In this European Space Agency illustration, a satellite breaks up, adding to the growing population of orbital debris. Debris-clearing spacecraft the U.S., China and others have in the works could double as anti-satellite weapons. Credit: ESA

Although it has gotten scant attention, in addition to developing overt anti-satellite systems (ASATs), China and Russia are developing “peaceful“ satellites that could ultimately prove more effective in degrading U.S. military forces than any nuclear threat Beijing or Moscow might pose. To counter this emerging threat, which will be upon us in the early 2020s, the United States needs to accelerate development of its own robust defensive satellites and clarify its rights to protect its key space systems.

Unlike ground-launched missiles designed to knock out orbiting satellites, which give hours of warning before they can hit key targets in geosynchronous orbits, the spacecraft (i.e., satellites) China and Russia are developing can destroy an intolerable number of our critical satellites with little or no warning. Faced with the prospect of waging air, land and naval warfare without the support of America’s key satellites, America’s military would be wary of waging any military campaigns at all. Chinese and Russian induced “space deterrence” could prove even more effective and likely against the U.S. than them threatening nuclear strikes. They could inflict such a strategic calamity, moreover, literally silently with little or no fanfare.

What is these specialized Russian and Chinese systems’ ostensible purpose? The Russians and Chinese say they are designed to reduce the growing amount of orbiting debris and to refuel, repair and refresh China’s and Russia’s existing fleet of satellites. These “peaceful” spacecraft are often equipped with a robotic arm(s) in order to grab space debris or a satellite needing service. Unfortunately, these can also be applied with malevolent intent; bending antennae and distorting solar panels to disable a satellite that is working perfectly and do so while creating little or no space debris. Also, if a spacecraft can refuel a satellite, it can also empty the fuel tank. If it can repair or upgrade a satellite by installing a new component, it must have already mastered the prerequisite of taking away the malfunctioning component. There is nothing to prevent it from removing a functioning component and purposely neglecting to put it back.

Consider the following scenario. China and Russia might deploy an outsized fleet of, say, 50 to 100 specialized spacecraft in peacetime and station some near U.S. satellites. There is currently no agreement to stop these spacecraft from sidling up to U.S. satellites and lurking at an arbitrarily close distance. Once these spacecraft are in position, they could quickly attack U.S. satellites from such close proximity that the U.S. would have no time to mount a defense.

What should the United States do?

First, under a program known as “robotic servicing of geosynchronous satellites,” DARPA is planning to launch a vehicle by March 2021 for a nine-month deployment. This vehicle and follow-up robotic servicing satellites are the aforementioned specialized spacecraft that will be used to service satellites. The U.S. should build many more of these spacecraft now to serve as bodyguards to protect against adversaries’ specialized spacecraft serving as ASATs.

Second, on March 23, President Trump unveiled a potentially game-changing doctrine to “counter threats,” which means the right to exercise self-defense against imminent space threats even before the attacks have occurred. Building on this doctrine, the U.S. should announce the following rules to govern the activities of all commercial, civil and military satellites:

  • The U.S. assigns a self-defense zone around each satellite. A potential adversary is prohibited to position beyond a threshold number of its satellites (regardless of aggressive or peaceful purposes) inside all these zones of a given threshold radius. The Department of Defense should determine both the threshold number and radius as soon as possible.
  • The U.S. has a right to self-defense as a last resort countermeasure even before an attack actually occurs, if an adversary’s satellites violate the threshold number and radius. The Department of Defense can make both thresholds dependent on the altitude of an orbit. Also, should these thresholds be changed to accommodate changes in threats and/or defensive technologies, the U.S. will announce these threshold changes a year or more in advance.
  • The U.S. requires its own satellites to follow the same rules toward its potential adversaries.

With merely a few years to prepare for satellite defense, the U.S. must be self-reliant, with cooperation from its allies and friends, to deter and defend against satellite attacks especially during the early 2020s. Bodyguard satellites and self-defense zones are both fair and effective and can be implemented in time to counter the devastating space threats of the 2020s and beyond, provided that the U.S. starts now.

Dr. Chow is an independent policy analyst. His recent publications in space appear in Strategic Studies Quarterly, SpaceNews, The National Interest, Defense One, Defense News and The Space Review. He can be reached at Henry Sokolski is executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and served as Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy in the Cheney Pentagon.

Brian Chow (Ph.D. in physics, MBA with distinction, Ph.D. in finance) is an independent policy analyst with more than 170 publications.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and served as Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy in the Cheney Pentagon.