The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has published its “Space Threat Assessment 2021.” The report is a detailed look at the many ways in which space is a potential battleground. With each successive year, the CSIS’ annual assessment paints a more troubling mural of expanding numbers and complexity of space-based threats represented by near-peer national security competitors and others. The CSIS report provides a taxonomy of military counterspace weaponry the U.S. faces.
Such weaponry falls into four basic categories: kinetic physical, non-kinetic physical, electronic, and cyber. According to the report, kinetic physical threats include:
- Attacking an adversary’s ground stations with kinetic weapons like missiles or a variety of other conventional weapons.
- Attacking an enemy’s satellites with a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from the earth.
- Co-orbital ASAT satellites launched from the earth establish the same orbit as the target satellite, then maneuver close to the target satellite and explode, destroying the target.
In the category of non-kinetic physical, such counterspace weapons are as follows:
- High-altitude nuclear detonations use the detonation-generated electromagnetic pulse to destroy the electronics in an adversary’s satellites. This approach to counterspace weapons is less appealing as it is not discriminating as to whose satellites are destroyed and the nuclear detonation leaves residual radiation.
- High-powered lasers on naval vessels, aircraft, ground-based or other satellites that destroy the adversary’s satellite operations.
- Laser dazzling or blinding another’s satellites’ optical and other types of sensors temporarily or permanently.
- High-powered microwave beams that use ground stations, naval vessels, other satellites or aircraft. The microwave counterspace weapons can disrupt satellites’ electronics, impact data storage and memory, and generally degrade the satellite’s electronics.
Electronic counterspace weapons disrupt the electromagnetic spectrum used by satellites to send and receive data. These weapons are primarily devices that use radio waves to jam the communications potential of an enemy’s satellites.
Cyber counterspace weapons focus on corrupting the data that is being transmitted and attempts to control data flow.
Cyberattacks can target ground stations and satellites. Cyberattacks on U.S. space systems can lead to loss of data transmission for the full range of satellite communications and GPS precision location services.
Ten countries have publicly announced an intention to pursue counterspace operations. Only China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and India have the “most public advancements” in developing counterspace weapons. Others, like the United Kingdom, France, Israel, South Korea, and Japan, have included space and the pursuit of counterspace weapons in strategic and weapon system development planning.
India demonstrated a successful kinetic physical counterspace ASAT test in 2019 and continues to grow its space capabilities. India’s capacities in space have grown rapidly since its first satellite launch in 1980, and the country is readying its third exploration mission of the Moon.
Viewing the counterspace weapons capability of all those possessing such capability or working toward having such space weaponry, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) 2019 report warned:
“China and Russia, in particular, have taken steps to challenge the United States. Chinese and Russian military doctrines indicate that they view space as important to modern warfare and view counterspace capabilities as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness. Both reorganized their militaries in 2015, emphasizing the importance of space operations.”
Amplifying the DIA assessment, Chelsea Gohd, staff writer for Space.com, explained, “Security experts say that when it comes to threats in space, Russia is raising more concerns than China.” Gohd goes on to point out that “Russia has become a bigger threat to orbiting satellites, with signs of escalation to come. Meanwhile, although China has also increased its space capabilities this year, it has not displayed aggressive anti-satellite behavior like Russia.”
The counterspace threats posed by potential adversaries are top priorities for the U.S. national security leadership. While discussing the importance of the new U.S. Space Force, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten said:
“Russia and China are building capabilities to challenge us in space because if they can challenge us in space, they understand as dependent as we are in space capabilities that they can challenge us as a nation. Therefore, it is our responsibility as leaders of the defense enterprise to make sure that we continue to educate the population about the threats that we face and then, put forth recommendations to deal with those threats in a rapid, responsive way.”
Sixty years ago, Alan Shepard was America’s first man in space. From that historic event, the U.S. space program has never looked back. But as America’s ingenuity and technical prowess grows, so do the perils posed by adversaries who move forward with counterspace weaponry to threaten the U.S.
The CSIS report and others like it are warnings. America must understand those warnings and meet the counterspace challenge it faces.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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