Analysis

DND uncertain how best to defend satellites

The Canadian military is grappling with how best to prevent its satellites from being shot down, documents obtained by CBC News show.

Canada is party to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which commits members to the peaceful use of space

Visitors walk past a Chinese-made anti-aircraft missile at the military museum in Beijing. In 2007, China acknowledged blasting a weather satellite out of the sky. It was the first test kill by a land-based missile ever conducted. (Greg Baker/Associated Press)

The Canadian military is looking for ways to prevent its satellites from being shot down or disabled, but is faced with an international legal vacuum that makes it tough to know how far the country can go to protect its property, government documents show.

The Liberal government's recent defence policy review committed the country to "the peaceful use of space," but also acknowledges government satellites, both defence and civilian, have become "potential targets."

A U.S. Senate committee was told by the country's Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats last May that China and Russia have stepped up their testing of anti-satellite weapons systems in the last year.

The concern has not gone unnoticed at the Department of National Defence where the increasing sophistication of systems, such as the Russian PL-19 Nudol, have presented a conundrum for military planners.

"We will be looking, for example, at including a requirement for 'defensive countermeasures' on future satellites," said air force spokesperson Capt. Trevor Reid in an email.

While that may sound an awful lot like the Reagan-era "Star Wars" concept, where it was envisioned that satellites would be shooting missiles at one another, the reality today appears much more benign.

There are not many so-called countermeasures to defend against a missile — or even the sea of hazardous space junk that floats around in orbit.

Many solutions are still on the drawing board but most, such as quantum dot technology which mimics the radiation signature of a satellite, are meant to confuse incoming missiles, acting as decoys from the intended target.

Warning signals, shutter control systems and defensive jamming capabilities are among the technologies under consideration by Canada, said Reid.

Untested international norms

China caused a sensation 10 years ago by blasting one of its weather satellites out of the sky.

Documents obtained by CBC News show Canadian defence planners are uneasy about how to proceed because legal concepts surrounding military action in space remain uncertain and untested.

"There is currently no policy consensus regarding whether, and what types of non-kinetic counter space measures, such as lasing or jamming, would be considered unacceptable," said the 2015 briefing book prepared for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and recently released to CBC News under access to information legislation.

"The application of fundamental legal principles (e.g. self defence) can also be challenging from a practical perspective given the rapid development and unique characteristics of the technologies involved because the idea of the use of force in space remains underdeveloped."

The vacuum of international norms could be disastrous and lead to "potential misperceptions of actions, strategic instability" and the unintended escalation of a conflict, Reid said.

An artist's rendering of the Canadian NEOSSat satellite. The Canadian military is grappling with how best to prevent its satellites from being shot down. (Canadian Space Agency/Canadian Press)

Paul Meyer, a professor of international studies at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University, said there is not a total absence of international law on the issue.

There is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which stipulates the heavens are to be used for peaceful purposes; prohibits the stationing of weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear warheads; and bars the militarization of celestial bodies.

"This is not a merely a belief but legally binding provisions of a treaty to which Canada is a party," Meyer said. "Ignoring these treaty restrictions on outer space activity is a gross omission in any discussion of security policy for outer space."

Hope for best, plan for worst

Canada's defence policy stipulates that the country is committed to the peaceful development of space.

Officials, however, seem to be hoping for the best and planning for the worst.

Three years ago, Canada and the majority of its so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners signed a memorandum of understanding to create the Combined Space Operations initiative.

The intention was to improve military co-operation and information sharing in space, and prevent interference with the satellites of member nations, among other things.

Reid said Canada is contributing to an international effort to develop a manual of international law applicable to military uses of outer space.

"This project aims to develop a widely accepted manual clarifying the fundamental rules and limitations of international law on military operations into, through, and from outer space," he said.
 

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.