A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket launches a Global Positioning System satellite for the U.S. Air Force. Credit: ULA/Ben Cooper

WASHINGTON — As more nations seek to explore the vast expanse of space, there is increasing competition and congestion in orbit, according to two new reports released April 14. 

The Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published their annual assessments of global anti-satellite weapons, which are based on open-source information.

Numerous nations are actively pursuing space and cyber technologies that could be weaponized, these reports point out, and many see space as a domain for future conflicts.

Global investments in so-called “counter space” technologies — including ground-based and orbital weapons capable of destroying or disabling satellites in orbit — continue despite a widespread recognition that a conflict in space would have catastrophic consequences and jeopardize all nations’ ability to access and utilize space for peaceful purposes.

The space domain is “undergoing a significant and rapid transformation. The number of objects in space continues to soar, the value of the global space economy is at an all-time high, and, unfortunately, the threat to the domain is real and concerning today,” the former four-star chief of the U.S. Space Force John Raymond wrote in CSIS’ Space Threat Assessment 2023. 

The U.S. military, Raymond noted, faces “significant threats” due to China’s and Russia’s advances in militarizing space technologies.

“Over the past year and a half, there has been regular testing and use of reversible non-destructive capabilities as well as a destructive test that created a debris field, jeopardizing safe operations and indicating that the domain will continue to become more contested,” he added. 

The CSIS report, for example, highlights Russia’s advances in electronic jamming to deny access to the U.S. Global Positioning System satellites. “Russia has been installing jammers capable of denying GPS,” the report said. 

‘More congestion and competition’

In the SWF report, authors Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson said the space domain is “undergoing a significant set of changes as a growing number of countries and commercial actors are getting involved in space, resulting in more innovation and benefits on Earth, but also more congestion and competition.”

From a security perspective, they noted, “an increasing number of countries are looking to use space to enhance their military capabilities and national security. The growing use of, and reliance on, space for national security has also led more countries to look at developing their own counter space capabilities that can be used to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems.”

The existence of space weapons is not new, but the circumstances surrounding them are, said the SWF report. “Today there are increased incentives for development, and potential use, of offensive counter space capabilities. There are also greater potential consequences from their widespread use that could have global repercussions well beyond the military, as huge parts of the global economy and society are increasingly reliant on space applications.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...