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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

PERSPECTIVE: The Threat of Weapons in Space

Most of our lives are without worry about what impacts the sky, stars, and heavens above. What is happening in space has been relegated to the fiction of Star Trek and Star Wars, the purview of NASA scientists and engineers, or the domain of university astronomy and physics departments. This all helps form our fundamental understanding of space, stimulates creative thinking, and reveals how we perceive threats. Recent news events have brought forward the reality that space is quickly becoming the next battlefield. The beginning of a ‘space race’ and its accompanying interest in dominating outer space began with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. While the former Soviet Union is dissolved, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continue to have very aggressive space programs with routine satellite launches and a focused effort to maintain an advantage and dominance in space.ii   

The threat of weapons in space and U.S. vulnerabilities must be better understood to avoid misinformation published on various social media and television news outlets.  Outer space and operations in space present our nation with a problematic set of geopolitical dynamics, including technical and economic challenges. Opposing space forces of Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are credible and are a significant threat to our nation’s well-being. Our adversary’s goals do not align with accepted space treaties or international laws but rather pursue the ability to develop and launch capabilities designed to influence and threaten sovereign states’ policies and actions by creating a superior force. This article seeks to act as a primer and to better define the current threat by reviewing creditable open-source information of our adversary’s space capabilities and examining them against the backdrop of Space law, U.S. policy, economic impacts, and countering threats to protect our continuity of government, critical infrastructure, military forces, and the homeland. 

Space-Based and Orbital Weapons iii 

The recent focus on Russia developing a satellite for launch with nuclear offensive capabilities caused panic in the U.S. Congress and the public. This event and its accompanying increased public fear via streaming and other open-source media channels. Brian Bushard, a responsible journalist reporting for Forbes, detailed the hazards of such a space-based nuclear weapon, stating that “with potentially devastating nuclear capabilities—could destroy thousands of governments and commercial satellites used for a variety of purposes from mapping to internet and cell phone connection; and could also be used to ’blind, jam or fry‘ satellites” internal electronics, as opposed to shooting them down.” iv However, much like Russia’s disinformation campaign about the war in Ukraine, there are robust denials published on social media, turning the blame on the U.S, as paranoia and overreaction to Russia’s right to defend itself. In response to the recent burst of media coverage, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, denied that such weapons existed or were launched. 

Orbit Threats – Denying Space v 

Russia’s denial of the existence of such a weapon is, at best, untruthful, and like the PRC, they are both seeking to deny space orbit of satellites designed for space-based remote sensing used for communications and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). These satellites are launched and reside in low earth orbit (LEO) and are predominately used for tracking, warning, and when necessary, targeting threats. Our adversaries have developed and deployed directed energy-weapons (DEWs) that include lasers and microwaves that can temporarily or permanently blind U.S. satellites, thereby denying their ability to monitor, track, or target an adversary’s ground, naval, and air forces. Research indicates that, from a targeting standpoint, it is difficult to differentiate between military and commercial satellites, which compound actions, degrading military satellites and causing dual interference with commercial platforms. Therefore, any kinetic actions to subdue or degrade such space capabilities would also cause a loss of private satellite services.vi In 2020, Russia launched and tested an antisatellite (ASAT) weapon to approach satellites that require inspection and repairs. However, it was designed for dual use and could track and attack either U.S. or allies’ satellites, temporarily or permanently disabling them. Earlier versions of this ASAT weapon were launched by Russia and are believed to belong to its Nivelir program. They were observed to closely follow a “U.S. national security satellite approaching close enough to create potentially dangerous operating conditions.” vii Like Russia, the PRC has developed maintenance satellite capabilities, the Shijian-17e, whose purpose is to assist satellites needing repair or removal from orbit. The Shijian has a robotic arm that can physically grab a satellite in space and jettison away with it to a higher orbit. The PRC and the People’s Republican Army (PLA) have the second-largest space program in the world. They are working towards surpassing the U.S. in capabilities and the proliferation of satellites in orbit. Research indicates China has been developing kinetic ASAT weapons since approximately 2007. PRC ASAT weapons research has included “methods of reentry, separation of payload, delivery vehicles, and transfer orbits in efforts to develop space-based kinetic weapons—generally, this class of weapon is used to attack ground, sea, or air targets from orbit.” viii Russia and the PRC have developed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs that can launch a nuclear missile into deep space, detonate it, and cause widespread electromagnetic disruptions in space and on Earth. Such an event would cause significant damage to our satellites and ground-based critical infrastructure. ix

Space Debris x 

Computer simulation of satellites and space debris in LEO

Apart from a purposeful event such as a satellite grappling another or an explosion due to a guided rocket, open collisions in space have now become a common threat and have a high probability of occurrence due to the amount of debris in orbit. It has been reported that over 50% of uncatalogued lethal nontrackable debris known as (LNT) was caused by China’s destruction of one of its weather satellites, secondarily, the accidental collision

between a U.S. and Russian satellite, and most recently, Russia’s purposeful destruction of one of its ‘dead’ satellites. As an illustration, the photo above entitled ‘space debris’ is a computer “rendering of tracked objects greater than 10 centimeters in earth’s orbit. Red, yellow, and green objects are representatives of active satellites in GEO orbit.” xi There is ongoing concern that space debris, from either purposefully or accidentally destroyed satellites, would endanger all nations’ military, civilian, and commercial satellites. Such satellite debris in orbit jeopardize military applications and operational satellites that support the world’s economy and crucial infrastructure, including maritime, agricultural, financial, telecommunications (communications and guidance such as the global positioning system (GPS)), and electrical systems.  

The Economic Impact of Space 

The U.S. and the world’s modern economy depend on space capabilities and satellites that can operate freely in a non-contested environment to benefit all nations and their prosperity. The current state of space and aggressive actions by Russia and the PRC threaten the U.S. economic welfare and critical infrastructure and world economies. DOD’s space policy states the following:

Space-based services support the world’s financial, information, and communications systems, scientific discoveries, and environmental monitoring. Americans benefit from space-based services every day. Increasingly, national- and department-level guidance and strategies reflect the centrality of space to U.S. national security and the U.S. economy, as well as the growing threats to the domain. xii 

The denial or destruction of communications satellites will cause negative impact on people’s everyday lives. Russia and the PRC have the technology to exact these measures and the convenience of literally hiding their actions within inhospitable reaches of space. A recent study by RTI International, sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, focused on how the loss of GPS positioning and timing information would severely degrade business and economic functions and be extremely costly on a global level. The question of cost impacts related to the loss of the GPS was explored, denoting the following analysis: 

The duration (of 30 days loss) was specified by the Department of Commerce, and it is not known whether a severe space weather event or nefarious activity by a bad actor would or could cause such an extended disruption. Our analysis assumed that other global satellite navigation systems (e.g., GLONASS [Russia], Galileo [Europe], Bei Dou [China]) would be disrupted as well. We estimate that the loss of GPS service would have a $1 billion per-day impact. xiii 

RTI’s study focused on ten primary sectors that would be negatively impacted by this loss, concluding that agriculture, electricity, finance, location-based services, mining, maritime, oil and gas, surveying, telecommunications, and telematics’ ability to operate would be significantly damaged. Their research used the combined expertise and insights from “nearly 200 experts in using GPS for specific applications, surveys of professional surveyors and smartphone users, economic modeling tools, and national statistics.” xiv Although illegal and contrary to the international laws of space, Russia and the PLA continue to build a space architecture that can track, target, and degrade U.S. and allies’ satellites and readily disrupt or destroy the GPS. xv From the U.S. economy and defense architecture perspective, such an event cannot be ignored or allowed to happen. International laws and treaties have been established outlining acceptable actions in space to prevent such an occurrence.  

Testing the Rules-Based International Order 

The establishment of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, was promulgated at the United Nations in October of 1967 and remains the primary rules-based order for nation-states’ conduct in outer space to this day. Some of the first signatories to this treaty included the U.S., the then USSR (now Russian Federation), and the United Kingdom (UK); the treaty went into force in October of 1967. The U.S. and its allies lawfully pushed back any attempt of Russia to launch a satellite armed with nuclear weapons into space by citing Article IV of this treaty which states, “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.xvi  Furthermore, the treaty provides the basic framework of international law and includes the following abbreviated principles: xvii 

  • The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind; 
  • Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States; 
  • Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means; 
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner; 
  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes; 
  • Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind; 
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities, whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities; 
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and 
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies. 

Unfortunately, neither Russia nor the PRC are complying with the treaty as both seek to build space capabilities that can target and destroy U.S. and allies satellites in orbit. Their goal is to gain supremacy in space and dominate any conflict while denying the U.S. and its allies the ability to respond. Russia and PRC’s offensive space systems “include jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based direct accent ASAT (DA-ASAT) missile capabilities, electronic warfare capabilities to deceive enemy equipment, and ground-based laser systems to damage and degrade satellite sensors.” xviii According to a recent DOD report, Russia and the PRC have both promoted false claims to the UN that they have not placed counter-weapons in space. Russia and the PRC “proposed at the United Nations a draft of a flawed, legally binding treaty on the non-weaponization of space that is inherently unverifiable and unenforceable.” xix In consideration of these actions the DOD and DHS have developed a space policy to assist and protect the U.S Joint Force xx and the homeland. 

Space Policy 

The increasing threats to the U.S. from our adversaries require a thoughtful space policy as required by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), outlining the U.S. defense strategy necessary to “protect on-orbit satellites of the Department of Defense and the intelligence community from the capabilities of adversaries to target, degrade, or destroy satellites.” xxi The NDAA goes into significant detail by articulating the current security environment related to the actions of Russia and the PRC in outer space, of which much has already been discussed in this article. Nested within this policy are the stated objectives of the DOD relating to space and how these objectives are interlocked with the National Security Strategy (NSS), followed by the National Defense Strategy (NDS), then the U.S. Space Priority framework, and finally from this the U.S. Defense Space Strategy (DSS) flows.  

U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) is leading integrated planning with other Combatant Commands, allies, and partners; integrating joint and combined space scenarios and training across the Joint Force; and developing joint warfighting requirements to overcome capability gaps across the Military Services. xxii  

Four primary lines of effort compose the DSS, intending that “integrating U.S. strategic and conventional capabilities and U.S. space capabilities are critical to overall military effectiveness across the entire Joint Force.” xxiii These four elements are as follows:  

  1. Build a comprehensive military advantage in space.
  2. Integrate military space power into national, joint, and combined operations.
  3. Shape the strategic environment.
  4. Cooperate with allies, partners, industry, and other U.S. Government departments and agencies. 

The DHS Space Policy aligns with the DOD and associated interagency roles and then goes forward by outlining that “DHS will assume a leading role in three primary areas: promotion of cybersecurity of space systems, homeland security mission assurance planning and execution, and contingency planning to respond to and recover from potential impacts to the homeland resulting from a denied or degraded space environment.” xxiv These policies are comprehensive, sharing many overlapping functional responsibilities. Perhaps one of the most important ties between these policies is the interplay between the interagency and the commercial space sector to develop innovative technologies and rapidly deploy these capabilities to space. The polices act as a bridge between international space law and U.S. actions in space to protect the nation, cooperate with allies and development of new technology. The urgency for speed, rapid development, and fielding will be necessary to protect our nation and the homeland.  

Countering Threats 

The U.S. does not seek confrontation with other nations, however, Russia and the PRC’s efforts to dominate space and deny the U.S. and its allies to counter their aggressive efforts and threats cannot go unanswered. The DOD and DHS are taking an approach to building and approving new space architecture that is fast, resilient, and constantly adapting to new technology. To do this, a purposeful turn has been taken to embrace private sector companies with expertise in building commercial space platforms and satellites that can be rapidly built, launched, placed in orbit, and then, when necessary, replaced before obsolescence. 

The first capability area to be redeveloped through a resilient-by-design approach is missile warning and missile tracking (MW/MT). This effort assessed architectures designed to meet future warfighting performance needs, establish resilience against modern military threats, and ensure cost parameters, resulting in recommendations on numbers of satellites and diversifying capabilities across orbital regimes. The Department must continue to remove barriers to collaboration, including classification and disclosure policies, to ensure effective integration of combined space activities. DoD will ensure interoperability with allied and partner systems is considered in all stages of system design, acquisition, procurement, and use. xxv 

With this level of effort built upon the concept of resilient-by-design, a new era of space development, capabilities, and countermeasures will be built and launched to protect the U.S. and its allies. By unleashing its technological capabilities again and partnering with the freedom of the private sector and commercial entrepreneurship and imagination, the U.S. ensures progress will be made. This progress is viewed in real-time and open source for the first time. It is purposefully meant to impact the decision process of our adversaries and act to deter conflict. This course of action underscores that the U.S. is in the space-fighting arena and answering the call. The approach also benefits from strengthening the U.S. resolve with partners and allies. While many parallel levels of efforts are occurring to support the U.S., our joint force, and allies, one of the most exciting and transparent bridges built between the government and the commercial sector is the Space Development Agency (SDA). David Vergun, reporting for the U.S. Department of Defense, wrote on SDA’s efforts to support the DOD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system being designed to “connect sensors to shooters to targets and well as connecting communications across the military services globally.” xxvi In an interview with the SDA’s director, Dr. Derek M Tournear explains that these efforts will be coordinated with commercial sector space companies and will initially focus on providing two capabilities to our joint force.  

The first is “beyond the line of sight targeting for moving targets, and the second, while similar, will focus on detecting an adversary’s hypersonic glide or missiles that need to be detected and tracked in flight. In addition, these capabilities will be delivered in two main pillars: pillar one is proliferation, and pillar two is spiral development.” xxvii  

Concerning the two pillars, Dr. Tournear defined proliferation as hundreds of satellites in LEO, furthermore he explained that “every year there should be state of the art technical advances, called spiral development, so that satellites in follow on tranches will field even better capability.” xxviii SDA posts its progress of satellite proliferation and their launches into space regularly on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, where short video clips of satellites launched into space are sponsored by the companies that built and designed them. All progress is open-source information.  

Final Thoughts 

President Kennedy’s famous speech on space at Rice University in September 1962 introduced several new ideas to the nation and the world: the U.S. aimed to become the international leader in space and go to the moon. In his speech, Kennedy stated, “Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.” xxix For the sake of the U.S., our families, and allies, let’s hope the outcome of our current challenges in space results in the former and not the latter of President Kennedy’s vision. The U.S. does not seek to dominate space; it aims to become the leader for the right reasons. It becomes a darker world should Russia and the PRC be allowed to fill that void. We must prevail.  

The author is responsible for the content of this article. The views and ideas expressed are his own, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. Intelligence Community, the Department of Defense, the Joint Staff, the U.S. Government, or any associated government agency, or the Northrop Grumman Corporation or any commercial or private sector corporation. 

i Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), “2022 Challenges to Security in Space, Space Reliance in an Era of Competition and Expansion”; March 2022; pg.,25.  https://www.dia.mil/Military-Power-PublicationsAccessed 15 January 2024 

ii DIA, pg., iv. 

iii DIA, pg., 47. 

iv Bushard, Brian, 20 February 2024, “What to Know About the Russian Anti-satellite Weapon That Could Launch To Space This Year—Which Putin Denies; Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brianbushard/2024/02/20/what-to-know-about-the-russian-anti-satellite-weapon-that-could-launch-to-space-this-year-which-putin-denies/. Accessed 7 March 2024. 

v DIA, pg., 5. 

vi DIA, pg., 4. 

vii DIA, pg., 29. 

viii DIA, pg., 18. 

ix DIA, pg., 4. 

x DIA, pg., 37 

xi DIA, pg., 37 

xii Department of Defense, “Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection 

of Satellites”; September 2023; https://media.defense.gov/2023/Sep/14/2003301146/-1/-1/0/COMPREHENSIVE-REPORT-FOR-RELEASE.PDF. Accessed 06 March 2024

xiii O’Connor, A.C., Gallaher, M.P., Clark-Sutton, K., Lapidus, D., Oliver, Z.T., Scott, T.J., Wood, D.W., Gonzalez, M.A., Brown, E.G., and Fletcher, J. 2019, June. pgs., ES-4, “Economic Benefits of the Global Positioning System (GPS)”; RTI Report Number 0215471. Sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI International.  

https://www.nist.gov/system/files/documents/2020/02/06/gps_finalreport618.pdf.  Accessed 5 March 2024 

xiv O’Conner, et.al. pgs., ES-1, 1-6.; September 2023; https://media.defense.gov/2023/Sep/14/2003301146/-1/-1/0/COMPREHENSIVE-REPORT-FOR-RELEASE.PDF. Accessed 06 March 2024. 

xv DOD, Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellitespg.,2. 

xvi United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”; https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/introouterspacetreaty.htmlAccessed 07 March 2024 

xvii United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.”; Article IV. 

xviii DOD, Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellites, pgs., 2-4. 

xix DOD, Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellites, pgs., 2-3. 

xx Joint Publication 1, volume 2, Chap. IV, Coordinating Authority, pg., IV-14. https://jsportal.sp.pentagon.mil/sites/JSR/SitePages/JSResources.aspx.  https://jdeis.js.mil/jdeis/index.jsp. Accessed 27 March 2024. 

xxi DOD, Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellites, pg.,1. 

xxii DOD, Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellites, pg.,6. 

xxiii DOD, Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellites, pg.,6. 

xxiv Department of Homeland Security, “DHS Space Policy,” Memorandum for Component Leaders, April 14, 2022; https://www.dhs.gov/publication/dhs-space-policy. Accessed 07 March 2024.  

xxv DOD, Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellites, pg.,9. 

xxvi Vergun, David;7 December 2023; “Space Development Agency Providing Capability to Warfighters”; DOD Newshttps://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/3611153/space-development-agency-providing-capability-to-warfighters/. Accessed 14 January 2024. 

xxvii Vergun, pg., 2. 

xxviii Vergun, pg., 3. 

xxix Kennedy, John, F., ADDRESS AT RICE UNIVERSITY ON THE NATION’S SPACE EFFORT,” Rice University, Houston, Texas, September 16, 1962., https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/historic-speeches/address-at-rice-university-on-the-nations-space-effort. Accessed 24 March 2024. 

author avatar
Charles W. Stiles
Charles W. “Rusty” Stiles is a retired U.S. Navy captain and Northrop Grumman Corporation (NGC) manager. His 32 years of Navy service included tours at the Navy Warfare Development Command, Commander U.S. Fleet Forces, Chief of Naval Operations, and OPNAV staff Pentagon as a medical service corps officer, planning, operations, and medical intelligence. His NGC assignments include contract support to the Joint Staff, Joint National Training Capability, and contract Branch Chief, Operational Environment (O/E) supporting Joint Staff and U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) integration with combatant command exercise events. He is a graduate of National Intelligence University, a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence, the U.S. Naval War College, a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies, and additional graduate degrees in business and public health. His interests include Joint Force development & training, security in space, astronomy and physics, and global health.
Charles W. Stiles
Charles W. Stiles
Charles W. “Rusty” Stiles is a retired U.S. Navy captain and Northrop Grumman Corporation (NGC) manager. His 32 years of Navy service included tours at the Navy Warfare Development Command, Commander U.S. Fleet Forces, Chief of Naval Operations, and OPNAV staff Pentagon as a medical service corps officer, planning, operations, and medical intelligence. His NGC assignments include contract support to the Joint Staff, Joint National Training Capability, and contract Branch Chief, Operational Environment (O/E) supporting Joint Staff and U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) integration with combatant command exercise events. He is a graduate of National Intelligence University, a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence, the U.S. Naval War College, a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies, and additional graduate degrees in business and public health. His interests include Joint Force development & training, security in space, astronomy and physics, and global health.

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