 in an “aspiration supported by developments in cyber, electromagnetic, and kinetic systems that potentially could threaten other users in space.”

Wigston said Britain is not only “critically dependant” on space and access to it for national security but also for “our way of life.”

“Any loss or disruption to our satellite services would have a disastrous effect on people’s day-to-day lives,” he said.

‘Out of Sight 1,000 Miles or More Away’

He said that though the “reality” of what is happening “out of sight 1,000 miles or more away” in space does not register with many people, much of our modern everyday activities would be thwarted if access to it were disrupted.

“Without space, there would be no bank transactions, no cash out of an ATM, no petrol in the pumps,” he said.

Malfunctioning of the national grid and “traffic gridlock” would also ensue, he added.

Long seen as a potential Achilles heel, the satellite navigation and positioning systems that traffic movement heavily depends on are increasingly important pieces in the geostrategic stakes with Russia, and even more so with China.

Truly Global Systems

For decades, America’s GPS and Russia’s GNSS systems, launched in the Cold War, were the only truly global systems.

On June 23 this year, that changed when the final satellite of China’s BeiDou system slotted into orbit, and like other navigation systems, BeiDou provides the digital compass and map for the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) military targeting system.

Just one week after BeiDou was completed, however, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee proposed legislation (pdf) that would replace America’s GPS within the next three years.

Then this month, Wigston highlighted, a UN resolution on responsible behaviour in space was passed and will allow allied countries to work together to create a safer space environment.

The resolution tabled by Britain was put forward amid what the government described as a space environment that has become “increasingly congested and competed over,” and where  “the risk of accidents, misunderstandings, and miscalculations between nations is escalating.”

Simon Veazey contributed to this report.