The final frontier is contested space. Nations across the globe are at work developing tools and techniques to survive a conflict in the heavens, should it occur. With the United States appearing to move toward a more formal Space Force and in light of new anti-satellite missile demonstrations, it’s worth examining where, exactly, other nations stand in terms of counter-space capabilities.
The 2019 edition of the Secure World Foundation Global Counterspace report builds on the 2018 version, and could hardly be more timely. On March 27, India announced it had successfully demonstrated an anti-satellite missile, by destroying one of its own low-orbiting satellites. In the United States, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan used the test as an opportunity to emphasize the nature of space as a contested domain.
But what are the current dynamics of contesting the heavens?
Disturbances in orbital posture predate Space Force
“The big changes to Chinese doctrine and space organization happened a few years ago when they created their Strategic Support Force,” said Brian Weeden, Director of Policy Programming at the Secure World Foundation and co-editor of the report. “This is a new military organization that combines space, electronic warfare, and cyber capabilities. And I think it’s important to highlight that, unlike the U.S., China is not viewing it in a domain-centric way.”
Rather than treating space as a stand-alone domain, Weeden said China’s Strategic Support Force is “focused on how space, electronic warfare, and cyber can be used together for military effects instead of focusing on space as a domain by itself.”
The impetus behind this change is terrestrial at heart. Given that the change occurred years ago, it’s likely a response to how the United States relied on space assets during the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This focus on space in response to U.S. activity is hardly a response unique to China.
“The Russian activities are part of a years-long effort that predates the U.S. announcement of a Space Force,” says Victoria Samson, Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation and co-editor of the report. “What I think we’re seeing is an increased willingness to speak more openly in unclassified media about the Russian counterspace capabilities, and this is probably partially (but not entirely) shaped by U.S. statements about space being a warfighting domain.”
Missiles still matter
A missile launch is a clarifying event. The most revealing part of India’s anti-satellite launch is that it shows off the country’s ability to track and target satellites, which was unclear before the launch.
“For years, Indian officials have been pointing to their ICBM and missile defense interceptors as their potential ASAT weapons, but hadn’t demonstrated that they could actually track and target a satellite,” Samson said.
For context, India’s interception took place at a similar place in orbit as the United States’ Burnt Frost interception in 2008, and was well below where China’s 2007 anti-satellite interception hit. One advantage of lower orbit interceptions is that most of the debris tends to get pulled down towards earth, but the angle of the interception might have worked against it and kicked some debris into higher orbits, where it will remain a hazard for some time.
To outline some legal and binding clarification for the threat missiles pose to objects in orbit, the United Nations Group of Government Experts has been negotiating in Geneva to come up with the rough shape of how a treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) might work.
“They did not come to a consensus on this,” Samson said, “largely because of the disparity amongst members (which included the U.S., Russia, China, and India) as to whether legally-binding efforts are needed to ensure that space is safe and stable: the U.S. argues for normative behavior, while Russia, China, and India have long argued for a treaty-based approach.”
Between a deep stare and an explosion
Right in its executive summary, the report states that the "evidence shows significant research and development of a broad range of kinetic (i.e. destructive) and non-kinetic counterspace capabilities in multiple countries. However, only non-kinetic capabilities are actively being used in current military operations."
One of the more novel systems is Russia’s Burevestnik, an anti-satellite platform deployed in orbit. Precious little about the Burevestnik is available in the open source, other than the existence of the program itself.
What researcher do know indicates some role for the Burevestnik in rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), a sort of orbital positioning tool where one satellite demonstrates its ability to interfere with another satellite. Besides Russia, China and the United States have demonstrated RPO techniques and capabilities. Because these use assets already in space, they’re unlikely to be covered by any rule-making that focuses narrowly on surface-to-orbit means of attack.
There is also the not-insignificant matter of lasers, or more formally, directed energy weapons. The 2019 report includes sections on directed energy weapons and research for China and the United States.
“We’d refrained from including those in the previous year because there just wasn’t much data,” said Weeden, “There’s still not a lot of data, but enough to include it in the report.”
Continuity, not collapse
Space has been a contested domain of military importance since humans first put objects into orbit. While formal moves towards a dedicated U.S. military apparatus focused on orbit grab attention and conjure images of Starfleet, the reality is that changes into how the heavens are managed build on trends that predate anything as ephemeral as the present moment. Space Force is part of a milieu that exists because of prior trends in space militarization across the globe.
“In terms of what’s happening in the world, I think it’s not so much any one big change but rather that the trends we identified in the previous report are continuing,” Weeden said. “There’s strong evidence that the U.S., Russia, and China are all developing counterspace technologies and putting in place the policies and doctrines to use them in future conflicts.”