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Russian and Chinese activity in space is causing daily threats, the Chief of the Air Staff has revealed.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said Moscow and Beijing were engaging in “questionable” activity such as flying satellites within “close proximity” of others, as well as more “dangerous activity” that could destroy other satellites, on a daily basis.
He also said that they were gathering intelligence, and that future conflicts would be “won or lost in space”.
“Reckless” behaviour from the two nations was seen “several times a year”, said Sir Mike.
Over the past year, Russia had deployed a combination of satellites that “we would describe as having the characteristic of a weapon and they practised a manoeuvre, that we would say, could only have been done to deliberately destroy another satellite”.
Meanwhile, China continued to “develop anti-satellite technology, and that’s everything from missiles that directly target satellites, to laser dazzle weapons, to electronic jamming to physically ramming other satellites”.
He added that China practised against “their own redundant satellites”, and as such was “demonstrating the ability to do it”.
He warned: “A future conflict may not start in space, but I’m in no doubt that it will come very quickly to space, and it may well be won or lost in space.
“If we don’t think, and prepare for that today, then we won’t be ready when the time comes.”
General Sir Patrick Sanders, the head of Britain’s Strategic Command, stressed the disruptive implications a space war would have for civilians and soldiers alike.
He said not only did satellites provide “critical capabilities” to the military, but they enabled technology “we all know and recognise on our mobile phones to the technology that enables us to navigate the Carrier Strike Group around the globe”.
The two chiefs were speaking to The Telegraph at the launch of Space Command at RAF High Wycombe, a new joint force that will be staffed by the RAF, British Army, Royal Navy and the civil service.
When at full operating capability, it will provide command and control of all of the UK defence’s space capabilities, including the Space Operations Centre, RAF Fylingdales in north Yorkshire, and Skynet, the military communications satellites.
The unit, which was born out of the £1.4 billion investment pledged for space over the next decade in last year’s Defence Command Paper, will focus on sharing information about developing threats in the arena.
This will include the use of ground-based and space-based radars, as well information gathering “from other like-minded allies”.
Jeremy Quin, the defence procurement minister, said investment in space was “vital” in order to “maintain a battle-winning advantage across this fast-evolving operational domain”.
Sir Patrick added that the unit would aim to have a network of satellites which “can move data around seamlessly”, as well as garner “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from space”.
He added: “Those are the sort of capability areas that we’re looking at. The starting point is to understand what’s up there and get the basics right.”
Air Vice Marshal Paul Godfrey, commander of UK Space Command, added: “The space domain is vital, not just in enabling military operations across the world, but in the day-to-day lives of everyone across the nation.”
It came as America’s second-most senior military commander said British soldiers would be given access to classified US data under Pentagon plans to revolutionise the way it fights in any future war with China.
General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said allied soldiers would be able to use their personal biometrics to log into a US information “combat cloud” system during a conflict.
The move comes after a classified hypothetical wargame with China “failed miserably” when America was crushed after US information systems were knocked out at the start of the battle.
The US aims to have the overhaul in place by 2030.