Major global powers, such as China and Russia, are focusing read more about space weapons that neutralize others’ satellites as opposed to people who destroy payloads on orbit, a whole new report found.
The study with the Secure World Foundation, released Wednesday morning is really a comprehensive variety of public-source information regarding the counter space capabilities of China, Russia, North Korea and other world powers that can threaten American dominance in space.
When most Pentagon leaders discuss anti-satellite or counter space capabilities, they reference the infamous 2007 Chinese test of the anti-satellite kinetic weapon, which successfully destroyed an old Chinese weather satellite and scattered a large number of components of debris in orbit.
But a much more likely attack in 2018 would come in the form of electronic warfare jamming which could prevent users from activating their equipment, directed energy attacks to dazzle sensors, or perhaps most plausibly, hacking a terminal on the ground so troops cannot operate it.
This non-kinetic approach is much more about rendering equipment useless as opposed to destroying it outright, a technique that costs less and it is harder to attribute, said Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force officer then one of the authors with the new report, titled “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment.”
In short, countries are smarter about how they pursue capabilities in space.
“The not so great is I think there is certainly strong evidence we’re seeing more development and testing of counter space technologies than whenever since likely the height from the Cold War,” Weeden said. “The somewhat good news is always that at least at the moment, operational usage of these counter space capabilities is limited to the non-kinetic types.
“We’re seeing growth and development of broad range, from kinetic destructive technologies to jamming and hacking nevertheless the operational use to date appears to be limited for the jamming and hacking types.”
- China has not slowed down its capability development since the 2007 anti-satellite test, but has also not repeated its action of destroying a satellite on orbit, a feat which drew global condemnation. The report concludes that Chinese capabilities against satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO) “is likely mature and may be operationally fielded on mobile launchers within the next few years,” but found that capabilities to target medium-earth orbit or geostationary earth orbit were likely still in the “experimental stage.”
- Russia has likely built up its capabilities on the back of Cold War efforts, but likely does not have anti-satellite capabilities “on a sufficient scale or at sufficient altitude to pose a critical threat to U.S. space assets” at this time. In addition, the capabilities under development don’t appear aimed at targeting assets outside of LEO. However, Russia has invested heavily in electronic warfare capabilities, and “can likely jam communications satellites uplinks over a wide area from fixed ground stations facilities” today if needed.
- The United States has highly-capable technologies that would allow them to maneuver near potential enemy systems in both geostationary orbit and low earth orbit, and has a number of technologies that could be adapted to anti-satellite systems with limited work. That includes mid-course missile defense systems, which could be used against satellites in low-earth orbit. Like Russia, the U.S. “likely has the capability to jam global navigation satellite service receivers [like GPS] within a local area of operation to prevent their effective use by adversaries.”
- Other nations in the report include Iran (unlikely to develop an anti-satellite weapon system, but has limited commercial GPS jamming capability), North Korea (“does not appear motivated to develop dedicated counterspace assets” but has limited GPS jamming options) and India (unlikely to develop a counter-space capability, but could probably move rapidly in that direction if it chose.)
Weeden describes the spread of such technologies, with the publicly stated rise of great power competition relating to the U.S., Russia and China, being a “worrisome mixture of trends.”
And it’s unclear how a U.S. can adjust that trend to deter proliferation of such capabilities – or if that’s even a realistic goal anymore.
“The focus appears to be, ‘well, everyone else is performing it, we ought to too,’” Weeden said. “These trends look like used as a possible argument for why the US should also restart or develop really its own offensive counter-space capabilities, as opposed to how do we tame or stop the proliferation and kind of get control of the technology, or deter use.”
For years, Pentagon officials were cautious of discussing a potential war in space, beyond fears such statements could create an arms race in orbit. But in modern times, American officials are becoming more vocal concerning the threats, partly due to sequestration-related budget pressures that threatened to squeeze the area funding stream.
However, the report shows that the heavy investment in anti-space capabilities began inside the mid-2000s, before that rhetoric through the U.S. shifted.
One area being purchased heavily by China, Russian and the United States are capabilities known as Rendezvous and Proximity Operations, or RPO, a chance to possess a system in space move about and connect to another nation’s satellites. Both China and Russia are pushing money into these capabilities and testing them on their own equipment, even though the report notes there’s “no proof” these are disruptive capabilities instead of intelligence gathering investments.