AsterX and the space war

France carried out Europe’s first space-based military exercise with allied countries in March. Dubbed AsterX, it involved simulations including defending French satellites, destroying earth-bound debris and disabling enemy assets. Berenice Healey speaks to Royal United Services Institute space policy and security research fellow Alexandra Stickings about how simulation can help nations prepare a military space response.

Berenice Healey: 

Why do you think there is such a focus on military in the space now?

Alexandra Stickings: 

There is an assumption that space is suddenly becoming militarised, but ever since the late 50s, the time of Sputnik, the US Army was looking at satellites and how you might potentially take them down.

The big turning point was in 2007 with the Chinese anti-satellite test where they directed a missile to blow up one of their own satellites, [which] created a huge amount of debris. That was a wake-up call. Space isn't a sanctuary, it is a strategic military environment, and therefore assets could be at risk from intentional activity, rather than just hazards like debris or space weather.

Since then, we've seen more tests from the Chinese and a lot of those Soviet-era programmes have been reinvigorated in Russia. They're testing missiles and satellites with manoeuvring capabilities and now we know India has an anti-satellite capability. It's all those different factors coming together and that realisation that we can't just put satellites up there to help our operations. We need to do something to protect them and to try and prevent any kinetic conflict breaching.

// Alex Giles, CCO at Iceni Labs

What was unique about the AsterX exercise?

Space has played a role in other military exercises, but not to the extent that it's been specifically about space. The US, for example, has done a lot in terms of loss of Global Positioning System services but that’s more focused on how the other domains respond to the loss of space capability.

It’s part and parcel of that recognition that we recognise [adversarial space activity] but we need to figure out how we would respond. We tend to use the term ‘counter-space capability’ rather than weapon, because that includes interference and jamming attacks on ground stations.

Having a lot of these activities and exercises helps to create more understanding of how to respond, how quickly can we respond, and how can we understand what's happening. It's becoming more important, particularly as we see a lot of commercial capabilities which could be dual-use. Manoeuvring satellites for orbit servicing or debris removal; that capability could potentially be used in an adversarial manner. If you can remove a piece of debris, you theoretically can also remove an active satellite or interfere with it.

Intent threat perception is very important. If a satellite is approaching yours. At what stage do you feel threatened, how close does that satellite have to get before you feel threatened? These exercises can help understand that then work out what to do.

AsterX was multinational. How important is it that military space exercises are collaborative?

Space is an international activity. Historically allies have relied on the US to provide a lot of those capabilities, but the realisation now is that states need their own capabilities. The US has the Combined Space Operations Centre, which has the Five Eyes plus France and Germany, and there may be others.

NATO has declared space to be an operational domain; it doesn't own its own space assets, it relies on the assets of member states – but how does that work in terms of interoperability, requirements, and potential cooperation with others such as Japan or India in the Asia Pacific context?

If we see adversarial activity happening in space, it's not just going to be between two satellite operators. If you destroy a satellite, you cannot control where that debris is going to go and in how many pieces and what other satellites could potentially be at risk; it could be your own.

Space exercises need to be multinational, and everyone will have something to bring to that. It isn't dependent on having your own space assets, there are other ways that you can be involved, whether that's territories hosting radar stations which can help to visualise what's happening in orbit, intelligence analysis or data processing.

// SafeScan employs UWB radar to enable operators to identify individuals through opaque structures. Credit (all images): Iceni Labs

How are the rules of engagement for space being developed?

The groundwork for this is the Outer Space Treaty but that's over 50 years old and is primarily concerned with weapons of mass destruction in space. China and Russia have long been advocating for something called Preventing an Arms Race in Outer Space and Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Orbit Treaty. That has very much stalled; the US is definitely not on board with that.

We've seen a shift towards non-kinetic capabilities, a lot of which have a dual-use. Rendezvous proximity operations for manoeuvring satellites, cyber, interference, GPS jamming, using lasers to blind satellites, high-powered microwave frequencies that damage internal electronics. It's very difficult to try and ban these capabilities because there is a commercial element.

Instead of focusing on the hardware or the software, there’s a focus on behaviours. For example, in manoeuvring satellites, what's the minimum distance? If you come closer than that without a prior agreement, I am in my rights to respond because I feel threatened.

Then there’s the behaviour around notifications. If you are going to be performing a test on debris removal, everyone knows when and where it's going to happen. It's what they call the norms of responsible behaviour, which are voluntary, not a treaty. This is probably the best route if we're going to get into any kind of agreement on how to make space safer and more sustainable.

How do simulations help sort out collaborative responsibility?

There have been events in the past where I've heard satellite operators saying they had to Google contact information. There was a problem with the SpaceX email system, so they weren't getting emails through. That's terrifying enough when it's just two commercial operators, but you can imagine if it's a Chinese satellite and an American satellite. How are you talking to each other? Because full-scale conflict in space is not in anyone's interest, everyone loses.

Almost every state, every civilian relies on space, so there is a very fine balance at the moment, and no-one wants to see that tip over. These exercises are not so much about 'he’s going to blow up to my satellite, I need to blow his up', it's [about] how do we continue to act in space and what methods do we have to deny our adversaries without tipping the balance.

// Main image: Alexandra Stickings is a space policy and security research fellow at RUSI. Credit: RUSI