How accurate are anti-satellite missiles

The warlike conduct of the great powers in space threatens its civilian use

Nothing works in modern warfare without satellites. More and more states are therefore developing weapons in order to be able to turn off enemy satellites in the event of war. But the saber rattle has its price.

In January 2019, a launcher will roll onto the launch pad at the Satish Dhawan space center in India. Students sit on the visitor benches in the control room, because a small satellite they have built is supposed to start and raise awareness of a world without borders. What nobody knows at the time: The second satellite on board is not pursuing any peaceful goals: Microsat-R is supposedly a military reconnaissance satellite. He was shot down by a ballistic missile three months later. It is the first anti-satellite missile test in over a decade. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India had joined the ranks of the space powers. But at the same time the arms spiral continues to turn. This shows that strategists see space as a crucial battlefield of the future.

The development of anti-satellite weapons is not new. The Soviet Union and the USA already pursued such ideas, but strategic considerations slowed them down: satellites played a confidence-building role in the nuclear powers' disarmament treaties. That changed with the new high-tech campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001: satellites were once again life insurance, but this time they cemented the superiority of the American military: in Afghanistan, for example, 60 percent of the ammunition fired was targeted.

Since then, China in particular, like Russia, has continued to develop its military capabilities in space: in 2007, a Chinese rocket shot down its own disused weather satellite at a great height. China accepts 3,000 new debris in orbit, which is still circling there today. In September 2015, the Russian satellite Lutsch (Olimp-K) approached the American commercial communications satellite Intelsat 905 within ten kilometers. Three years later, Lutsch maneuvered very close to the military communications satellite Athena-Fidus, which is operated by France and Italy.

Powerful and resilient

The answer from the United States was foreseeable: In March 2018, President Donald Trump proclaimed space as a new battlefield alongside land, sea and air. A “space force” is supposed to ensure that America can maintain its lead over China and Russia. The example of X-37 shows that research is being carried out in secret on tactical abilities in space. On November 27, 2019, this unmanned shuttle landed in the Kennedy Space Center after its fifth mission. What exactly did it do during its 25 months in space? According to Daniel Porras from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (Unidir), it is probably an espionage testbed to eavesdrop on communications from other nations. This means that X-37 could serve similar targets as the Russian Lutsch satellite.

Xavier Pasco of the Paris think tank Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique assumes that the US is currently developing its doctrine further: it presented itself as powerful and resilient in space, with means that harm any possible enemy targeting the United States could. This is shown by a competition that the military research organization of the American Department of Defense, Darpa, is currently organizing: rockets and satellites should be developed, built and launched within a few days. Communication, navigation and reconnaissance will soon no longer take place via satellites that weigh tons and are easy to destroy, but rather be distributed over many small satellites.

A decision by the NATO Council on November 20 shows how important space is in strategic considerations: the military alliance officially declared space a new area of ​​operations. Superficially, it is about making it easier for allies to use each other's capabilities of their satellites. In the meantime, however, the number of states that want to protect their satellites with their own weapon systems continues to increase. French President Emmanuel Macron also announced the creation of its own space command in July. The plan includes the development of new, small bodyguard satellites that will detect slowly approaching spy satellites at an early stage and guard France's most valuable satellites. In an emergency, high-power lasers are supposed to dazzle the attackers' instruments - with this technology, Russia in particular has a major technical advantage over France. The security expert Xavier Pasco therefore considers the plans to be rational and necessary. Because a military power that wants to intervene in a certain region abroad must have all military means at its disposal. Without satellites, ground reconnaissance or air defense is hardly possible, as is the control of drones.

For Holger Krag, the head of the space debris office at the European Space Agency (ESA) in Darmstadt, warlike behavior in space comes at a high price. The shooting down of China in 2007 alone produced so much debris that ESA satellites had to avoid them several times in order to avoid destruction. Because every object in orbit, be it an intact satellite or a pile of rubble, orbits there at 28,000 kilometers per hour and more. Even a speck of dust develops the energy of a rifle bullet upon impact. The India test of March 2019 took place at an altitude of only around 300 kilometers, where most of the debris burned up within two weeks. But individual fragments also crossed the height of the orbit of the International Space Station far above. It is therefore “absolutely not advisable to conduct such tests” for Holger Krag.

Another space engineer shakes his head: Roger Förstner from the Institute for Space Technology and Space Use at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Neubiberg near Munich deals with the everyday challenges of space. From his point of view, the vacuum alone is threatening enough, where cosmic rays or a particle storm from the sun can destroy a satellite. Finding the cause is difficult: Engineers often only see the symptom, i.e. that something is defective or no longer works as it should. But why it is broken often cannot be understood at all. This becomes a problem when satellites that are increasingly being used by the military are supposed to determine whether they have been attacked. Misunderstandings seem inevitable.

Tragedy of the Common Good

Mankind has been sending satellites into space for 62 years. Near-Earth space is considered a common heritage of humanity. Military strategists are now putting this at risk. The disarmament researcher Daniel Porras sees a pattern here: It is the tragedy of the commons, a dilemma in which the benefit of the individual contradicts the long-term goal of society as a whole. The number of active satellites, whether for civil or military purposes, is increasing. That makes generally applicable traffic rules in space more necessary than ever. But the international space treaty of 1967 only forbids the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space. That doesn't do justice to today's situation.

From Daniel Porras' point of view, much would be gained if all states could agree on acceptable behavior in space. The disarmament researchers propose, for example, a safety zone of 50 kilometers around each satellite - anyone who comes closer can be assumed to have hostile intent. Weapon tests should be announced internationally in advance. And if possible, they should not create any debris. If this is unavoidable, these should only arise in low orbits, where they burn up again within a short time.

Without international rules, the arms race in space is likely to continue while those responsible insist on the self-defense of their own satellites. Porras fears that the international community will only act when the space junk has claimed the life of a space tourist or a space traveler on board the international space station.

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