Growing counter-space capabilities

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The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS’s) “Space Threat Assessment 2018” argues that the US Military’s extensive reliance on space systems is a potential weakness its adversaries will surely try to exploit one day or another. “Space capabilities enable the American way of warfare,” such is the core problem posed by the report.

From “hunting down terrorists in remote parts of the world” to securing a credible nuclear deterrent and projecting power in any way, space systems are critical to the full spectrum of the US military: they enable communications, navigation and strike-precision. Adversaries of the USA are aware of this dependence on satellites and are developing (and already operate) counterspace weapons that could seriously cripple the American military. The report is a review of the counterspace capabilities mastered by the US’s main challengers: China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, though it is often speculative as details about such systems are generally not publicly available.

The document first describes the four existing types of counterspace weapons. First are kinetic physical weapons, which consist of hitting a space system with an object or a warhead. Such weapons include direct-assent ASAT missiles on the one hand, and co-orbital systems on the other hand. The latter are satellites that are first placed on orbit and then intercept their target with orbital rendezvous when commanded to. Both these weapons require advanced technologies including launch systems and autonomous capabilities to reach the target.

The second type of counterspace systems are non-kinetic physical weapons. Such systems can achieve physical effect without making physical contact, such as electromagnetic pulses or directed energy (laser beams or microwave-bombardments), capable of damaging satellite components.

The third counterspace systems are electronic. They do not cause permanent physical effects but instead jam emission and reception antennas. GPS satellites are prime targets for such systems. Finally are cyberattacks, which are used to target systems that are needed to exploit a satellite data, such as antennas, ground networks, terminals and associated software.

If electronic and cyber ASAT counterspace weapons achieve less “decisive” effect on their target, they require however much less means than, moreover, are often commercially available. And they are more difficult to trace-back. The report then looks into such counterspace capabilities thought to be mastered by foes.

China has specialized direct-ascent kinetic physical weapons. It successfully destroyed one of its own satellites with an SC-19 missile in 2007 and is now suspected to be developing several other direct-ascent ASAT weapons simultaneously, including one that may be able to hit satellites at geosynchronous orbit altitudes (roughly 35,000 km). Since 2005, its non-kinetic capabilities allegedly include a mounted laser system capable of blinding a satellite. China also operates electronic means that can jam common satellite communication bands and GPS signals and has cyber capabilities that it allegedly used against US satellite systems in 2008.

Russia has a legacy of co-orbital kinetic physical weapons, such as its Istrebitel Sputnikov (IS) system which was successfully tested in the 60s and 80s. It more recently developed a direct-ascent ASAT missile, the PL-19 Nudol (which is also a missile-interceptor), thought to be able of targeting satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Coming to non-kinetic physical means, it is known that the USSR studied the effects of EMPs caused by nuclear detonations in the high-atmosphere, but Russia may also operate directed-energy weapons such as an ASAT laser beam mounted aboard a Beriev A-60 jet that could dazzle satellites or even blind them, or damage their vital solar arrays. Russia also has operated ASAT electronic systems since the 90s, used to jam GPS signals in the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, and its cyber capabilities, among the most advanced worldwide, have been repeatedly used to steal satellite data or attack old but still operational satellites.

Though it has ballistic capabilities, Iran does not operate any kinetic physical weapons; it lacks the critical guidance technologies. However, it may have acquired a laser system that successfully blinded an American satellite back in the 2000s. Coming to electronic weapons, Iran has an “extensive record” of jamming space systems. In the 2000s, it interfered with satellites transmitting to western broadcasting stations in the country such as the BBC or Voice of America (VOA) and may also have successfully downed US drones by suppressing their GPS signals. Iran is also thought to have advanced cyber capabilities.

North Korea, finally, despite operating ballistic systems, does not have kinetic counterspace weapons. However it could theoretically use rockets to detonate a nuclear weapon on orbit to create an EMP that could damage any space assets, and is known to be developing such a capability. North Korea has also used electronic means to jam South Korean Space systems repeatedly, including GPS signals used by air traffic control. Besides, its cyber capabilities are “perhaps the best in the World”, according to a congressional testimony. It has already demonstrated them many times, including against a South Korea nuclear power plant and could perfectly use them against US satellites.



Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.