Electronic Warfare

The sneaky ways China and Russia could threaten US satellites

WASHINGTON – Major global powers, such as China and Russia, are focusing more on space weapons that neutralize others’ satellites rather than those that destroy payloads on orbit, a new report has found.

The study by the Secure World Foundation, released Wednesday morning and previewed exclusively with Defense News, is a comprehensive collection of public-source information about the counterspace capabilities of China, Russia, North Korea and other world powers that could threaten American dominance in space.

When most Pentagon leaders discuss anti-satellite or counterspace capabilities, they reference the infamous 2007 Chinese test of an anti-satellite kinetic weapon, which successfully destroyed an old Chinese weather satellite and scattered thousands of pieces of debris in orbit.

But a more likely attack in 2018 would come in the form of electronic warfare jamming that could prevent users from turning on their equipment, directed energy attacks to dazzle sensors, or perhaps most plausibly, hacking a terminal on the ground so troops cannot operate it.

This non-kinetic approach is more about rendering equipment useless than it is destroying it outright ― a strategy that costs less and is harder to attribute, said Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force officer and one of the authors of the new report, titled “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment.”

In other words, countries are smarter about how they pursue capabilities in space.

“The bad news is I think there is strong evidence we’re seeing more development and testing of counter space technologies than any time since probably the height of the Cold War,” Weeden said. “The somewhat good news is that at least for the time being, operational use of these counter space capabilities is limited to the non-kinetic types.

“We’re seeing development of broad range, everything from kinetic destructive technologies to jamming and hacking but the operational use so far seems to be limited to the jamming and hacking types.”

Per the report, these countries are the biggest players in the counterspace arms race:

  • China has not slowed down its capability development since the 2007 anti-satellite test, but has also not repeated its action of destroying a satellite on orbit,  a feat which drew global condemnation. The report concludes that Chinese capabilities against satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO) “is likely mature and may be operationally fielded on mobile launchers within the next few years,” but found that capabilities to target medium-earth orbit or geostationary earth orbit were likely still in the “experimental stage.”
  • Russia has likely built up its capabilities on the back of Cold War efforts, but likely does not have anti-satellite capabilities “on a sufficient scale or at sufficient altitude to pose a critical threat to U.S. space assets” at this time. In addition, the capabilities under development don’t appear aimed at targeting assets outside of LEO. However, Russia has invested heavily in electronic warfare capabilities, and “can likely jam communications satellites uplinks over a wide area from fixed ground stations facilities” today if needed.
  • The United States has highly-capable technologies that would allow them to maneuver near potential enemy systems in both geostationary orbit and low earth orbit, and has a number of technologies that could be adapted to anti-satellite systems with limited work. That includes mid-course missile defense systems, which could be used against satellites in low-earth orbit. Like Russia, the U.S. “likely has the capability to jam global navigation satellite service receivers [like GPS] within a local area of operation to prevent their effective use by adversaries.”
  • Other nations in the report include Iran (unlikely to develop an anti-satellite weapon system, but has limited commercial GPS jamming capability), North Korea (“does not appear motivated to develop dedicated counterspace assets” but has limited GPS jamming options) and India (unlikely to develop a counter-space capability, but could probably move rapidly in that direction if it chose.)

Weeden describes the spread of these technologies, along with the publicly stated rise of great power competition between the U.S., Russia and China, as a “worrisome combination of trends.”

And it’s unclear how the U.S. can change that trend to deter proliferation of these capabilities – or if that is even a realistic goal anymore.

“The focus seems to be, ‘well, everyone else is doing it, we should too,’” Weeden said. “These trends appear to be used as an argument for why the US also needs to restart or develop more of its own offensive counter-space capabilities, rather than how do we tame or stop the proliferation and kind of get control of the technology, or deter use.”

For years, Pentagon officials were cautious of talking about a potential war in space, out of fears such statements could create an arms race in orbit. But in recent years, American officials have become more vocal about the threats, in part due to sequestration-related budget pressures that threatened to squeeze the space funding stream.

However, the report shows that the heavy investment in anti-space capabilities began in the mid-2000s, before that rhetoric from the U.S. shifted.

One area being invested in heavily by China, Russian and the United States are capabilities known as Rendezvous and Proximity Operations, or RPO – the ability to have a system in space maneuver around and interact with another nation’s satellites. Both China and Russia are pushing money into these capabilities and testing them on their own equipment, although the report notes there is “no proof” these are disruptive capabilities as opposed to intelligence gathering investments.

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