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Weaponisation Of Space Is “Extremely Worrying”, Warns Defence Committee Chair

Weaponisation Of Space Is “Extremely Worrying”, Warns Defence Committee Chair

The crew of the International Space Station were forced to shelter following the anti-satellite missile test (Alamy)

3 min read

Exclusive: Defence committee chair Tobias Ellwood has said Western powers need to do “some serious thinking” about how to manage space operations after a Russian anti-satellite missile test endangered the crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The test earlier this week that blew up one of Russia’s own defunct satellites generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable debris which forced the ISS crew to shelter in special “lifeboat pods”.

Ellwood said the incident, which has attracted international condemnation, was a “worrying development” which showed that Russia “feels ever confident in being able to test the will of the West to respond”. 

He added that the "weaponisation of space" had been happening for decades, but that there are still "no rules" governing it. 

"The Geneva Conventions don't extend out there. We have one rule that's been tenuously agreed, and that's no nuclear weapons in space,” Ellwood continued.

“But ultimately, there isn't a recognition as to how this frontier should be managed, and what's happened here is different nations are doing their own thing. 

“Developing the art to remove satellites is a concern and, were there ever to be a major peer-on-peer engagement with an adversary, that is the ultimate high ground now. That's what would then be taken out,” he continued.

“What we see Russia doing is deliberately and selfishly learning how to destroy satellites, advancing their capability.”

The defence committee chair added: “The West does need to look at this carefully and work out how we do respond and ask itself some serious questions, because what Russia is doing is using all tools at its disposal to cause problems for the West and divide us.”

Defence secretary Ben Wallace said on Monday that the incident “shows a complete disregard for the security, safety and sustainability of space”.

“The debris resulting from this test will remain in orbit putting satellites and human spaceflight at risk for years to come,” he said. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also condemned Russia actions, describing the test as “dangerous and irresponsible”.

“The safety and security of all actors seeking to explore and use outer space for peaceful purposes has been carelessly endangered by this test,” he said in a statement. 

“The events of November 15, 2021, clearly demonstrate that Russia, despite its claims of opposing the weaponisation of outer space, is willing to jeopardise the long-term sustainability of outer space and imperil the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless and irresponsible behavior.”

Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a lecturer in space policy and space warfare at the University of Leicester, said that, while testing of anti-satellite technology was nothing new, the proximity of this test to the ISS was “surprising”.

He added that previous tests of this technology by the US, India and China had avoided the “very popular” areas of Earth’s lower orbit where Russia had conducted its test this week, making their actions “far more dangerous”.

“This test is just another step in a larger development programme and moving Russia on from what was already achieved with anti-satellite weapons in the Soviet era,” Dr Bowen continued.

“So long as Earth’s major military powers continue to use space for military and economic purposes they will want to maintain options for holding certain satellites and space systems at risk in a time of crisis or open warfare.”

Dr Bowen suggested that rhetoric from both Russia and the West indicated a “possible discord or breakdown in coordination and communication” over the progress of such tests.

But said it was “encouraging” that the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space programme, had agreed earlier this week to speak to his counterpart at NASA.

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