Satellites Under Siege: The Growing Threat of Counter-Space Technologies

As nations expand their satellite networks, major powers are developing technologies to disable or destroy enemy space assets. This new space arms race involves various counter-space capabilities, from signal jamming to anti-satellite missiles, raising concerns about the militarization of space and global security.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

As nations and companies grow their satellite constellations, more governments are looking for technology that may disable or even destroy enemy assets on the ground and in space.

According to analysts, leading powers such as the United States, Russia, and China could target each other’s satellites using counter-space technologies such as signal jamming and spoofing, powerful lasers to blind imaging sensors, anti-satellite missiles, and spacecraft capable of interfering with other satellites in orbit.

A prime example of potential counter-space weaponry emerged in early 2024 when US intelligence revealed that Russia was developing a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon. Moscow refuted the claim.

Such a weapon could affect not only military satellites but also have far-reaching destructive consequences; for example, it could disable satellites that the entire world relies on for weather forecasting and disaster response, or it could even disrupt global navigation systems used in daily life.

Tracking the development of other countries’ counter-space capabilities is difficult because of the intense secrecy and the dual-use ambiguity of many space technologies.

The Rise of Counter-Space Weapons

According to US military analysts and open-source data, Russia and China have made recent gains in creating technology that could be used for such purposes while the United States continues to develop relevant space research and capabilities.

Counter-space technologies are being developed against the backdrop of a new era of space focus: the United States and China are competing to send astronauts to the Moon and build research bases there, and advances in satellite launch technologies mean that an increasing number of players, including US adversaries such as North Korea and Iran, are putting assets in orbit.

The concept of space-targeted or space-based weaponry is highly contentious, although it is not new.

Several decades ago, the United States and the Soviet Union battled for technologies that could disable one other’s satellites.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, and the United States tested anti-satellite weapons. The US’s first successful anti-satellite weapon, the Bold Orion Weapon System 199B, was tested on October 13, 1959, against the Explorer 6 satellite. The NASA satellite Explorer 6, also known as S-2, was launched on August 7, 1959.

According to analysts, once the Soviet Union collapsed, America focused on developing space capabilities to wage military operations on Earth.

Developing counter-space capabilities, such as anti-satellite weapons, provides an opportunity to impair an adversary’s space capabilities, such as communications, navigation systems, or command and logistics networks that rely on space. Depriving the United States of any advantage by employing space in a conventional military battle motivates Russia and China to improve their capabilities and strategy.

According to an annual report published in March 2024 by the independent American organization Secure World Foundation (SWF), Russia appears to have revived Cold War-era anti-satellite research programs, specifically developing an “aerial laser system” to disrupt visual reconnaissance satellites.

According to the assessment, which was created using open-source intelligence data, new information implies that Russia is also attempting to improve its ground-based electronic warfare capabilities by developing space technology to jam satellite signals in orbit.

In recent years, Russia has deployed spacecraft that appears capable of tracking foreign satellites. SWF believes that the high speeds of two of these spacecraft and the possibility that others may have scattered aerosols imply that they are weapons testing.

Destructive Testing and the Threat of Debris

In 2007, China unveiled its own counter-space intentions by launching a missile 500 miles into space to destroy one of its own out-of-date meteorological satellites. This move ended a decade-long hiatus in such devastating direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing after the Cold War, and similar activities followed it in the United States, India, and Russia.

Since then, observers believe China has undertaken many non-destructive missile tests, perhaps improving its capacity to target satellites. According to SWF, the most recent occurred in April 2023, although Beijing described it as a missile interception technology test, as had the others.

The US Space Force also believes China is building jammers to disrupt a wide variety of satellite communications and has “several ground-based laser systems.

Other Chinese space projects are difficult to categorize as weapons development, although they could have military aims, according to experts. These include satellites that can approach or rendezvous with another in orbit for support and servicing, such as the Shiyan-7, launched in 2013 and likely to be outfitted with a robotic arm.

There is talk in China concerning the potential dual usage of such technology. In a 2021 interview with official media, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engineer Zhang Zhihe highlighted China’s tests with a satellite fitted with a robotic arm capable of shifting orbit and conducting comprehensive identification of other satellites as part of its “anti-satellite capabilities.”

Beijing has included safeguarding its security interests in space as one of its national defense goals in its 2019 White Paper. However, Beijing has long emphasized that it promotes “the peaceful use of space” and opposes an arms race. SWF claims that there is no confirmed public proof that China used counter-space weaponry against any military targets.

Russia has likewise expressed its objection to weaponry in space. Both countries and the United States have recently developed military units specialized in aerospace activities, with the Space Force becoming the first new military branch since 1947 in 2019.

Non-destructive Capabilities

According to SWF, all governments are currently using only non-destructive capabilities, such as signal jamming, in military actions against satellites.

Since a missile shot down one of its own malfunctioning satellites in response to the Chinese test in 2008, Washington has pledged not to conduct similar destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests, which can result in hazardous space debris, and is thought to lack an operational program for such capabilities.

According to SWF, the United States does not currently have a recognized operational program for targeting satellites from orbit using other satellites or spacecraft, though such a program may be easily developed in the future.

As noted by the SWF, this is because the United States has conducted significant non-offensive tests of satellite rendezvous and proximity technology, including close encounters by its own military satellites and numerous Russian and Chinese military satellites.

The United States has only one recognized operational counter-space system—electronic warfare capabilities to disrupt satellite signals—and the US Army is well known for its advanced communication jamming capabilities and ability to interfere with select navigation satellites.

According to SWF, the United States is also conducting extensive research into ground-based lasers that may be used to blind imaging satellites, though there is no evidence that these are operational yet.

Lasers and other directed energy weapons can temporarily or permanently destroy a satellite’s imaging sensor or potentially harm its internal operations.

Speaking in Washington in November 2023, US Chief of Space Operations General Chance Saltzman outlined why the US considers challenging other countries’ space capabilities important. He cited China’s PLA’s “kill chain” strategy for increasing the range and precision of its weapons along the strategically critical “second island chain,” which stretches from Japan to Guam. All of this is enabled by space, Saltzman said.

If Beijing chooses to deploy this weapon, the US must be able to deny China access to information in order to break the kill chain, ensuring that joint forces are not instantly targeted and within range of the second island chain, he said.

Meanwhile, concerns about potential adversaries’ space activities have prompted US allies, including France and Australia, to seek counter-space capabilities—often non-destructive methods to interfere with enemy satellites, known as “soft-kill” capabilities, such as lasers for disrupting surveillance and jamming.

Israel has also asserted that it deployed GPS jamming during the Gaza conflict to “neutralize” threats, most likely as ground measures to prevent rockets from reaching their objectives using GPS tracking.

Nuclear Weapons: A Devastating Option

According to the latest data from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), published in May 2023, there are more than 7,500 operational satellites in Earth’s orbit.

More than 5,000 of these satellites belonged to the US, most of which were commercial. The closest competitor, China, which is increasing the number of satellite launches, had 628, followed by Russia with fewer than 200, according to UCS.

As the number of satellite constellations grows, aided by advances that have made launches to low Earth orbit (no more than 2,000 km above the planet) cheaper and faster, it may become difficult for a hostile actor to strike by simply targeting a single satellite.

Using nuclear weapons in space has the potential to destroy massive satellite constellations, resulting in long-lasting debris and radioactive residues that make orbits useless for both military and civilian reasons.

Chinese scientists are concerned about Starlink’s potential national security threat. In 2022, a group of experts wrote in the local magazine “Modern Defense Technology” that using a combination of soft and hard kill measures is essential to disable some Starlink satellites acting irregularly and disrupting the constellation’s operational system.

Chinese academics have also considered the effects of a nuclear explosion in space. In 2023, a separate group at the Institute of Nuclear Technology published a paper on computer modeling the impact of such explosions at various heights. They observed that these could impact satellites and other spacecraft.

Uncertain Space

As space grows more militaristic, countries are developing counter-space weapons to preserve their interests and perhaps disable adversaries’ satellites. While the United States, Russia, and China are leaders in this field, other countries are also researching similar technologies. This arms competition raises questions about the future of space security and international collaboration in orbit.


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