Space warfare might sound like a novel construct, yet it is not. Evidence of space conflict dates as far back as World War II – when one considers the development of the V2 rocket system of Germany at the time. Susan Henrico, Ivan Henrico, and Dries Putter argue that what raises eyebrows is not the existence of space technology, weapons, law, strategy and tactics, but rather the extent to which these aspects are integrated into national interest strategies like security and socio-economic development.
Space is now considered a new operational domain – with its own uniqueness when it comes to understanding time, geography and distance. This is in addition to conventional domains like air, sea, land, and cyberspace, and it has increased global concern over a possible space war. What started as healthy explorative competition amongst nations to cross the last frontier is now evolving into the last frontier to be armed for combat.
Although space is being systematically exploited for research and development in geographic positioning, communications, and remote sensing, the global West is using space to develop technology that will constitute future military capabilities for kinetic and non-kinetic warfare. For example, Anti-Satellite technology (ASATs), which jams signals and is enabled for laser and kinetic kill systems.
The use of ASATs will directly impact national and international security. Inadequate space technology has a devastating impact on critical national infrastructures like cyber-networks, geo-positioning systems, sensing and imaging for mapping purposes, military capabilities and systems, and others. This will have a negative impact on economic development.
Perfect for the grey zone
Anti-Satellite capabilities are perfect force multipliers and very suitable for the grey zone – a zone between peace and war, where war between countries is less overt, and it is hard to attribute a particular attack to a specific attacker.
Adversaries are exploiting weaknesses in information technology and rely on unconventional methods and tactics to achieve a specific military goal without crossing the threshold of enticing legitimate conventional military response. ASATs are excellent options for achieving such goals.
A tool for hybrid warfare
The concept of hybrid warfare is closely related to grey zone conflict but not synonymous. Hybrid warfare is a ‘tactical subset of grey zone conflict’ that combines conventional, unconventional, and evolving war strategies, such as sabotage, sanctions, intrusions, cyber-attacks and proxy wars.
ASATs are, therefore, perfectly suitable for use in hybrid conflicts, both from a kinetic and non-kinetic perspective.
A wicked problem
Scientific and technological prowess is growing on the African continent in several fields of study and in space-related research. This is evident by the number of space programmes being launched by different nations on the continent and a continental space agency under development. Technology development, such as miniaturisation, has made it more affordable for emerging space nations to enter the space race despite their limited capabilities.
Africa is not commonly associated with space capabilities. Such a perception is misconstrued. The African Union is about to launch its continental space programme, with several African countries already having space programmes, and some others being in the process of establishing such programmes.
As an emerging space nation, South Africa relies on satellite technologies for a long list of civilian and military purposes like internet access, GPS signals (navigation), communications, remote sensing, and weather information, among others. However, adversaries can exploit these abilities as possible vulnerabilities to achieve a specific outcome, which is not necessarily military.
It does not mean that simply because South Africa is not a major spacefaring nation, its current space resources cannot be attacked. Quite the contrary.
Impact on South Africa’s national interest and economic development
In South Africa, decisions about space capabilities are linked to the country’s socio-economic imperatives. A space war will therefore impact both negatively. The loss of technical abilities provided by satellites would have detrimental economic, defence and other consequences for South Africa.
This could motivate South Africa to invest in space technologies and assets, including developing ASAT capabilities.
South Africa is not exempted from the socio-economic challenges faced by developing nations. A strategic nexus and socio-economic dilemma therefore exists- where the country must invest in space capabilities in the interest of development or invest in socio-economic growth at the expense of technological development.
However, South African space capabilities are a result of decades of development and cannot be merely discarded for the sake of a better focus on socio-economic imperatives. More productively, it would be beneficial if the existing capabilities are leveraged internationally through collaboration agreements to extract revenue that would bolster the resource availability within the context of socio-economic growth and development. In such a manner, South Africa will remain part of the global spacefaring community with associated status benefits.
South Africa cannot ignore the threats of hybrid warfare and grey zone conflicts directed at the country’s national interest and security. National security policies should therefore be re-evaluated against the backdrop of the hostile exploitation of outer space. Since South Africa does not have ASAT capabilities (yet), it might be plausible to build amicable international relationships with allies that do have these capabilities in exchange for collaborative use of the South African outer space infrastructure, knowledge, and geographic position. Alternatively, South Africa should develop its capabilities to a position of self-reliance.
Photo Credit: SpaceX from Pexels