Report Recommends U.S. Bolster Satellite Defenses

Destroying an anti-satellite warhead as the targeted spacecraft maneuvers out of the field of fire. (Credit: CSIS)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A new report recommends the Pentagon significantly bolster the defense of vulnerable satellites in the face of the increased weaponization of space by Russia, China, India and other nations.

“Non-kinetic active defenses, such as onboard jamming and lasing systems, are needed to thwart kinetic attacks against high-value satellites. A physical seizure capability should also be explored that could double as an inspector and on-orbit servicing satellite,” the report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recommended.

The report, Defense Against the Dark Arts in Space: Protecting Space Systems from Counterspace Weapons, said that adversaries Russia and China and friendly nations India and France are making significant progress in being able to disable or destroy U.S. satellites through a variety of means.

“In many ways, the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test served as a wake-up call for policymakers by highlighting the vulnerabilities of space systems. But since that time, improvements in the defenses of U.S. space systems to the types of counterspace weapons adversary nations are developing and operationally deploying has been slow and uneven,” the CSIS report said.

China destroyed a non-functioning weather satellite in 2007 in an act that was widely condemned because it created hundreds of pieces of dangerous debris. China has continued to develop and test ASAT weapons.

“While U.S. space capabilities remain far ahead of other nations, some adversaries, namely China and Russia, are arguably making advances in counterspace weapons faster than the United States is making advances in protections against these threats,” the report added.

Types of Earth-to-space weapons (Credit: CSIS)

ASAT weapons are divided into two types: Earth to space and space to space. These types are subdivided into kinetic and non-kinetic systems.

China’s destruction of its weather satellite was an example of the use of a kinetic Earth to space ASAT weapon. Non-kinetic Earth-to-space weapons include uplink jammers, laser dazzling/blinding and cyber attacks.

All of these weapons have been demonstrated by multiple nations, including the United States, China, India, Iran and Russia.

Types of space-to-space weapons (Credit: CSIS)

Examples of kinetic space-to-space ASAT weapons include co-orbital vehicles and space-based missile interceptors that can destroy satellites. The CSIS report said the Soviet Union demonstrated kinetic weapons multiple times during the Cold War.

Non-kinetic space-to-space weapons include co-orbital crosslink jammers and high-powered microwave systems that can degrade, disable or destroy a satellite without ever making contact with it.

Active counterspace defenses (Credit: CSIS)

The CSIS report identified a range of active and passive defenses that can be deployed to protect satellites. The active ones include many of the same systems that an adversary can use to attack satellites, including direct-ascent ASATs, jamming, laser dazzling and cyber attacks.

Passive counterspace defenses (Credit: CSIS)

Passive defense are divided into three categories: architectural, technical and operational. The report recommended:

placing a priority on improving space domain awareness capabilities, including more space-based sensors, better integration with foreign government and commercial systems, and the use of artificial intelligence;

  • equipping satellites with non-kinetic active defenses, such as onboard jamming and lasing systems;
  • improving warning systems to give decision makers more information about and time to address potential threats;
  • implementing new space architectures that use a combination of distribution, proliferation, and diversification of orbits;
  • exploring the use of physical seizure satellites that could also provide inspection and on-orbit servicing capabilities;
  • improving the Defense Department’s integration with commercial space operators, and better leveraging existing space systems for national security purposes; and
  • developing a better understanding of the risks involved in the use of stealth, maneuver, rapid deployment, and reconstitution before committing significant resources to these passive defenses.

The report’s conclusions and recommendations section is below.

Defense Against the Dark Arts in Space: Protecting Space Systems from Counterspace Weapons

A Report of the CSIS Aerospace Security Project
Center for Strategic & International Studies

February 2021

Authors: Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, Makena Young

Conclusions and Recommendations

The United States maintains a distinct strategic advantage in space. While China and Russia have significant space capabilities of their own, the main security challenge they pose in space is the wide array of counterspace weapons they continue to develop, test, and proliferate. Russia and China are arguably making advances in counterspace weapons faster than the United States is improving its defenses against these threats. While the public discourse about the threats to space systems—not just from Russia and China but also from lesser powers such as North Korea and Iran—has become more prominent in recent years, the lack of a concurrent discussion about how to defend space systems against these threats has left some to incorrectly conclude that space is not defendable.

Given the myriad of defensive options available, the question facing policymakers is not whether space is defendable but rather which defenses the military should be investing in and how they should be employed. This conversation is especially important now because the U.S. military is in the process of modernizing many of its key satellite constellations. The decisions made over the coming months and years about what types of space architectures to field and which defenses to incorporate will have repercussions for the life of these systems. As this report demonstrates, a wide range of active and passive defenses are available to protect space systems and the ground infrastructure they depend upon from different types of threats.

Blinding an anti-satellite warhead as the targeted spacecraft moves out of firing range. (Credit: CSIS)

Space defenses can be organized into three categories of passive defenses (architectural, technical, and operational) and two categories of active defenses (space-based and terrestrial-based). Among the architectural passive defenses explored in this study, one of the key takeaways is that distributed, diversified, and proliferated constellations can all be used in various combinations to complicate the targeting calculus of an adversary and reduce the benefits of attacking any single satellite. Disaggregating space missions to separate platforms may reduce the risks of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation in a conflict, but an adversary may not be able to distinguish between satellites intended for different missions or may not trust this distinction. Disaggregation of strategic and tactical missions may also make attacking a tactical system more attractive because it reduces the risk of strategic escalation.

Technical types of passive defenses, such as electromagnetic shielding, jam-resistant waveforms, and antenna nulling, can make systems more difficult to attack and can limit the degradation in capabilities that occurs during an attack. The main downside for technical defenses is that they can add cost, weight, and complexity to systems. Space domain awareness, particularly from space-based systems, stands out as particularly important because it is helpful across a wide variety of scenarios and is a key enabler that makes many other types of space defenses more effective. The need to improve space domain awareness capabilities was a consistent theme throughout the workshops conducted as part of this study.

Operational passive defenses, such as satellite maneuver, stealth, deception, and decoys, can be used to make satellites difficult to find, track, and target. Rapid deployment can be used to launch new capabilities an adversary may not be expecting once a conflict begins, and reconstitution can be used to replace systems that are damaged or destroyed. However, maneuver is not likely to be a successful defense on its own because ASAT warheads have an inherent maneuver advantage over large satellites, and reconstitution capabilities may not be useful in a conflict until an adversary’s counterspace capabilities are neutralized.

Space-based active defenses protect space systems by disrupting or destroying an adversary’s counterspace weapons, effectively raising the costs of attacking space systems. Non-kinetic active defenses can be deployed in space to jam or spoof adversary radars systems, to blind optical or infrared sensors, or to create physically damaging effects on ASAT weapons using directed energy systems. A kinetic shoot-back system can use projectiles, guided warheads, or small satellites to physically impact a threat in space. These kinetic and non-kinetic systems can be deployed on the satellites they protect or on separate guardian satellites that orbit nearby or roam among satellites, creating a zone defense. The workshops and scenarios highlighted the value of having a satellite that can physically seize objects in space to move or disable them. This could be particularly useful in situations where there is ambiguity about a threatening object’s real status and capabilities or where decisionmakers may want to mitigate the risk of orbital debris.

A satellite maneuvers out of an anti-satellite warhead’s targeting range. (Credit: CSIS)

Terrestrial-based active defenses can be used to target counterspace weapons in space and the ground systems that control and operate these weapons. Cyberattacks and jamming or spoofing of command uplinks to counterspace weapons proved to be attractive options in the workshop scenarios, although participants noted the uncertainty about whether such attacks would be feasible and effective in a crisis. Terrestrial-based kinetic forms of attack to disable an adversary’s counterspace weapons, such as a direct-ascent ASAT attack in space or firing cruise missiles at counterspace ground sites, tended to be viewed as more escalatory options that would likely be reserved until armed conflict was already underway on the ground. The United States and its allies and partners have a strong incentive to avoid using kinetic attacks in space that are likely to produce orbital debris, even if such defenses may be warranted.

The workshops and hypothetical scenarios for conflict in space also highlighted many ambiguities that exist in space. As a physically distant and inhospitable environment, it can be difficult to monitor and understand adversary capabilities and intentions in the space domain, similar to the difficulties encountered in undersea operations. Dual-use space systems that can be used for both peaceful and military purposes and the lack of widely accepted norms of behavior in space further compound this problem of understanding actions and intents. These factors combine to make it difficult to determine proportionality of a response, including whether certain defensive actions are warranted. Thresholds for triggering defensive actions or offensive escalation may appear fluid or confusing to an opponent because these thresholds can be non-linear and highly context dependent. This study also found that there is significant overlap between the capabilities needed for defensive and offensive counterspace operations, particularly for active forms of space defense. For example, an adversary could view a space-based shoot-back system, whether kinetic or non-kinetic, as no different than an offensive space-based ASAT system or a space-based missile interceptor system.

A broad conclusion from this study is that the character of space warfare is evolving. This evolution is being driven by how the major military powers view and use the space domain—particularly whether it is primarily an information domain or a physical domain. The information domain school of thought emphasizes the use of space for remote sensing and communications. It is an enabler for forces in the other domains and a key component of battle networks and the sensor-to-shooter kill chain. This school of thought has dominated the planning for conflict that could begin or extend into space for nearly six decades.

In contrast, the physical domain school of thought places relatively more emphasis on the physical components of operations in space, including space launch, the application of force in space or from space, and the use of space for transportation, logistics, and other physical support functions. While some of these more physically focused military space missions are still in their infancy, they are likely to become increasingly prominent in the coming years due to reductions in the cost of launch and the proliferation of counterspace weapons and space defenses.

The challenge for space strategists is to anticipate how this gradual shift from space being more focused on information operations to physical operations will proceed. The evolution in the character of space conflict and how quickly that evolution proceeds directly impacts the types of space defenses and operational concepts the military should be developing today. With the evolving character of space warfare in mind, this study recommends the following priorities, actions, and additional analysis.

These recommendations are made without regard for what may already exist or be in development.

  • A priority should be placed on investments in improved space domain awareness capabilities, to include more space-based sensors, better integration with commercial and friendly foreign government systems, and the use of artificial intelligence to analyze data and form a better understanding of capabilities and intentions.
  • Additional effort should be placed on developing improved indications and warnings for space that give decision makers more time and information to tailor potential defensive responses to the specific circumstances of a conflict.
  • New space architectures are needed that use a combination of distribution, proliferation, and diversification of orbits. These new architectures do not necessarily need to replace legacy architectures but rather can be used to supplement and diversify capabilities that already exist.
  • Non-kinetic active defenses, such as onboard jamming and lasing systems, are needed to thwart kinetic attacks against high-value satellites. A physical seizure capability should also be explored that could double as an inspector and on-orbit servicing satellite.
  • New options should be considered to improve DoD’s integration with commercial space operators and better leverage existing space systems for national security purposes. For example, DoD could create a program like the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) with commercial space operators and use that program to incentivize investments in better passive defenses for commercial space systems.
  • A better understanding is needed of the operational, political, and strategic risks involved in the use of stealth, maneuver, rapid deployment, and reconstitution before committing significant resources to these passive defenses.
  • Further analysis and gaming are needed to explore gray zone competition in space and when it is advantageous (or not) to do nothing in response to an attack or threat of attack.

If space is to remain a source of economic and strategic advantage, the United States must prioritize and expedite its efforts to improve space defenses. Robust space defenses make conflict in space less likely. Many of the architectures and technologies already exist to make space systems more defendable and resilient. Senior leaders in DoD and Congress need to make top-level decisions about which types of defenses to pursue and then provide sustained investments to fund these capabilities to fruition.