UK seeks UN resolution to deter conflict in space

Harry Lye 27 August 2020 (Last Updated August 27th, 2020 10:35)

The UK has proposed a UN resolution that aims to set an international consensus for ‘responsible’ behaviour in space and avoid conflict in the domain.

UK seeks UN resolution to deter conflict in space
Artist’s impression of a GPS Block IIIA satellite in orbit. Credit: USAF.

The UK has proposed a UN resolution that aims to set an international consensus for ‘responsible’ behaviour in space and avoid conflict in the domain.

The draft resolution calls for a ‘global discussion’ on what responsible behaviour in space looks like. The UK said ‘all countries will be invited’ to take part in the discussion and submit views on ‘responsible and threatening behaviour’ which will be included in a report to the UN General Assembly.

The move follows increasing concerns around the militarization of space and the threat of disruption to the domain which is relied on for mobile phones, banking, GPS and a number of other systems. The UK said that as space becomes ‘increasingly congested’ the risk of ‘accidents, misunderstanding and miscalculations’ is escalating.

Commenting on the move, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The UK is leading the global discussion on what responsible behaviour in space looks like.

“We believe a new approach is urgently needed to increase trust and confidence between countries operating in space to prevent an arms race or a conflict that could have catastrophic consequences.”

Systems including ground-based satellite interceptors, cyber and space-based anti-satellite weapons threaten the use of both military and civilian satellite infrastructure.

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace added: “Conflict in space has potentially profound consequences, and all powers should recognise the importance of this not only to their economies, but to global security.

“Preventing malign activity and reducing the risk of accidents is incredibly important for the safety of the UK, and to the successful military operations that rely on systems in space.”

In July, the UK and US accused of Russia of testing a space-based anti-satellite weapon. At the time the US State Department called the test ‘hypocritical and concerning’.

Commander of US Space Command and US Space Force Chief of Space Operations General John Raymond said: “The Russian satellite system used to conduct this on-orbit weapons test is the same satellite system that we raised concerns about earlier this year, when Russia manoeuvred near a US government satellite.

“This is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk.”

In Russia’s test, one satellite launched an object close to another in a simulation of how an in-orbit anti-satellite weapon would be deployed.

At the time of the incident, Royal United Services Institute Space Policy and Security Research Fellow Alexandra Stickings told Air Force Technology that Russian test did not come as a surprise adding: “Russia, along with other major space powers such as China and the United States, have been developing capabilities that can deny space assets, whether that is through anti-satellite missiles (a capability which is also possessed by India) or other means, which can range from GPS jamming, cyber-attacks or other non-kinetic activities such as using lasers to dazzle optical sensors on a satellite.

Stickings added: “This is in response to more states seeing space as a warfighting or operational domain. But it is also important to understand that the concept of anti-satellite capabilities goes back to the beginnings of the use of space – this is not new.

“As long as space remains important for military operations and national security, it will be contested, and states will look at how they can gain advantage.”

While nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are banned in space, there are few constraints on the deployment of space-based weapons systems or systems that can destroy satellites from the ground. Both threaten satellites as resulting debris can spread and cause collateral damage to other systems.

Ground and air-based anti-satellite weapons have been tested in the past. In 2019, India test-fired a rocket that brought down one of the country’s own satellite systems. China has also tested similar weapons.