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Satellites Are Likely Targets in the Next Major War
No country has ever destroyed another’s satellite in orbit—yet. Technology is marching toward that eventuality
Armed conflict in Eastern Europe and the specter of it in the Western Pacific signal that future wars between great powers are all but inevitable. While the possibility of such wars returning to the modern era casts fear and uncertainty, perhaps the most unknown of unknowns is what happens when space becomes an active front. Many strategists predict satellites could become the first targets in any outbreak of major hostilities, even as analysts worry that a significant war in space could render Earth orbit unusable indefinitely.
U.S. military planners are faced with uncomfortable questions about how to equip and train for this eventuality and its repercussions. Since there is only so much that can be done to “harden” a vulnerable satellite without making it ridiculously expensive to build and launch, the options essentially are to enable it to maneuver out of the way or provide resiliency for the constellation as a whole by having backups available to replace losses. Other options include deploying a U.S. anti-satellite capability as a deterrent, or relying on diplomacy to ban or otherwise control such weapons internationally.
On Sept. 12, the latest session of the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats convening in Geneva saw the United States proposing a formal ban on the testing of direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons, which are missiles capable of destroying targets in orbit. The action follows the Biden administration’s declaration of a unilateral moratorium in April on the testing of such weapons. Such diplomatic moves cover only a portion of the threat to satellites, albeit a particularly dangerous one. However, even advocates say there is a long way to go before satellite security can rely on international norms of behavior. The perceived advantages of eliminating or disabling enemy satellites in wartime may prove resistant to any agreement.
Intriguingly, private industry is already pursuing two ways of developing money-making technologies in space that could provide resilience and even defense for military satellite constellations. One involves so-called smallsats (small satellites) that perform focused tasks with individual units that are relatively cheap to build and launch, making them easy to replace and capable of being deployed in large numbers. The other is the development of specialized spacecraft for inspecting, maintaining and repairing existing satellites in orbit. The latter capability, in particular, could reconfigure humanity’s relationship with space infrastructure in war and peace.
Many analysts are looking to what is called the “in-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing” (ISAM) market to become the next big profitable space venture after launch services. The tracking, station-keeping and docking technologies of ISAM could be used to keep important satellites fueled for emergency maneuvers and even provided with countermeasures to anti-satellite attacks. More ominously, such capabilities might also be used to attack enemy satellites.
In both cases, which are made possible mainly via the revolution in private launch services from companies such as SpaceX and others, strategists envision ways to overcome challenges from enemy anti-satellite weapons.
Space, the Vulnerable Frontier
Apart from terrestrial jamming and suspected cyberattacks, interference with satellites during conflicts heretofore has been cursory. Most efforts to prevent an enemy’s use of space have involved jamming terrestrial satellite receivers and terminals—for example, blocking communications and navigation receivers. One reason for this is because satellites, even those in low-Earth orbit, have been essentially beyond the reach of all but the most capable of technological powers. More importantly, these powers have refrained from direct conflict with one another throughout the Space Age.
Even as spacefaring powers edge toward direct conflict, some second-tier powers such as Iran and North Korea have acquired the technology and means to reach orbit with their own rockets and satellites, which essentially makes them capable of damaging or interfering with the satellites of others. Prepare for attacks—destructive and nondestructive—on enemy or neutral satellites to become a regular feature of modern warfare.
No nation on Earth is more dependent on satellites to support its military operations than the United States. While Russia, China and other countries are developing space-based assets to enhance their own combat capabilities, they have relied more on terrestrial, airborne, cyber and human means to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support in key regions. While arguably such militaries would be at a disadvantage against America with its constellations of observation, communications and navigation satellites, what happens when these assets are degraded or even eliminated? Certainly, the U.S. military is well-supplied with terrestrial ISR systems of its own. However, it has trained and fought with an expectation of having dominance of space.
“Space is critical, particularly in the military domain if you are trying to operate halfway around the world, which is what we are doing,” says Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon planner and co-founder of The Marathon Initiative, a strategy think tank focusing on great power conflict. “You need space for relay of communications; you need overhead constellations if you’re looking over the horizon. Space is also very vulnerable.”
Echoing these observations, Laura Grego, Senior Scientist in the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists and a speaker at the U.N.'s space threats Geneva conference, points out that concerns about destructive attacks on satellites are not new, but they are now amplified now because countries increasingly have access to technologies that can hold satellites at risk.
“The issue of anti-satellite warfare is acutely concerning because satellites are so important and they are so vulnerable,” Grego says. “In the last few decades, satellites have not just become strategically important; they have become tactically important. They underpin modern warfare.”
This is arguably the most important reason why it may be difficult to dissuade rival powers—either by deterrence or convention—from developing anti-satellite capabilities. Simply put, the loss of satellite capability would be a much more significant blow to the United States than any other nation.
A Debris-Strewn Battlefield
Warfare routinely leaves behind lethal detritus that can continue to kill and maim innocents for decades after the smoke clears. Unexploded ordnance from two world wars continues to surface in Europe. Significant campaigns to clear landmines and cluster weapon submunitions are ongoing in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. A war in space would leave behind persistent debris fields that would expand across orbits far beyond the points of impact.
In the 21st century, the United States, Russia, China and India have conducted destructive tests of anti-satellite weapons. Even these limited tests have produced clouds of debris that will remain in orbit imperiling space activities, including the International Space Station, for years to come. An anti-satellite campaign of any duration can be expected to produce so much orbital debris as to make certain orbits no-go zones for the foreseeable future.
“There is no such thing as a responsible destructive anti-satellite test,” says Victoria Samson, Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that promotes space sustainability and publishes the Global Counterspace Capabilities report. “No matter how low the orbit of the engagement is, there is debris that is going to be kicked up all over that can remain up there for years, if not decades. And debris is agnostic about who it hits. So, you have this threat lasting for many years past when the test happened.”
The indiscriminate nature of the space debris threat is clearly front and center in arguments to ban testing and subsequent deployment of destructive anti-satellite weapons. Samson was on a panel at the U.N. space threat conference that discussed such weapons. The hazards could serve as the impetus for all countries that have aspirations in space to agree that such weapons should not be developed.
“Frankly, we can make the argument to China that it’s to their benefit to sign onto an agreement or come to an understanding about destructive anti-satellite testing,” she says. “China’s space efforts have a lot of energy. It has a moon program. It has a space station. It is training more and more taikonauts. It has a commercial space sector. So, China has a lot to lose—now and in its future plans—by closing off access to space with debris.”
Grego thinks that the risks may be so apparent that recent testing may not actually have an operational anti-satellite capability as its goal but instead serve as a warning to others. “We have seen countries do recent tests against orbiting objects, but they have not followed up with additional ones, moving instead to different testing that does not produce space debris,” she says. “This activity seems less like a development program to deploy an operational system, but more like place markers that declare to others that the potential exists. You can’t say how reliable the capability is, but you are saying that potential rivals have to worry about it.”
In Grego’s view, the testing may serve as a prelude to an international agreement, even a treaty. Certainly, this is the goal of the U.N. working group. However, such diplomatic activity—particularly of the “open-ended” variety—takes time to come to fruition. Or perhaps failure. In the interim, space powers must look to the nascent threats to their vital satellite capabilities.
One potential solution is to remove the temptation posed by existing military satellites, which tend to be complex and expensive. The U.S. Space Force is exploring technologies that would enable it to place smaller satellites in orbit, although development of specific categories of smallsats able to take on the roles of legacy spacecraft remain in their early stages.
Robert Zimmerman, an independent journalist and creator of the space technology website Behind The Black, says the United States is behind the curve partly because of resistance in the national security space establishment to embracing new technology.
“For the last decade or so, some people in the Pentagon have been trying to convince the U.S. Air Force—this is before the Space Force—to stop building giant, expensive, hard-to-finish and nonredundant military satellites,” Zimmerman says. “Instead, you go to lots of small ones because they are redundant, they are cheap to build and you can replace them faster. This provides capabilities that can protect you in a military situation against anti-satellite attacks by China or Russia. You can’t destroy 2,000 satellites.”
Zimmerman points out that the commercial promise of smallsats is attracting a multitude of companies developing spacecraft designs and launch services. He says SpaceX’s success in quickly supplying its Starlink internet services and ground terminals in Ukraine—providing military and civilian communications in the face of the Russian invasion—has enabled advocates in the United States to advance plans to use constellations of smaller, commercially provided satellites instead of big military-built satellites.
Realistically, while smallsats soon may be relied on to support military communications in wartime and improve monitoring of space itself by proliferating sensors in orbit, they are no substitute for sophisticated reconnaissance and Earth-monitoring satellites. The fact is, large national security satellites and commercial ones providing services to the military will continue to be important for the foreseeable future.
The value of large satellites in nearly all aspects of economic, scientific, civil and military life on Earth has spurred demand for new orbital systems for extending their lives and even adding new capabilities. In the near term, the burgeoning ISAM market ranges from attaching maneuvering units to existing satellites to help them remain in their orbits to repairing them and adding new functions. Ultimately, planners see ISAM technologies as foundational for assembling large space structures and even constructing orbital factories and solar power plants.
From a satellite warfare perspective, ISAM represents what are termed dual-use capabilities: The very same technologies, techniques and even specific systems used for civil purposes can have military applications. The main difference in the scenarios is the intent of the user.
For example, Northrop Grumman is developing its Mission Extension Vehicle, which docks with the nozzle of a satellite to serve as a tug or booster. Zimmerman notes that the same technology can be put to military use as well, with vehicles docking with enemy satellites to disrupt their functions. “Companies are developing technologies to remove space junk,” he says. “Well, you can develop the same technology further to remove satellite constellations.”
Grego agrees that the problem in many ways is even more acute than destructive anti-satellite systems that in her estimation may be more deterrent than an operational threat. She says ISAM technology enables anti-satellite weapons that will be more widely held than direct-ascent weapons because they will have a commercial user base.
The technology that will be used to dock, refuel, repair and assemble large structures in space is the same basic technology for getting close to an object that isn’t cooperating with you. This technology can then be coupled with a means of interference that doesn’t create as much debris. “You are going to be able to get close to somebody else’s satellite and interfere with it with a lot less drama than blowing it up,” she says.
It may also be accomplished with a lot less debris. A parasitical satellite interceptor might be able to merely change its victim’s orientation to a useless one or even cause it to deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere. Either way, a persistent and indiscriminate debris cloud may be avoided. This makes proximity and rendezvous attacks more inviting as an anti-satellite strategy. In the end, the question is, how do you protect satellites from attack while also allowing the benefits the ISAM market promises?
Intents and Purposes
The answer comes down to being able to discern the intent of the engaging system’s operator. Since service spacecraft and hunter-killers will have so much in common, advocates say countries and other actors need to establish standards of norms and behaviors governing how their space systems interact with each other. Indeed, this is the key goal of the U.N. Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats.
“One way to discern the intent of any given proximity operation is to create rules about close approach,” Grego says. “This involves knowing who the owner of a satellite is and communicating with that entity before you approach it with one of yours. If somebody is approaching one of your satellites, you have to be able to get on the phone with them and find out what their intent is. We are still writing the rules about what steps you can take if you have an uninvited visitor.”
The Secure World Foundation’s Samson says a positive development is the increasing involvement of the commercial space sector in discussions about maintaining orbital security and development, since it looks to play an ever-growing role going forward. Her organization is part of the secretariat of the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations, a group that is attempting to define and establish norms and responsible behavior for how satellites and spacecraft operate in proximity to one another. The Space Safety Coalition, an organization of companies, groups, agencies and other stakeholders with an interest in space, is developing its own concepts of best practices in responsible orbit behavior.
“This participation of commercial space is welcome, but it is only one piece of the puzzle,” Samson says. “Another piece is transparency of budgets, policies and missions—not necessarily on the commercial end. If Country X’s spacecraft performs a maneuver in orbit, can we look at that country’s space policy to understand what their priorities are, and can the maneuver be explained by them? Do we know what their budgets are and plans for this sort of thing? These are some of the puzzle pieces that make up transparency.”
One element of the discussion over norms and behaviors in Earth orbit is the premise that nations that see a future in space for themselves have a common interest in keeping space infrastructure secure and orbit itself free of hazardous debris that would imperil this future. When it comes to war, however, nations—or regimes—will wreak and endure horrific destruction to respond to what they regard as existential threats. When great powers come into conflict in the modern era, what value will they put on their futures in space?