‘We don’t want to weaponise space’: British military chiefs criticise China and Russia for ‘reckless’ behaviour
Two military chiefs have criticised China and Russia for “reckless” behaviour in space, such as using weapons to destroy satellites, leaving a trail of dangerous debris orbiting Earth.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the head of the Royal Air Force, and General Sir Patrick Sanders, commander of Strategic Command, also for the first time left open the possibility that the UK could develop its own weapons to defend assets in space.
“I am not ruling out what we might do in the future, but we don’t want to weaponise space,” General Sanders told Sky News.
“We don’t want it to become a place where – to use your language – there is conflict or even war in space. We want to make sure it is a common good for all because we all derive so much benefit from it.”
The two commanders were speaking at the official opening of the UK Space Command, which will take charge of all military work involving space – now considered a domain of operations alongside land, sea, air, and cyberspace.
Air Chief Marshal Wigston said: “When diplomacy has run its course and we find ourselves in a global conflict, it might not start in space but I am in no doubt it will move very quickly to space and it will most likely be won or lost in space.”
The new organisation, headquartered at RAF High Wycombe, will bolster the UK’s ability to track threats in space, from space junk to deliberate attacks in coordination with key allies such as the US, Australia and France.
The air chief described Russia and China’s activities in space as “reckless”.
Offering an example, he said a few years ago, Beijing deliberately destroyed a satellite with an anti-satellite weapon, creating debris that is still circulating Earth today.
“Those are lumps of space junk which are travelling at thousands of kilometres an hour,” he said.
“If they hit the International Space Station or one of our satellites that we depend on in our day-to-day lives that would have or could have a disastrous effect on the movement of medical equipment, our transport networks, our power networks.”
Describing the threat further, he said: “Right now we see countries like Russia and China testing and demonstrating anti-satellite weapons – satellites with all the characteristics of a weapon deployed in space.
“We see them rehearsing, manoeuvring, which frankly have only one purpose which is to destroy satellites, so that is a real concern to us and that’s behaviour that we would want the international community to call out.”
Rather than launch space weapons back in their direction, the main strategy the UK is pursuing to deter this kind of activity is to develop a new set of international rules to govern behaviour in space, the two officers said.
The UK will also use its radars and satellites, which will fall under the control of Space Command, to improve visibility of what threats are out there.
However, the commanders indicated that developing physical capabilities to defend assets in space at some future point had not been ruled out.
“I am open minded about all aspects of what we might do in the future and there are all sorts of things we might potentially do,” Air Chief Marshal Wigston said.
“But right now our focus is on turning on the lights in space and making sure we understand what is going on.”
The number of personnel across the RAF, Army and Royal Navy assigned to UK Space Command is starting in the tens to hundreds.
But the plan is to expand the force into the thousands.
The first eight “Space Operator” badges were handed out to individuals at the opening ceremony.
None of the people involved in Space Command actually fly into space. Instead they work from Earth monitoring things like military satellites and space radar systems.
Rishi Sunak plans to ban Channel migrants from appealing deportation
The prime minister is looking to ban people arriving in the UK via small boats from appealing against deportation, Sky News understands.
Rishi Sunak has made stopping Channel migrant crossings one of his five priorities in office, promising to introduce new laws to “make sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed”.
A report in The Times said the Home Office has now drawn up two plans to stop people arriving via this route from claiming asylum – either withdrawing the right to appeal against automatic exclusion from the asylum system or only allowing them to appeal after they have been deported.
A third proposal would prevent people from being able to use the Human Rights Act to stop their deportations, such as by claiming their right to family life.
Sky News understands the report to be accurate.
A Home Office spokesperson would not comment directly on the report, but said: “The unacceptable number of people risking their lives by making these dangerous crossings is placing an unprecedented strain on our asylum system.
“Our priority is to stop this and prevent these illegal crossings, and our new Small Boats Operational Command – bolstered by hundreds of extra staff – is working hard to disrupt the business model of people smugglers.”
They added: “We are also going further by introducing legislation which will ensure that those people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly removed either to their home country or a safe third country.”
Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit
US secretary of state Antony Blinken has spoken with a senior Chinese official about his postponed trip to the country.
US officials said Mr Blinken spoke to the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi today postponing the planned visit.
But the secretary of state “indicated he would plan to travel” to China “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow”.
Officials also said they “noted” China’s statement of regret but said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty, as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred”.
The diplomatic wrangling comes after a Chinese surveillance balloon has been tracked by US intelligence in recent days.
In a press conference today, the US defence department has said the Chinese spy balloon is heading eastwards but poses “no physical or military threat” to civilians.
The Pentagon’s press secretary would not confirm the current location of the balloon, which is operating at around 60,000ft.
There is also no evidence of any nuclear or radioactive material on board but it has the ability to be manoeuvred, according to Brigadier General Pat Ryder.
He also rejected Chinese claims that the balloon was in fact a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace.
The US authorities said it now knows the object – spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base – was a Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites to collect information.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday.
Senior state department officials described the incident as a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law” and said conditions were “not right at this moment” for Mr Blinken to travel.
Mr Blinken was prepared to depart for China tonight before the trip was postponed, Sky News understands.
He plans to travel “when conditions allow”, according to officials.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing admitted the balloon had come from China – but said it was for meteorological and other scientific research.
The Pentagon spokesperson said it is “monitoring the situation closely and will continue to review options”.
What are spy balloons?
The balloon will probably remain over the US for a few days, the spokesperson added.
US officials also confirmed military intelligence had previously seen similar surveillance balloons elsewhere.
Military and defence leaders had considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defence leaders to review the threat profile of the balloon and possible responses, which were presented to US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
President Biden, speaking at a White House conference about jobs earlier today, refused to answer questions on the topic.
The US has engaged Chinese officials “with urgency” and communicated the seriousness of the situation.
China and the US have experienced tensions of late, clashing over Taiwan and China’s human rights record and its military activity in the South China Sea.
Paris Olympics: UK to host summit in bid to ban Russia from games
Opposition to Russians being allowed to compete at next year’s Paris Olympics is intensifying, as the UK government prepares to convene talks with more than 30 countries.
The summit is due to be held next Friday 10 February.
The International Olympic Committee is facing dissent over its willingness to allow athletes from Russia to compete as neutrals in Paris next year in defiance of pleas from Ukraine, following Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
Ukrainian Olympic officials decided on Friday to consult on a possible boycott of the Olympics and an outright ban on Russian athletes – a stance supported by the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which border Russia and gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lithuania’s sports minister Jurgita Siugzdiniene told Sky News that her British counterpart has organised a virtual meeting next Friday involving more than 30 countries on excluding athletes from Russia and Belarus from the Olympics.
As well as European governments, officials from Canada, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea are among the global participants in the meeting. Poland has said it would be possible to build a coalition of about 40 countries, including the US, Britain and Canada.
“We should do everything [so] Russian and Belarusian athletes would not participate in the Olympics, and even under the veil of neutrality,” Ms Siugzdiniene said.
“That’s what we should agree and that is very important. And so in that way we wouldn’t need to discuss the boycott.”
The IOC announced last week that it was open to athletes from Russia and Belarus – which has been used as a staging post for the invasion of Ukraine – competing as neutrals in Paris if they have not actively supported the war.
“I see it as an effort to legitimise and distract attention from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” Ms Siugzdiniene said.
“I think they can use this as a platform. So it would be very wrong that we would provide this opportunity for them.”
In the last three summer and winter Olympics between 2018 and 2022, Russian athletes have been prevented from competing with the national flag or anthem as punishment for the country’s state-sponsored doping scheme.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said any neutral flag for Russia in Paris would be “stained with blood”.
At Friday’s meeting, Ukraine’s sports minister and president of the country’s Olympic committee Vadym Hutzait said members were united “against allowing sportspeople from Russia and Belarus from competing”.
In an appeal to sporting authorities, he said: “As long as the war is going on, as long as our motherland is being bombed, as long as we are fighting for freedom and independence, we have a great wish not to see them [Russians and Belarusians].
“There is a discussion on the international level and we have already some countries supporting us.”
He added: “The price of Ukrainians’ lives is of the highest value. We have no right for compromise … when our Ukrainians are dying.”
The IOC wants sports federations to allow any Russians or Belarusians who have not been “actively supporting the war in Ukraine” to take part and argues it would be discriminatory to ban athletes based on their citizenship alone.
It has responded to the comparison with Apartheid-era South Africa being excluded from the Olympics for more than 20 years, pointing out that UN sanctions were in place at the time.
“There are no UN sanctions in place against Russia and Belarus at this moment in time,” the IOC said.
But Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, can veto any proposed resolution.
Government pressure on athletes and sports bodies should also be resisted, the IOC said, adding its stated mission is “to unite the entire world in a peaceful competition”.
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