Jamming, surveillance, nuclear bombs… Is Space really at risk of becoming a battlefield?

Will nuclear warheads and armed satellites soon be circling above our heads? This is what Russia and the United States imply, which have increased mutual accusations in recent weeks. Last Wednesday, the Pentagon accused Russia of having deployed a space weapon in the path of an American satellite. The day before, it was Moscow: Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova assured that the White House wanted to make Space “an arena of military confrontation”.

Before the UN, each successively vetoed the other’s proposal to reaffirm the ban on the placement of weapons in orbit. Since 1967, the Space Treaty has prohibited putting any nuclear or mass destruction weapon into orbit. But beyond these weapons, “there are no rules in Space”, underlines Florence Gaillard-Sborowsky, researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research. The author of Geopolitics of space, in search of space security therefore adds that “nothing prohibits [par exemple] armed satellites”.

Today, space warfare is “electronic”

“The militarization of Space is not prohibited and already exists. Many objects in orbit already have military objectives, such as observation or listening satellites,” recalls Florence Gaillard-Sborowsky. “The means deployed for surveillance are monumental in space,” assures Olivier Sanguy. The head of space news at the Cité de l’espace in Toulouse thus mentions the American spy satellite Mentor, whose deployable antenna can be “up to 100 meters in diameter”.

Since the 1960s and the start of the conquest of space, Space has been considered an essential issue of national sovereignty. And “research on anti-satellite satellites is as old as the Space Race,” underlines Florence Gaillard-Sborowsky. Moscow and Washington therefore do not accuse each other of wanting to militarize space it’s already the case but to want to arsenalize it, that is to say, to send weapons there.

However, “a large part of real space warfare is not Luke Skywalker in his ship but what we call electronic warfare,” explains Olivier Sanguy. Jamming, hacking or even remote control… that’s not science fiction! » Several cases of espionage in orbit have in fact already been denounced. In 2018, the French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, spoke of a Russian satellite which had come “a little too close” of a French device. Since 2022 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several cases of espionage between Russian and Western satellites, notably French, have been made public.

The risk of the “ricochet effect”

Brute force is not entirely relevant today. “Jamming has the advantage of being discreet: it is very difficult to attribute responsibility for it. On the other hand, the targeted destruction of a satellite could amount to a declaration of war! », says Florence Gaillard-Sborowsky. And if several countries carried out tests to practice destroying a satellite, their shots all came from Earth. In November 2021, Russia pulverized one of its satellites using terrestrial fire.

But these shows of force carry risks. “When a satellite is destroyed, it creates a cloud of debris. These spread everywhere, are difficult to control and can affect other satellites” including allied vehicles, explains Olivier Sanguy. “There is a real risk of a ripple effect,” adds Florence Gaillard-Sborowsky. However, Space is a unique environment where interdependence is very important. No one has any interest in seeing debris multiply. »

Destroy hundreds of satellites in a nuclear strike

However, the specter of a space nuclear strike continues to be raised. At the end of April, the American representative to the United Nations, Robert Wood, assured that Russia wanted to “place a nuclear weapon in orbit”. “In reality, we can imagine two things,” reacts Olivier Sanguy. Or a nuclear-powered satellite which would give it better mobility, and therefore an advantage over others. Or a satellite which would carry a nuclear bomb. » And if this bomb were to explode, it would be to “put hundreds of satellites out of service”.

This perspective, which amounts to “throwing a grenade into a crowd”, could however have an advantage now that there is “a network like Starlink, with thousands of satellites”, explains the head of space news at the Cité de l space of Toulouse. This almost indiscriminate attack would “damage the circuits of hundreds of satellites at once,” he explains.

But the strategic interest remains “fairly weak”, according to Florence Gaillard-Sborowsky, who judges that it would be “much more effective to attack a ground control center”. In reality, “the Star Wars-style war is not there at all,” says the researcher. Because, as Olivier Tanguy points out, these accusatory back and forths are much more about “diplomatic games and current tensions than about space”. On Earth as in orbit, the United States and Russia openly accuse each other but prefer to advance their pawns discreetly.

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