America’s space wars are our space wars

A war in space would change life on earth as we know it, and it’s not as far-fetched as you might think

America is gearing up for a space war and wants New Zealand to join an international operation aimed at deterring a satellite attack from Chinese or Russian forces.

The US established its Space Force in 2019, and has a strong anti-China rhetoric focused on bringing allies together into its defensive and offensive space plans.
 
RNZ reporter Phil Pennington says the agreement is similar to AUKUS Pillar Two, which is a strategic defence partnership centring around protecting the Indo-Pacific territory from Chinese military expansion.

“The US is really trying to create a global network here, that’s in contrast to the more isolated stance of Russia and China in space where they’re relying on themselves,” he says.

Space Force’s General Michael Guetlein told US lawmakers that his team is “on a journey to forge a purpose-built Space Force to deter and if needed, defeat any rival to maintain control of the space domain.”

Space Force has gone from nothing to being worth $50 billion in a mere five years, and Pennington says New Zealand brings a unique offer to the table.

“We don’t have weapon factories but what we do have is very clear southern skies and because of Rocket Lab we have a proven launch capability,” he says.

Figuring out what the plans are is proving to be tricky because there’s a lot of contradiction and reading between the lines when it comes to obtaining official documents.

“One hand they talk about peace and stability but on the other hand you have quotes like this; ‘competitors have weaponised space in a way that holds US and allied capabilities at risk and in doing so they have created the most competitive and dangerous space environment in history’,” he says.

Pennington says New Zealand officials are keeping particularly quiet about what’s happening behind closed doors. The US on the other hand has been a bit more open.

“They [the US] actually note that it’s hard to know what would happen in a space war. That’s because there’s a lot of uncertainty around what they call operating concepts, the pace of technological change and they also note the secrecy surrounding space capabilities … but they do talk about using lasers to dazzle the other satellites,” he says.

Pennington says Rocket Lab is planning to send a satellite up next year to have a test fight against another satellite. 

“They [the US] have also talked about Chinese satellites that have arms on them that can wrangle a satellite,” he says.

But a space war wouldn’t just be satellites fighting each other. Pennington says there are also indications that countries plan to track and destroy opposition missiles using space weapons.

These plans sound like a real-life version of Star Wars, but despite its similarity to a sci-fi movie, Chris Jackson, Mission Operations Centre Lead at Auckland University’s Te Pūnaha Ātea Space Institute, thinks we should be taking this matter seriously.

While we may not realise it, Jackson says satellites are involved with everything we do, more than just Sky TV and GPS getting us to the pub on time.

GPS, the Global Navigation Satellite System, for example is used in just about every part of everyday life. 

“It’s really become part of critical infrastructure, it synchronises the power grids, our mobile phones and all of our banking transactions and if those services went away, we would have a lot of problems” he says.

Jackson says it’s hard to predict exactly what would happen, but he imagines the initial impact would be severe.

“We wouldn’t be able to get weather information, and there are a lot of applications that use space and if they suddenly disappeared, I think society would take a serious step backward,” he says.

Beyond that, Jackson says there is also a long-term environmental consequence of countries shooting down each other’s satellites. 

“If we cause a load of space debris, it potentially means we can’t put satellites back into certain areas again. So, it may not just be a case of replacing what was previously up there,” he says.

“I hope it never happens but certainly in the last few years we’ve seen Russia and China have both detonated anti-satellite weapons in space and there are moves to try and have international treaties to stop that sort of thing.”

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According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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