Growth of Space Threats Detailed in Two New Reports

Growth of Space Threats Detailed in Two New Reports

Two organizations issued reports today that update earlier assessments of threats to U.S. space assets from other countries.  One also illuminates what the United States itself is doing in developing counterspace systems.  This is the third year that the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Secure World Foundation (SWF) have timed the release of their separate reports to coincide, providing a broad view of what can be discerned from non-classified sources about space security.

The lead author of the CSIS report, Todd Harrison, told reporters in a videochat this morning that what motivated CSIS to look into these issues are changes that can be summarized by the “four Ds”:  it is more diverse, with more countries and companies using space; these new entrants are disruptive in terms of who is using space and how; therefore space is becoming more disordered, with a lack of accepted norms and gaps in laws and treaties; and more dangerous, with “juicy” U.S. satellites that are vulnerable and a proliferation of counterspace capabilities.

The four types of counterspace capabilities CSIS identifies are kinetic (for example, antisatellite weapons that destroy a target), non-kinetic (e.g. lasers that can dazzle a targeted satellite and prevent it from collecting data, but not destroy it), electronic (such as jamming, especially of GPS satellites), and cyber (which targets the data, not the satellite itself).

China and Russia have been developing such systems for many years. China’s 2007 antisatellite test against one of its own satellites is one of the most notorious because it created thousands of pieces of debris that still endanger spacecraft in low Earth orbit. CSIS concluded, however, that “it appears China has paused, or at least slowed, development and testing of its kinetic physical counterspace capabilities.”  Instead it is “greatly increasing” work on non-kinetic and electronic counterspace systems, especially spoofing of GPS signals to make ships, for example, appear to be in a different location than their actual physical coordinates.

For its part, Russia is investing in both direct-ascent and co-orbital antisatellite systems, building on work done decades ago in the Soviet era.  It also is developing airborne and ground-based laser counterspace systems, is “almost certainly capable” of cyber attacks, and is “one of the world’s greatest perpetrators of electronic counterspace warfare, jamming and spoofing PNT and communications satellites in conflict zones, nearby territories, and within its borders.”  PNT refers to positioning, navigation and timing, the full suite of capabilities of GPS satellites and their international cousins.

Other countries are also getting into the game.

“In the last year, more states are considering the development of offensive and defensive counterspace capabilities to protect space systems from attacks.  Nations are moving to reorganize their national security space enterprise, as the United States did in 2019, to better address uncertainty and threats in the space domain.” — CSIS

CSIS lists India, France, Japan, Israel, Iran, North Korea, and the United Kingdom as developing or considering the development of one or more types of counterspace systems.  India is perhaps the most advanced, having conducted a direct-ascent kinetic antisatellite test last year.  France announced a Space Defense Strategy in 2019 that declares its intent to develop a space defense capability, create a Space Command, rename the Air Force as the Air and Space Force, and increase funding for military space activities. That came after France denounced Russia for interfering with the operation of the French-Italian military communications satellite Athena-Fidus.  Japan is establishing a Space Domain Mission Unit to cooperate with the United States to protect itself from potential threats and has developed technologies that could be used as counterspace weapons.  Israel’s Arrow-3 missile interceptor could have antisatellite capabilities and it is working on other technologies with potential counterspace applications.  Iran and North Korea have electronic and cyber capabilities that could pose a threat.  The United Kingdom has declared space a warfighting domain, is elevating space within the Ministry of Defence, and has technologies that could be used for counterspace purposes.

Jamming by non-state actors is another area to watch, CSIS cautioned, although the examples cited were related to commercial shipping and drones, not military assets.

Overall, CSIS found that “threats to space systems are growing as more countries and non-state actors acquire counterspace capabilities and, in some cases, employ them in more ways.”

SWF concluded that the increasing number of countries and companies engaging in space activities is “resulting in more innovation and benefits on Earth, but also more congestion and competition in space.”

“The growing use of, and reliance on, space for national security has also led more countries to look at developing their own counterspace capabilities that can be used to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems. — Secure World Foundation

This report focuses on China, Russia and the United States, while also mentioning France, India, Iran, Japan, and North Korea.

For the first three, SWF provides color coded charts that compare where each country stands in the development of five types of counterspace systems: direct-ascent or co-orbital kinetic antisatellite systems in different orbits, electronic warfare, directed energy, or cyber.  It also compares the status of space situational awareness capabilities.  Each country is ranked in terms of whether such systems are in research and development (R&D), testing, operational, or used in conflict.

One key message is that although different systems are in development in several countries, “only non-kinetic capabilities are actively being used in current military operations.”

The two organizations will hold a joint webinar on April 6 to discuss the reports.

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