A Summary of U.S. Counterspace Capabilities

Global Counterspace Capabilities:
An Open Source Assessment

Secure World Foundation
April 2020

Full Report

The following excerpt from the report summarizes U.S. counterspace capabilities.

The United States has conducted multiple tests of technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in both low Earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), along with tracking, targeting, and intercept technologies that could lead to a co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) capability.

These tests and demonstrations were conducted for other non-offensive missions, such as missile defense, on-orbit inspections, and satellite servicing, and the United States does not have an acknowledged program to develop co-orbital capabilities. However, the United States possesses the technological capability to develop a co-orbital capability in a short period of time if it chooses to.

While the United States does not have an operational, acknowledged DA-ASAT capability, it does have operational mid-course missile defense interceptors that have been demonstrated in an ASAT role against LEO satellites. The United States has developed dedicated DA-ASATs in the past, both conventional and nuclear-tipped, and likely possesses the ability to do so in the near future should it choose so.

Credit: Secure World Foundation

The United States has an operational EW counterspace system, the Counter Communications System (CCS), which can be deployed globally to provide uplink jamming capability against geostationary communications satellites. Through its Navigation Warfare program, the United States has the capability to jam global the civil signals of global navigation satellite services (GPS, GLONASS, Beidou) within a local area of operation to prevent their effective use by adversaries and has demonstrated doing so in several military exercises.

The United States is likely has the ability to jam military GNSS signals as well, although the effectiveness is difficult to assess based on publicly available information. The effectiveness of U.S. measures to counter adversarial jamming and spoofing operations against military GPS signals is not known.

The United States currently possesses the most robust space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities in the world, particularly for military applications. American SSA capabilities date to the beginning of the Cold War and leverage significant infrastructure developed for missile warning and missile defense.

The core of its SSA capabilities is a robust, geographically dispersed network of ground-based radars and telescope sand space-based telescopes. The United States is investing heavily in upgrading its SSA capabilities by deploying new radars and telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere, upgrading existing sensors, and signing SSA data sharing agreements with other countries and satellite operators.

The United States still faces challenges in modernizing the software and computer systems used to conduct SSA analysis and is increasingly looking to leverage commercial capabilities.

The United States has had established doctrine and policy on counterspace capabilities for several decades, although not always publicly expressed. Most U.S. presidential administrations since the 1960s have directed or authorized research and development of counterspace capabilities, and in some cases greenlit testing or operational deployment of counterspace systems.

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. The U.S. military doctrine for space control includes defensive space control (DSC), offensive space control (OSC), and is supported by SSA.

The United States is undergoing a major reorganization of its military space activities as part of a renewed focus on space as a warfighting domain. Since 2014, U.S. policymakers have placed increased focus on space security, and have increasingly talked publicly about preparing for a potential “war in space.”

This rhetoric has been accompanied by a renewed focus on reorganizing national security space structures and increasing the resilience of space systems. This has culminated in the reestablishment of U.S. Space Command and the creation of the U.S. Space Force, which assumed the responsibilities of U.S. Strategic Command for space warfighting and Air Force Space Command for operating, training, and equipping of space forces, respectively.

To date, the mission of these new organizations is a continuation of previous military space missions, although some have advocated for expanding their focus to include cislunar activities and space-to-ground weapons. It is possible that the United States has also begun development of new offensive counterspace capabilities, although there is no publicly available policy or budget direction to do so.

There are recent budget proposals to conduct research and development of space-based missile defense interceptors and DEW that could have latent counterspace capabilities. The United States also continues to hold annual space wargames and exercises that increasingly involve close allies and commercial partners.