Space Threats

Space Threats

An analysis of counterspace capabilities, developments and policies

Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, Lt. Col. Joe Moye and Makena Young/Center for Strategic and International Studies

The year 2020 proved to be one of uncertainty and unpredictability driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing global recession and political change in the United States and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. For space security, however, 2020 was largely a year of continuity and predictability. The most notable change in the space environment was the addition of some 900 SpaceX Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO), bringing the total constellation size to more than 1,200. This is the largest satellite constellation in history, and it already makes up roughly one-third of all operating satellites in space. SpaceX continues to build out its constellation, with launches of 60 Starlink satellites at a time every few weeks. 

Several notable developments in U.S. space policy also occurred during the previous U.S. administration, under then-President Donald Trump, which issued three new space policy directives (SPDs). SPD-5 directed government departments and agencies to develop cybersecurity policies and practices to improve the protection of government and commercial space assets from cyberattacks. SPD-6 updated national policy for the development and use of space nuclear power and propulsion, and SPD-7 updated policy and guidance for space-based positioning, navigation and timing programs and activities. NASA also unveiled the Artemis Accords in 2020, which include 10 principles with which nations must abide to be part of the Artemis program, a plan to return astronauts to the moon and, eventually, send them to Mars. By mid-2021, 12 nations had signed the accords, including Indo-Pacific nations Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the U.S. 

The stand-up of the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command continued throughout 2020 and 2021. The U.S. Space Force submitted its first budget request, for U.S. $15.4 billion, including U.S. $15.3 billion transferred from existing U.S. Air Force accounts. It also published its first capstone document, “Spacepower Doctrine for Space Forces,” which was more notable for its continuity with current policy and doctrine than for any significant changes. U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, issued his strategic vision in February 2021 to develop a warfighting mindset throughout the command, maintain key relationships with allies and partners, and improve integration across the U.S. government and with commercial space organizations. 

Throughout 2020, other nations continued development and testing of counterspace weapons. Most notably, Russia conducted several anti-satellite (ASAT) tests, including a co-orbital ASAT weapon in July 2020 and a direct-ascent ASAT weapon in December 2020. These activities reflect a pattern of behavior in which Russia has continued to develop and reconstitute its counterspace capabilities.

While China, India, North Korea and Russia have the most public advancements in counterspace weapons, other states are developing counterspace capabilities. Japan continues to advance its civil and military space operations. Before passage of its Basic Space Law, Japan prohibited the use of space for national defense. The 2008 law permitted the country to begin military developments in space, and government officials are speaking about developing defensive counterspace capabilities, largely in response to actions by China in space, such as the 2007 debris-producing ASAT test. 

In 2020, Japan authorized a bill to set up its proposed Space Domain Mission Unit within the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to be operational by 2023, with plans to launch the first satellite for monitoring the space environment by 2026. Japan established the Space Operations Squadron in 2020 as the first space domain mission unit with the official mission to protect Japanese satellites from damage, including armed attacks, and to monitor the space environment, including space debris, asteroids and other satellites. The Space Operations Squadron will cooperate with the U.S. Space Command and Japan’s civil agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. “Japan’s security space activities are premised on cooperation with the United States,” said Yasuhito Fukushima, a senior research fellow at the Japanese National Institute for Defense Studies.  

Japan has not demonstrated any direct-ascent ASAT systems, although it has U.S.-made SM-3 missile defense interceptors with a latent ability to attack space assets in LEO. Because military developments in space are relatively new to the country, most public remarks have been about the possibility of pursuing such capabilities as co-orbital ASAT and jamming technologies. In 2020, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that Japan will “drastically bolster capability and systems in order to secure superiority,” though no specific programs have been made public. 

In South Korea, the government in an October 2020 blog discussed its need to reinforce satellite navigation with terrestrial systems to combat jamming and spoofing. The country cited troubles with spoofing from North Korea, specifically from 2010-16, as a driving force to augment GPS with terrestrial systems. South Korea’s Ministry of Science also released a statement detailing plans to upgrade space capabilities, including launching the first locally built rocket to carry satellites and orbiter probes to the moon, with aims for a more powerful rocket by 2029. 

U.S. Air Force Airmen transitioning to U.S. Space Force Guardians take an oath at Travis Air Force Base in California. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHINA’S SPACE PROGRAM

Minimal counterspace weapons developments or tests were identified in open-source information during 2020. However, China has a robust direct-ascent ASAT program, dual-use capabilities on orbit that are necessary for co-orbital ASAT weapons and widely used electronic and cyber counterspace capabilities. 

Despite the pandemic, 2020 saw accomplishments for China in civil space missions. The Chang’e-5 moon mission returned 2 kilograms of rocks in December 2020. The Yutu-2 rover was still operating on the far side of the moon as of mid-2021 and had traveled over 600 meters on the lunar surface. China also launched the core section of its national space station in June 2021. 

CHINA’S MILITARY SPACE ORGANIZATION 

The organization of space assets and missions within China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remains unclear. Many space missions, such as space launch and the acquisition and operation of satellites, remain within the Strategic Support Force (SSF). Often presented as the “information domain,” the SSF maintains PLA efforts for cyber, electronic and psychological warfare, and space. The Space Systems and Network Systems departments (co-equal semi-independent branches within the SSF) share joint missions, including counterspace capabilities. A Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs report notes that “another important principle that appears to have influenced the design of the SSF is the enduring Maoist imperative of peacetime-wartime integration.” This principle is well suited for the dual-use nature of many space and counterspace capabilities. 

Chinese civil space capabilities, such as the Martian rover, are led by the China National Space Administration, which falls within the purview of the State Council’s State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. are two examples of the many research and development arms of the Chinese government that specialize in space technologies.

CHINESE COUNTERSPACE WEAPONS 

China continues to test its operational SC-19 direct-ascent ASAT system, yet it has already demonstrated that its direct-ascent ASAT capabilities can threaten any satellite in LEO and likely in medium Earth orbit and geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) as well. 

Tianjin University has developed a robot to support space debris-removal missions. This tentacle-like robotic arm would be placed on satellites and launched into orbit to grapple debris and clear it from popular orbits. The robotic arm could, in theory, be used to grab an adversary’s satellite, although it would probably require extremely close rendezvous proximity operations (RPOs) that would not be effective with debris or defunct satellites tumbling uncontrolled in space.

Some analysts have made claims of massive developments in Chinese ground-based laser stations, including the identification of five suspected locations of such programs within China. While some of the programs identified appear to be academic and, therefore, are likely not ASAT systems, one location of primary concern is a military base known for conducting kinetic physical ASAT tests that may also house a laser weapon system. There is no indication of how advanced or “ready to mobilize” such a directed energy system may be, and there has been no publicly available information about potential tests or attacks against space systems. 

In late October 2020, the Indian newspaper Hindustan Times accused China of moving mobile jammers within 60 kilometers of the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, part of the disputed Kashmir region between India, Pakistan and China, to hide PLA movements in the area. 

There have been no publicly acknowledged cyberattacks from China against space systems of the U.S. or other nations. However, China has successfully proved this capability and continues to be active with cyberattacks in other domains against financial or defense-related targets.

This computer graphics image provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency shows an asteroid and the asteroid explorer Hayabusa2. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

RUSSIA’S MILITARY SPACE CAPABILITIES

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed most industries in a large portion of countries mentioned in this report, but Russia’s military space capabilities kept a steady pace. In 2020, Russia tested numerous counterspace capabilities, performed complex RPOs and expanded its space-based military infrastructure. The country’s consistent space launch capability, continuous advance of counterspace capabilities and civil space contributions through the International Space Station have maintained Russia’s status as a major space power, and its prowess in the space domain has fostered unique relationships with foreign countries that are sometimes rivals in other domains. 

Russia’s state-sponsored space activities fall into either the Russian Aerospace Forces (RAF) or the civil Roscosmos program. Within the Russian military, space capabilities fall under the RAF. A subsection of the RAF is the Russian Space Force, which was created in 1992 as the world’s first space force and is responsible for monitoring all space-based assets, military launches and potential threats to space systems. 

In 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a document that empowers him to use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional strike targeting the country’s critical government and military infrastructure. In addition to defending against conventional weapons, space-based weapons are mentioned as a threat in the document, which also calls out the potential deployment of missile defense and offensive strike weapons in space as posing a threat to Russia. The approval of this document signals that Russia believes space-to-Earth weapons could pose as much of a threat as nuclear weapons and would elicit the same response from the country. 

RUSSIAN COUNTERSPACE WEAPONS 

Russia has possessed kinetic physical counterspace capabilities since the Soviet Union’s first co-orbital ASAT test in the 1960s. The technology used in Soviet-era programs proved to be solid building blocks for more recent Russian developments, and the country has repeatedly displayed direct-ascent and co-orbital ASAT capabilities — and tested both in 2020. 

In response to a July 2020 test in which Russia’s Cosmos 2543 fired a small projectile near an unrelated Russian satellite, U.S. Space Command condemned the test and asserted that such a projectile could be used to target satellites. In response, the Russian Ministry of Defence said these matryoshka, or nesting, satellites are deployed for routine inspections and surveillance of Russia’s other space assets. The Kremlin has continued to assert that Russia has always been and remains a country committed to fully demilitarizing outer space. 

Russia continues to develop its air and missile defense systems. Though not officially designated as ASAT weapons, the S-400 and S-500 series surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems could likely reach a satellite in LEO. Russian military sources claim that the S-500 is designed to strike objects in space and defend against space-based weapons. The head of Russia’s Air and Space Forces has said that the S-500 is capable of destroying hypersonic weapons and satellites in near space. The missile class could be used as a counterspace weapon, according to the deputy chief of the RAF’s SAM troops, Yuri Muravkin. “The boundaries between air and space are being, and will be, erased as the aerial enemy gradually becomes an aerospace one,” he said. 

Russia also continues to grow its electronic counterspace capabilities and is developing mobile ground-based systems to interfere with foreign satellites. Its electronic capabilities have been increasing at a steady pace since the early 2000s and accelerated in 2009 with the stand-up of electronic warfare troops within the Russian military. Recent developments in electronic counterspace weapons include the Tirada-2, a mobile jamming system “for suppression of space communications,” and the Bylina-MM, a ground-based mobile system focused on jamming satellite communication channels. Bylina has been reported as “a series of ground-based mobile automated stations” and a mobile command-and-control system with artificial intelligence. It includes an automated system that is able to recognize assets and determine how to attack them, and it can be used against a variety of ground-, air- and space-based targets. Russia also reportedly has two radar jammers, Krasukha-2 and Krasukha-4, which may be capable of interfering with radar reconnaissance satellites. 

Astronauts salute before boarding China’s Shenzhou-12 spacecraft on a Long March-2F carrier rocket at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in China in June 2021. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

NORTH KOREA’S SPACE PURSUITS

North Korea’s counterspace pursuits were subdued in 2020. It remains unlikely that North Korea is capable of or actively pursuing direct-ascent or co-orbital ASAT weapons, and there is little indication that it has advanced its nonkinetic physical capabilities, though some sources insist that a North Korean electromagnetic pulse threat exists. North Korea has demonstrated the ability to conduct electronic warfare through jamming capabilities, and its cyberattack threat is active and viable. These latter two capabilities have the greatest potential for counterspace applications. Claims that North Korea and Iran have resumed cooperation on missile and launch vehicle technology suggest advancement by one nation may be transferable to the other. 

North Korea continues to claim peaceful intentions in space, despite a United Nations Security Council report labeling the regime’s space program as a threat to international peace. In May 2020, North Korean state television aired a segment on the National Aerospace Development Administration to promote the nation’s space program. Pyongyang’s propaganda service, Naenara, stated that the purpose of North Korea’s space program is to “adhere to the interests of the state and to use science and technology to solve scientific and technological problems essential to economic construction and people’s lives.” However, much like in the case of Iran, it is widely suspected that North Korea’s space intentions are closely tied to its ballistic missile aspirations. 

The regime maintains two established launching areas for space capabilities: the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground and the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground. No open-source information emerged in 2020 regarding use of the Tonghae site. The website 38 North published imagery and analysis reporting normal maintenance, snow clearing and routine activity, but nothing to indicate the preparation for or execution of a launch in 2020. North Korea also has a General Satellite Control Building (GSCB) intended to track and monitor its own satellite launches and orbiting satellites. Reports indicate the ongoing construction of what is believed to be scientific testing facilities next to the GSCB, though their exact purpose is unclear. 

North Korea also does not appear to be pursuing a co-orbital ASAT weapon. To date, the North has not demonstrated the means and expertise to conduct RPOs or active guidance measures required for a viable co-orbital ASAT capability. With only a handful of North Korean objects currently in space, and minimal activity at its two launch facilities, it is unlikely that North Korea is actively pursuing either direct-ascent or co-orbital ASAT capabilities. 

When it comes to electronic warfare operations, the North continues to exercise its downlink jamming capabilities. In April 2020, it announced that it was preparing to deploy a new “GPS jamming device” for use against South Korea. There were multiple reports in 2020 that North Korea continues to conduct jamming operations along the Korean Peninsula. Many open-source reports highlight jamming focused on commercial radio broadcast frequencies and civilian GPS signals rather than military targets. The U.S. Army published a new manual titled “North Korean Tactics” in July 2020 that details the North’s electronic warfare organizations, capabilities, techniques and tactics. 

The greatest North Korean counterspace threat to the U.S. remains a cyberattack, according to U.S. officials. North Korean tactics call out the regime’s Cyber Warfare Guidance Unit, known as Bureau 121. The U.S. Army manual describes Bureau 121 as consisting of more than 6,000 members, with many operating in countries such as Belarus, China, India, Malaysia and Russia. 

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in December 2020 that North Korea posed a greater threat to U.S. cybersecurity than Russia. This sentiment was echoed by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration in February 2021. North Korea’s malicious cyber activities threatening the U.S. and its allies helped to inform a review of U.S. policy, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

INDIA’S GROWTH

Since launching its first satellite in 1980, India has shown progressive growth in its space capabilities. With a successful ASAT test in 2019, India became the fourth country to demonstrate a kinetic counterspace capability. India is also advancing its civil space program, which is working on its third mission to the moon. 

India’s space activities are bifurcated into civil and military space organizations. All civil space developments fall under the Indian Space Research Organisation, which operates under the Department of Space. The agency celebrated its 51st launch in November 2020, its only launch of 2020, due to the pandemic. India’s first orbital launch of 2021 was February 28, when it delivered 19 satellites into orbit, including an Earth observation satellite for Brazil. 

In 2019, India created the Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO), which is charged with the research and development of national security space systems and operates under the Defence Space Agency in the Ministry of Defence. These new agencies are part of India’s goal to advance strategic space operations. The DSRO was tasked with developing space warfare systems and technology. Many Indian counterspace capabilities are developed to respond to security threats posed by China and Pakistan. 

India has also been working with private companies to provide space domain awareness data to “detect, identify, and track enemy assets.” The Defence Space Agency hopes the system, once developed, can play defensive and offensive roles. 

WHAT TO WATCH

While China continues to make progress in developing counterspace weapons, its focus appears to be shifting to integrating these capabilities into its forces and operational plans. A key issue to watch is China’s overall investment in space-related research and development and dual-use space capabilities, such as its tentacle space debris cleanup robot. From an operational perspective, a key development to track is the progress China makes integrating its electronic counterspace capabilities, such as jamming and spoofing, into its irregular warfare forces and tactics. In terms of norms of behavior in space, a key indicator to watch is China’s Shijan-17 (SJ-17) GEO inspector satellite. While SJ-17 appears to have focused on inspecting other Chinese satellites so far, its possible use to inspect another nation’s satellites in GEO would mark an important shift that could have broader repercussions. 

Russia is perhaps the most likely nation to conduct additional counterspace testing and deployment over the coming year. Given the tests of its direct ascent and co-orbital ASAT weapons in 2020, a key issue to watch is whether these tests continue and if new capabilities are demonstrated. Other areas to watch for with Russia include tests of laser ASAT systems on additional airborne and ground-based platforms, electronic warfare systems for the protection of critical platforms and emboldened cyberattacks against civilian infrastructure and government institutions. 

Both Iran and North Korea continue to have relatively immature space capabilities, but their electronic and cyber counterspace capabilities pose a serious threat. Over the coming year, Iran will likely continue its space launch activities under the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and North Korea may look to restart testing of its space launch capabilities after a year of relative dormancy. A key development to watch is any additional indication that Iran and North Korea are cooperating in space or ballistic missile technology. Additional issues to watch include continued Iranian GPS spoofing in the Persian Gulf and North Korean GPS jamming into South Korea. An increased frequency and sophistication of cyberattacks by either country in other domains could also indicate a higher level of cyber threats to space systems. 

India appears likely to continue development of high-powered lasers and other nonkinetic ASAT capabilities. Key indicators for India in space include how its new military and research and development space agencies continue to develop, the level of funding provided for space and counterspace activities and signs that it is adapting or testing its electronic warfare systems for use against space systems. 

Overall, 2020 was a slow year for counterspace activities, with a few notable exceptions. That may change as nations reemerge from lockdown and return to their prior plans and programs. As President Biden’s administration develops and refines its overall national security strategy, one of the key areas to watch will be how it addresses space policy issues in general and the proliferation of counterspace weapons. Calls within the U.S. and elsewhere for more clearly defined norms of behavior in space are growing. An early indication that President Biden’s administration intends to make progress toward building norms in space would be an agreement among the U.S. Defense Department and the intelligence community for which norms the U.S. government is willing to support and follow. Without an interagency agreement within the U.S. government, it will be difficult to start a meaningful conversation with other governments.  o

The Center for Strategic and International Studies Aerospace Security Project published this report, titled “Space Threat Assessment 2021,” in April 2021. It has been edited to fit FORUM’s format. To access the full report, visit 

https://www.csis.org/analysis/space-threat-assessment-2021.


Types of Counterspace Weapons

Space is an increasingly important enabler of economic and military power. The strategic importance of space has led some nations to build arsenals of counterspace weapons to disrupt, degrade or destroy space systems and threaten the ability of other nations to use the space domain. However, the importance of space has also spurred efforts to deter or mitigate conflict and protect the domain for peaceful uses. For example, the U.S. Space Force’s capstone publication on space power notes that “military space forces should make every effort to promote responsible norms of behavior that perpetuate space as a safe and open environment” in accordance with international laws and national policies. 

Counterspace weapons, particularly those that produce orbital debris, pose a serious risk to the space environment and the ability of all nations to use the space domain for prosperity and security. Counterspace weapons vary significantly in their effects, how they are deployed and the level of technology and resources needed to develop and field them. They can be categorized into four broad groups of capabilities: kinetic physical, nonkinetic physical, electronic and cyber.

KINETIC PHYSICAL

Kinetic physical counterspace weapons attempt to strike directly or detonate a warhead near a satellite or ground station. The three main forms of kinetic physical attack are direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, co-orbital ASAT weapons and ground station attacks. Direct-ascent ASAT weapons are launched from Earth on a suborbital trajectory to strike a satellite in orbit, while co-orbital ASAT weapons are placed into orbit and maneuvered into or near their target. Attacks on ground stations are targeted at the terrestrial sites responsible for command and control of satellites or the relay of satellite mission data to users. 

A kinetic physical attack in space will produce orbital debris, which can indiscriminately affect other satellites in similar orbits. These types of attacks are one of the only counterspace actions that carry the potential for the loss of life if targeted at crewed ground stations or at satellites in orbits where humans are present, such as the International Space Station in low Earth orbit. No country has conducted a kinetic physical attack against another country’s satellite, but China, India, Russia and the United States have successfully tested direct-ascent ASAT weapons.

NONKINETIC PHYSICAL

Nonkinetic physical counterspace weapons affect satellites or ground systems without making physical contact. Lasers can temporarily dazzle or permanently blind satellite sensors or cause components to overheat. High-powered microwave (HPM) weapons can disrupt a satellite’s electronics or cause permanent damage to its electrical circuits and processors. A nuclear device detonated in space can create a high-radiation environment and an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would have indiscriminate effects on satellites in affected orbits. 

Satellites can be targeted with lasers and HPM weapons from ground- or ship-based sites, airborne platforms or other satellites. A satellite lasing system requires high beam quality, adaptive optics (if being used through the atmosphere) and advanced pointing control to steer the laser beam precisely — technology that is costly and requires a high degree of sophistication. An HPM weapon can be used to disrupt a satellite’s electronics, corrupt stored data, cause processors to restart and, at higher power levels, cause permanent damage to electrical circuits and processors. 

A nuclear detonation in space would immediately affect satellites within range of its EMP, and it would also create a high-radiation environment that would accelerate the degradation of satellite components over the long term for unshielded satellites in the affected orbital regime. The detonation of nuclear weapons in space is banned under the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which has more than 100 signatories, although China and North Korea are not among them.

ELECTRONIC

Electronic counterspace weapons target the electromagnetic spectrum through which space systems transmit and receive data. Jamming devices interfere with the communications to or from satellites by generating noise in the same radio frequency band. An uplink jammer interferes with the signal going from Earth to a satellite, such as the command-and-control uplink. Downlink jammers target the signal from a satellite as it propagates down to users on Earth. In spoofing, an attacker tricks a receiver into believing a fake signal is the real signal. A spoofer can be used to inject false information into a data stream or to issue false commands to a satellite to disrupt its operations. User terminals with omnidirectional antennas, such as many GPS receivers and satellite phones, have a wider field of view and thus are susceptible to downlink jamming and spoofing from a wider range of angles on the ground. 

Through a type of spoofing called “meaconing,” even encrypted military GPS signals can be spoofed. Meaconing does not require cracking the GPS encryption because it merely rebroadcasts a time-delayed copy of the original signal without decrypting it or altering the data. The technology needed to jam and spoof many types of satellite signals is commercially available and inexpensive, making it relatively easy to proliferate among state and nonstate actors.

CYBER

While electronic forms of attack attempt to interfere with the transmission of radio frequency signals, cyberattacks target the data itself and the systems that use, transmit and control the flow of data. Cyberattacks on satellites can be used to monitor data traffic patterns, intercept data or insert false or corrupted data in a system. These attacks can target ground stations, end-user equipment or the satellites themselves. While cyberattacks require a high degree of understanding of the systems being targeted, they do not necessarily require significant resources to conduct and can be contracted out to private groups or individuals. Even if a state or nonstate actor lacks internal cyber capabilities, it may still pose a cyber threat. 

A cyberattack on space systems can result in the loss of data or services being provided by a satellite, which could have systemic effects if used against a system such as GPS. Cyberattacks could have permanent effects if, for example, an adversary seizes control of a satellite through its command-and-control system. The attacker could shut down all communications and permanently damage the satellite by expending its propellant supply or issuing commands that would damage its electronics and sensors.

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