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Anti-satellite threat looms over Indo-Pacific

Tom Abke

With Indo-Pacific countries increasingly reliant on satellites for communications and military purposes, the threat of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons is becoming more acute in the region, according to defense and space technology experts.

Excluding the People’s Republic of China (PRC), countries in the region have more than 230 satellites in orbit, employed in functions critical to communications, banking, GPS navigation and surveillance, many of which are vulnerable to ASAT weapons, particularly from the PRC and Russia.

“ASATs are a tangible and real threat,” Bruce McClintock, lead of the Space Enterprise Initiative at the Rand Corp., told FORUM. “They’re not just hypothetical. It’s a threat that exists today [from] certainly China and Russia and possibly North Korea.”

McClintock and other experts categorize ASAT weapons as reversible and irreversible. Reversible ASAT weapons don’t destroy satellites. Instead, they render them temporarily inoperable, usually by jamming or “spoofing” their signals. Irreversible ASATs destroy or permanently disable their targets, typically with a missile.

Beijing demonstrated irreversible ASAT capability on an old low-orbit PRC weather satellite in 2007, and Russia executed its own irreversible low-orbit ASAT test in 2021. Both exercises left large amounts of debris in orbit, threatening other satellites and space vehicles, including the International Space Station. The recent high-orbit launch of a PRC rocket fueled speculation that Beijing may be pursuing an ASAT capable of disabling communications satellites in geosynchronous orbits about 37,000 kilometers above Earth, McClintock said. At that altitude, satellites can match Earth’s rotation to provide almost continuous surveillance of a location, which is more valuable for military applications.

The Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army has frequently demonstrated reversible ASAT capabilities in its electronic warfare exercises, McClintock said, adding that there is recent evidence of Russia jamming GPS navigation systems in Ukraine.

Countering ASATs requires a combination of space situational awareness (SSA) and the use of satellite constellations rather than single satellites, as well as ground-based alternatives.

“SSA involves keeping track of what’s in orbit, what kind of orbit it is in, what the understood mission of the system is, [and] what its capabilities are,” McClintock said.

A key recent effort in multilateral SSA involves two military surveillance satellites sent into orbit in mid-2022 by Australia and the United States from a launchpad in New Zealand.

McClintock cited the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Japan and South Korea, which enables them to use data from each other’s surveillance satellites to detect missile launches by nations such as North Korea, as an example of employing a constellation of satellites for a specific task. This “multiplier effect” builds resilience against ASATs by forcing the adversary to attack multiple targets.

The key to reducing the ASAT threat is international cooperation and agreements.

A potential global ban is being discussed at the United Nations, according to Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation.

“The only way the race towards the development of counterspace capabilities, including ASATs, can be prevented is by making ASAT tests a prime issue in multilateral arms control discussions,” Rajagopalan wrote for the foundation. “Unless every major space player acknowledges the dangers of ASAT weapons and puts a halt to the weaponization of space, the threat will be inevitable.”

The U.S. became the first space-faring nation to declare a ban on destructive ASAT weapons testing in April 2022.

Meanwhile, according to McClintock, Beijing and Moscow see strategic value in an ASAT capability given the growing global dependence on satellites, despite the risk posed by space debris and the potential of ASAT countermeasures limiting their effectiveness.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.


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