Russia’s 14Ts033 Nudol ASAT capable

In 2019, a series of announcements highlighted the growing importance of space for national security and defence. At its November 2019 foreign-ministers’ meeting in Belgium, NATO declared space an `operational domain’ for the Alliance, three months after the United States activated US Space Command as a new, eleventh, combatant command. According to the US Department of Defense, the US `faces serious and growing challenges to its freedom to operate in space’. China and Russia, it said, `view counterspace capabilities as a means to reduce US and allied military effectiveness’.

Space is a critical aspect of everyday civilian, as well as military, activity. The technical and cost barriers to entry have reduced, enabling more countries to possess space assets. Many of these are dual use. More countries are relying on space to support and enhance their military operations, in turn providing an incentive for the development of counter-space and anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. Many of these resemble those developed by the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. One risk, some analysts argue, is that today there may be fewer deterrent effects to hold back the use of such capabilities, particularly if states look to employ these systems as part of sub-threshold activity.

This emergent acknowledgement that space is another domain of military competition and potential conflict raises numerous questions. These include how best to organise military space forces and how to protect or harden satellites against attack, while also developing the means to interfere with adversary assets. There are also questions relating to the rapid growth of private-sector space systems and how these may drive competition or be leveraged by armed forces. Another challenge is how to better integrate military space operations with operations in the air, on land, at sea and in cyberspace. Additionally, the prospect of offensive military action in space, or activity that targets uplinks, downlinks or ground stations, raises concerns about collateral damage to the global space services that underpin modern commercial and social life; how arms-control or confidence-building regimes could be used to limit the use tions or mistakes that could risk confrontation or even conflict in space or on Earth.

Cold War heritage

The Russian (then-Soviet) and US space programmes have their roots in producing delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons, but this shifted, more or less contemporaneously, to include launching satellites. Increased Soviet air-defence capabilities drove the Eisenhower administration to develop satellites to bolster intelligence-collection activities. Although the Soviet Union achieved early public firsts with the Sputnik satellite (which reached orbit in October 1957 atop a modified ballistic missile) and the first human spaceflight (when Yuri Gagarin orbited on 12 April 1961 in Vostok 1), the classified US Corona reconnaissance-satellite programme first proved the national-security benefits to be had in exploiting space.

Moscow and Washington engaged in military competition in space throughout the Cold War. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the foundation of international space law, limited military space competition by outlawing the placement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in orbit and the establishment of military bases on the Moon, but also allowed for a wide range of other military space activities under the euphemism `peaceful uses’. Initial ideas for crewed military space stations and orbital bombers soon gave way to more practical satellites that provided critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); communications; and positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services from space. The military utility of these services drove both the Soviet Union and the US to also develop and deploy ground- and space-based ASAT capabilities. These weapons were never used in a military conflict, largely because the use of satellites to verify arms control treaties and provide warning of nuclear attack deterred space attacks, for fear they would trigger a wider, possibly nuclear, confrontation.

Towards the end of the Cold War, the Reagan administration’s public drive for its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) spurred a new round of international concern over military competition in space. There was increased concern that the militarisation of space might turn into the weaponisation of space, potentially including space-based systems that could be used to target installations on Earth. However, capabilities envisioned for SDI were not deployed before the Cold War came to an end.

Developing competition

The US was the dominant space power after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many Soviet-era Russian military space programmes faced budget cuts and, analysts understand, ASAT programmes were mothballed. For Washington, the value of space for supporting and enhancing military operations was proven in the 1990-91 First Gulf War and the 1999 bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia. These drove increased military investment in space-based services and spurred their integration into air, land and maritime forces. In the late 1990s, the US armed forces drew up plans for broader efforts to achieve full-spectrum `dominance’ in space, but these lost momentum after 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in favour of using space capabilities to support and enhance those operations.

While the US was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, China and Russia began to increase their investment in national-security space capabilities. Both countries were embarked on military modernisation programmes, learning lessons from US and Western operations as far back as the First Gulf War, and in Russia’s case also rejuvenating some hitherto dormant military space projects with renewed funding streams. Some analysts understand this included moving some counter-space and ASAT programmes out of storage or developing new versions. It has been reported that the then commander of Russia’s space forces had said in 2010 that Russia was `again developing inspection’ and `strike’ satellites. Russia also embarked on a project to restore its GLONASS satellite-navigation constellation. For its part, China embarked on a wide-ranging programme to develop its own space-based capabilities for ISR, PNT and communications to support its national-security needs (launches began in 2000 for China’s Beidou satellite-navigation system), as well as a suite of counter-space and ASAT capabilities of its own. China conducted multiple tests of ground-based ASAT weapons, including one in January 2007, using a direct-ascent missile, that destroyed one of its own weather satellites and resulted in several thousand pieces of orbital debris. (The US and Soviet Union had themselves carried out ASAT tests during the Cold War.)

During the 2010s, the US became increasingly concerned about the threats to its space capabilities. In 2013, the Obama administration compiled a National Intelligence Estimate of Russian and Chinese counter-space capabilities and reviewed the United States’ space posture. This sparked several initiatives intended to reorganise national-security space capabilities and increase the resilience of US space assets to attack, and saw the first public discussions by senior military leaders about the possibility of space becoming a future domain of conflict. The Trump administration has continued this focus, with public statements about the inevitability of space as a war-fighting domain and impetus for a major reorganisation of US military space bureaucracy.

Diffusing space competition

With space becoming integral to future military competition and conflict, and as more countries invest in space-based capabilities to enhance their national security interests, the tendency to seek counterspace and ASAT capabilities is now evident. Current conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine already feature the significant use of ground-based jamming and spoofing of satellite-navigation and satellite-communications systems as part of military operations. This has taken place elsewhere, as demonstrated by the 2016 jamming of satellite-navigation signals in South Korea, attributed to North Korea by the South, and reports in 2019 that satellite-navigation signals offshore Shanghai were being spoofed. Meanwhile, China and Russia have continued their ASAT testing and development programmes. Meanwhile, India tested its own direct-ascent ASAT weapon in March 2019 and some in the US have argued that it should also develop an offensive capability.

The types of counter-space capabilities being explored today are fundamentally the same as those developed during the Cold War. Russia’s 51T6 Gorgon missile (part of the A-135 anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system) was reported to have a latent direct-ascent ASAT capability, while it remains unclear if Russia’s 14Ts033 Nudol (which might be associated with the A-235 ABM system) has a similar capability. As well as ground-, sea- or air-launched missiles used as direct-ascent weapons to destroy satellites in low-Earth orbit, interceptors placed in orbit could be used as co-orbital weapons, manoeuvring and rendezvousing with a target satellite to try and damage or destroy it. These interceptors could include manoeuvrable satellites. High-powered lasers and other types of directed-energy weapons could also be employed to temporarily blind or otherwise interfere with satellites, although physical destruction using a laser (particularly from a ground-based location) is, specialists assert, still some way off. More immediate threats, however, are the jamming of satellite radiofrequency transmissions and cyber attacks against ground-control stations, which could disrupt the military use of satellites during a conflict.

Protection and resilience

There is a continuing debate over how best to protect satellites from attack. Russia and the US were effectively deterred from targeting early-warning satellites during the Cold War by the risk of starting a nuclear war. The lack of hostile threats for most of the period since has meant that functionality became a prime design determinant for national-security satellites. This led to a focus on large, capable and expensive national-security satellites, with long development and replacement timelines. Some analysts have argued that developing offensive capabilities to threaten adversary satellites might itself deter potential attacks. That said, if a nation with such offensive capabilities is itself heavily reliant on space-enabled systems, it may be disinclined to take action that might in turn imperil these. Instead, a key strategy has been to increase the resilience of space capabilities by moving to new constellations of numerous smaller satellites, potentially spread across multiple orbits; using commercial or allied satellites; and generating operationally responsive space capabilities, so as to quickly reconstitute those constellations. For satellite applications where this is not feasible, the focus has been on enabling satellites to defend against attacks, perhaps with additional manoeuvring capabilities or on-board systems to confuse or interfere with targeting systems, or improved protection against threats including dazzling or jamming. Analysts understand that as part of the expansion of its military space functions, and stemming from concerns about potential on-orbit vulnerability, France is considering passive and active protection for its future satellites, as well as systems that could provide warning of an impending threat, thereby allowing defensive manouevres.

At the same time, some states are preparing to operate in environments where they no longer have assured access to space or assured data reliability from their space-based systems. More exercises have been observed in which GPS signals have been deliberately degraded, while it was reported in 2016 that the US Navy was reinstating celestial-navigation training amid fears of GPS degradation or spoofing. This is also significant for guided weapons, where there is renewed attention on hardening systems against electronic attack, as well as forms of redundancy, for instance in guidance systems that may be otherwise dependent on signals from space-based systems.

One critical contemporary feature that was not present during the Cold War is the involvement of the private sector. The Apollo programme and other major Cold War space programmes were government directed and funded (although they used contracted industry support), whereas today commercial companies are often engaged in their own space activities independent of governments. States are turning to commercial companies as a source of technological innovation that could be utilised for military applications and to provide core services, with the hoped-for benefit of releasing military budgets to fund military specific capabilities.

Debates are also under way about how best to organise military space functions. While a range of countries have a military space function, these are often limited in scale, concerned with resilience or the management of space-enabled assets, and are attached or subordinate to larger organisations or services.

However, in recent years several states have moved to strengthen the integration of space and other military capabilities. In December 2015, China established its Strategic Support Force, combining electronic-warfare, space and cyber units, though analysts remain uncertain if this includes counterspace forces. Also in 2015, Russia established its Aerospace Forces, combining its previous air, air defence and space units under the same command. France announced in August 2019 that it would elevate its existing Joint Space Command to a Space Command, under the renamed French Air and Space Forces. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom unveiled its Defence Space Strategy in mid-2019, announcing investments in space systems, including small-satellite development.

In the US, however, both Congress and the Trump administration have called for space to be separated out from the air force and put into a new military service. President Trump has insisted this be a separate `Department of the Space Force’, while the Pentagon and Congress seem to favour a semi-separate Space Force within the Department of the Air Force, similar to the relationship between the US Marine Corps and the US Navy. In 2018, Congress directed the re-establishment of US Space Command (USSPACECOM) to reassume the space-war-fighting function that had been carried out by US Strategic Command since the demise of the original USSPACECOM in 2002. In its new role, USSPACECOM will serve as a geographic combatant command, responsible for all military operations above 100 kilometres altitude and integrating military space capabilities into the planning and operations of other combatant commands. In December 2019, it was reported that (as part of the negotiations over the 2020 defence budget) US legislators agreed to establish a US Space Force as a separate military branch.

Unresolved issues

The increasing focus on space as a potential domain of military confrontation is also driving an awareness of the need to limit the effect that this could have on non-military space activities, as is the case with military activities in other domains. Analysts studying this challenge have posited a number of steps that could be considered, including the development of transparency and confidence-building measures that could help reduce the chances of accidents, mistakes or misperceptions that could trigger a confrontation, or worse, in space. Such measures could also be useful in helping to identify unusual actions or activities that could be, or could be a precursor to, a hostile attack against a satellite. Whether or not such an attack would amount to a use of force, possibly leading a state to invoke the right of self-defence, is a question being debated by military lawyers and academics, as are questions relating to the application of international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict to military space operations. These debates become more complex if states look to employ military space capabilities that are below the threshold of conventional military activity.

There is also renewed interest in arms-control measures to mitigate the disastrous effect conflict in space could have on the civilian use of space services. In late 2018, the United Nations’ First Committee continued its long-standing discussions regarding the potential for a rules-based order `to securely govern’ space. Russia and China highlighted their draft treaty (presented in 2008 and 2014), which is aimed at preventing the placement of weapons in space. The US position on China and Russia’s proposals, as elaborated in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, is that they `do not cover multiple issues connected to the ASAT weapons they are developing and deploying’. These shortcomings, according to the US, have allowed China and Russia to `pursue space warfare capabilities while maintaining the position that space must remain weapons free’.

Space has become a critical part of the global economy and everyday life. It is essential to weather forecasting, climate monitoring, and maintaining global communications and transportation infrastructure. The widespread use of destructive space weapons that create persistent orbital debris or the indiscriminate jamming of civilian PNT signals could have consequences beyond their military purpose. As such, there are questions as to what potentially destructive space capabilities should be off limits, similar to discussions relating to cluster bombs, landmines, cyber warfare and similar capabilities in other domains.

A key difficulty is that many of these space capabilities are now generated not solely by and for governments but also by the private sector, with the same holding true of space-related research and development. Developing and maintaining a competitive advantage in space will in future likely involve greater cooperation between the public and private sectors. It will also mean generating more competition within the private sector to spur innovation and cost-effectiveness. Dependencies have also developed since the end of the Cold War – the US, for instance, is currently reliant on Russian engines and space launch facilities for some of its major space requirements. If anything, the use of space-based assets has become so routine that reawakening their national security relevance, or indeed informing populations of the extent of their dependence on space, is now a growing challenge for governments.