Analysts: Space weapons proliferating, there is more congestion and competition

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China’s space program continues to raise questions about its long-term goals. Official statements on space warfare mention the peaceful purposes of outer space. Privately China's government has become more nuanced.

WASHINGTON — As more countries and commercial companies invest in space programs, it is becoming harder to tell the difference between peaceful research projects and potentially destructive weapons, warns a new study by the Secure World Foundation. It cautions that an accelerating arms race in space raises huge concerns for the United States.

The foundation on Wednesday released the report, “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment.”

Counterspace is an umbrella term for any technology that could be used to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade or destroy space systems. Space weapons include direct-ascent, co-orbital, electronic warfare, directed energy and cyber.

Most of these technologies are not new, “but the circumstances surrounding them are,” warn analysts Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson.

China’s space program continues to raise questions about its long-term goals. Official statements on space warfare and weapons make mention of the “peaceful purposes of outer space,” the report said. “Privately they have become more nuanced.”

Like the United States, China has designated space as a military domain. Open source documents suggest China is pursuing “space superiority using offensive and defensive means.” It is still unclear whether China intends to deploy offensive space weapons in a future conflict or whether it has them as a deterrent against U.S. aggression.

Russia’s space program over the last decade has aimed to put the country back in play as a space power following a post-Cold War investment drought. Like China, it is developing orbital vehicles that could be used in non-aggressive ways, and there is no conclusive evidence that Russia today is deploying anti-satellite weapons. It is advancing this capability, the report said, “but likely not yet on a sufficient scale or at sufficient altitude to pose a critical threat to U.S. space assets.”

Russia appears “highly motivated to continue development efforts even where military utility is questionable, due at least in part to bureaucratic pressures.” The report noted that Russia places a high priority on electronic warfare as part of standard military operations and has been investing heavily in this capability. It has developed electronic jammers to target ground terminals. Russia has a “multitude of systems” that can jam GPS receivers within a local area, potentially interfering with the guidance systems of unmanned aerial vehicles, guided missiles and precision guided munitions. Russia, however, “has no publicly known capability to interfere with the GPS satellites themselves using radiofrequency interference.”

Russian ground-based satellite laser ranging facilities could be used to dazzle the sensors of optical imagery satellites, said the report, “but there is no indication that Russia is developing, or intending to develop, high power space-based laser weapons.” The study points out that Russian leadership has indicated that Russia will continue to “seek parity with the United States in space.”

North Korea has space ambitions but so far has no demonstrated capability to mount kinetic attacks on U.S. space assets, “neither a direct ascent anti-satellite nor a co-orbital system,” the study said. “North Korea does not appear motivated to develop dedicated counterspace assets, though certain capabilities in their ballistic missile program might be eventually evolved for such a purpose.”

North Korea has shown it can jam civilian GPS signals within a limited geographical area. And their capability against U.S. military GPS signals is not known.

Iran has a nascent space program, “building and launching small satellites that have limited capability,” said the report. It is doubtful that Iran has the capacity to build on-orbit or direct-ascent anti- satellite capabilities, and has “little military motivations to do so at this point.” Iran has electronic weapons that can “persistently interfere with commercial satellite signals, although the capability against military signals is difficult to ascertain.”

Another rising space power is India, but most of its focus has been on civil uses of space. In recent years, it has encouraged its military to “become active users and creators of its space capabilities.” Its indigenous missile defense program has been regarded as a “latent anti-satellite capability,” although it has not yet been tested. The country does not appear inclined to militarize space. “Given the substantial investment the Indian military is making in its satellite capacity and the income that India is receiving from launching other countries’ satellites, it is unlikely that they will move to actively create an official counterspace program.

The report said cyberwarfare is a concern in space, but actual evidence of cyber attacks in the public domain is scant. Commercial satellite systems are said to have cyber vulnerabilities that are similar in nature to those found in non-space networks on the ground. “This indicates that manufacturers and developers of space systems may not yet have reached the same level of cyber hardness as other sectors.”

With regard to the United States, the report runs through a long list of advanced capabilities that would be available to the U.S. military in a conflict. Researchers were not able to find open-source proof, however, that the United States has sufficient means to defend the GPS system if attacked. “The effectiveness of measures to counter adversarial GPS jamming and spoofing operations is not known.”

U.S. administrations since the 1960s have directed or authorized research and development of counterspace capabilities, said the report. “These capabilities have typically been limited in scope, and designed to counter a specific military threat, rather than be used as a broad coercive or deterrent threat.”

In a statement, Weeden and Sampson said a “more open and public debate on these issues is urgently needed.” Space is important to everyone, not the sole domain of militaries and intelligence services, they stated. “Our global society and economy is increasingly dependent on space capabilities, and a future conflict in space could have massive, long-term negative repercussions.”