June 21, 2024


What would happen if satellite communications were destroyed by enemy action during a war?

It’s a question that governments and militaries around the world are grappling with, and one of the more surprising answers is training sailors raised in a digital world to master highly analog technology, such as using sextants to navigate through navigating the stars.

Prof Dale Stephens, from the University of Adelaide, is a co-editor of a new reference book for governments and civilians on the “rule of law in space in times of peace, heightened tension and even armed conflict”, a global collaboration spanning more than took five years and posed a number of hypothetical scenarios involving space warfare.

“If you destroy the world’s GPS system, which we all rely on, then our digital world becomes sluggish and compromised and doesn’t work,” says Stephens.

“We are going back to an analog world. We don’t have the internet. We have analog communication. We use landlines, we watch analog television.”

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Australia’s military, like that of every other country, has become increasingly dependent on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), which include GPS and other systems.

The military relies on space for communications, for position, navigation and timing (PNT) information, meteorology, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Australia now recognizes space as an operational domain, alongside air, sea, land and cyber, and has established a Defense Space Command.

The Australian military already offers celestial navigation training and is working on a range of alternative navigation technologies.

It has a “navigating using celestial aids” training unit which includes learning how to build a sun compass to establish north, south, east and west; identify celestial bodies to determine south and north; and other methods of estimating direction, time, distance and position. Defense did not respond to questions about other fallback measures.

A Defense spokesperson explains: “Royal Australian Navy Maritime Warfare Officers and Navigation Officers are trained in a variety of navigation techniques, including terrestrial and celestial navigation.

“Navigation by means of GPS remains extremely important and relevant personnel are trained in these methods from the moment they begin their journey in the Royal Australian Navy.”

The US Navy stopped using celestial navigation in 2006, but brought it back in 2016 amid concerns that it was over-reliant on GPS, which could be disrupted by Russia or China.

In a Senate hearing last year, US space commander Gen. James Dickinson said he believed “at some point we will be relegated to the GPS world” and was looking at PNT capabilities. “If you’re on a naval ship … you have a sextant you can use,” he said, and departments have made efforts to “sort of go back to how we did things”.

In a 2021 US Naval Institute article, US Navy Lt. Matthew Homeier wrote that the Navy needs submarines to carry sextants, but that to use them, the boat has to surface, and a sailor carefully carries the fragile device on a ladder, making it “impractical and ineffective”.

UK Royal Navy ships must carry a nautical almanac for “emergency celestial navigation”.

The project Stephens worked on is the Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Activities and operations.

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Universities, technical experts, lawyers and others from around the world worked on the book, which was then peer-reviewed and judged by 24 states in The Hague as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Stephens says they looked at potential military activities on the moon (which would be regulated by the Artemis Agreements), weapons in orbit and other topics, and that satellites were a particular focus that could be a legal gray area.

Several countries have already developed and demonstrated anti-satellite missile technology.

According to reports, Russia earlier this month disrupted the Starlink satellite internet service which Ukrainian soldiers use to communicate, control drones and gather intelligence. last year, France accused Russia of side-playing one of his satellites to one of theirs to tap information.

China has demonstrated its ability to “grab” a satellite. and pulls it out of orbit. The US has warned that China and Russia regularly attack US satellites.

Stephens says the manual explains the laws on various anti-satellite technologies (Asats), such as targeting a satellite with a direct launch missile.

“This is proven technology. It moves faster than a speeding bullet,” he says. “We also looked at co-orbital Asats … where you just bump one of your satellites that is already in orbit into another one.

“[Then there are] high-energy weapons, lasers and microwave weapons where you don’t have the damage, the debris that you would have from a kinetic weapon – you’ll still hit the military objective without blowing it up.”

The group also looked at “jamming,” a form of electronic interference, and cyberattacks that could cause satellites to malfunction. They looked at cases where Asats could be seen as an armed attack or use of force, and therefore subject to legal consequences. Currently, a patchwork of laws—from the Outer Space Treaty to UN conventions and individual state laws—governs aggression in space.

“Each fits a specific point of the spectrum whether it’s a use of force or an armed attack and it’s relevant to what the victim state can do,” says Stephens.

A “major” exception, he says, applies to early warning satellites belonging to China, Russia and the US, which would warn them of an impending nuclear attack.

He says those satellites “sit outside all the other rules” because they are meant to give a nation precious minutes to decide whether to deploy defensive weapons.

Any attack on an early warning satellite would be “a clear indication that the war has started because they stop you from seeing what they are going to do”, he says.



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