COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — From satellite jamming over Eastern Europe to Russia’s testing of an anti-satellite weapon, analysts tracking counterspace threats say the last year has brought confirmation of several troubling predictions – and 2022 will likely continue those trends.
Secure World Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies both released reports Monday outlining trends in counterspace activity during the last year and documenting the development and use of space weapons. In recent years, the two Washington, DC, think tanks have warned of increasing counterspace activities and predicted heightened responses from the U.S. and other spacefaring nations.
But if 2021 confirmed the trend, the coming year could be “a pivotal turning point in space security,” CSIS writes in its report, due to Russia’s use of counterspace capabilities like GPS jamming and cyber attacks in its war on Ukraine.
“If the conflict further extends into space with more aggressive attacks against space systems, such as laser dazzling of imagery satellites or cyberattacks against satellite ground stations, it could become the first major conflict in which counterspace weapons play a significant role,” the report states.
Speaking with reporters Friday, Secure World Foundation’s Brian Weeden pointed to the late February cyber attack on communications provider Viasat and its KA-SAT system — which provides high-speed internet for customers in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean — as an example of the uptick in disruption in the region. The attack targeted the system’s ground terminals rather than the satellite itself, which Weeden said is common.
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS, said Friday it’s difficult to quantify how much jamming has occurred since the lead-up to the invasion. He and Weeden noted that the jamming that has been publicly reported to date has been from ground-based rather than space-based systems.
Looking more broadly across 2021 counterspace trends, the CSIS report highlights the growing use of jamming and spoofing, which tracks with a 2020 prediction that such incidents would increase along with the sophistication of counterspace weapons. According to CSIS, 2021 saw an increase in both the number of incidents and their complexity.
CSIS has also previously identified Russia as the “most likely nation” to conduct counterspace testing. Russia fulfilled that prediction last November, testing a direct-ascent ASAT that is estimated to have created at least 1,500 pieces of debris.
“These and other identified trends signal that counterspace weapons are no longer emerging technologies — many are fully developed, tested and operational systems,” the report states, noting that while a small number of nations have more advanced counterspace weapons, more countries have access to cyber and electronic warfare capabilities and are developing offensive and defensive counterspace weapons to protect against attacks and ensure they can respond should their on-orbit assets be targeted.
The Secure World Foundation report made similar observations, explaining that while there has been “significant research and development of a broad range of destructive and non-destructive capabilities in multiple countries,” active military operations have only featured non-destructive systems.
Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS, said Friday that regardless of a nation’s intent — be it defensive or offensive — all of these capabilities contribute to the increased weaponization of space.
“While you can phrase the way that you are investing in these systems for your own national audience as a protection against counterspace weapons, you’re still developing counterspace weapons,” Johnson said. “We’re seeing the further weaponization of the space domain without a lot of norms of behavior. . . . And what we have seen in practice is not a good positive norm for safety, stability and sustainability. It’s actually a really disruptive norm.”
Along with capability development, in recent years, more countries have restructured their national security space organizations and are talking publicly about threats to space systems, CSIS writes.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.