JUST IN: Anti-Satellite Threats Increasing Globally

By Mandy Mayfield

Image: iStock

As the United States and its allies focus their attention on addressing the growing COVID-19 pandemic, China and Russia are moving ahead with new anti-satellite capabilities, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Our satellites are vulnerable to counterspace weapons in many different ways and we see a proliferation of counterspace capabilities in … other countries,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The think tank released a new space threat assessment report March 30 that broke down counterspace threats into four categories: kinetic physical, non-kinetic physical, electronic and cyber.

“Kinetic physical forms of attack are things like direct-descent, [anti-satellite] weapons, co-orbital [anti-satellite] weapons — things that will physically destroy a satellite in space by contacting it, '' he said.

Non-kinetic forms of physical attacks include events that will have physical effects on a satellite without actually touching it. These include high-powered lasers or microwave weapons, Harrison said.

Electronic forms of attacks include weaponry that can jam, spoof and interfere with radio frequency signals going to and from a satellite, he said.

Last, cyber forms of attack target data in signals. For instance, an adversary could take over control of a satellite and perform physical damage, he said.

Great power competitor nations such as China have been working to develop or improve upon new counterspace capabilities, said Kaitlyn Johnson, associate director of the Aerospace Security Project and co-author of the report.

For example, Beijing is improving upon its direct assent anti-satellite weapons, Johnson noted.

“It's a missile-like system launched from the ground into space directly hitting a satellite on orbit,” she said.

China successfully tested an anti-satellite capability in 2007. Johnson said the country has continued to perform tests of similar technologies almost every year since.
Beijing has “been extremely successful with their tests, almost normalizing these kinds of operations,” she said. It is important to note that China’s space and electronic warfare force has started operating and training with these systems, she added.

There has also been unusual behavior from China’s SJ-17 inspector satellite in geostationary orbit that has raised eyebrows, Johnson said.

“This is a great example … of a dual-use system,” she noted. The satellite could be used for on-orbit servicing missions such as testing ways to refuel a satellite on orbit, or used for counterspace attacks, she said.

“This is a great place to have on-orbit servicing and we see the United States doing the same thing,” she said. “But it also is the same technology you would need to carry out a co-orbital counterspace attack.”

Meanwhile, China is also performing spoofing activities around its coasts, specifically in the Port of Shanghai.

Throughout 2018 and 2019, numerous ships reported incidents of GPS interference in the region.

Their systems “were telling them that they were either miles from their actual location or they were moving at a different speed than they were actually moving,” she said.

Members of a U.S. ship in the region reported to the Coast Guard that, despite being parked at port, their data indicated they were three to five miles away and moving at 20 knots, Johnson added.

Russia, another great power competitor as identified by the National Defense Strategy, has made advances in almost all four of the counterspace categories of major space threats noted in the report, said Thomas Roberts, an adjunct fellow with the Aerospace Security Project and co-author of the report.

One of the nation’s more notable advancements is a ground-based laser weapon, Roberts said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in December that a weapon system had been deployed and placed on standby alert with troops, Roberts said.

“This is not the first ground-based laser system [developed] by Russia, but it's the first one that I have noted to be mobile," he said. “This is installed on a truck-mounted platform, it's a two-part system over two trailers. Likely the second trailer … is the power source for this laser."

The weapon has drawn attention from many in the space community, as it is unknown how much power is being pumped through the system’s power source and how much damage it is capable of, he said.

“Statements from Russian leadership suggest that this sort of system would be used to target satellites at low altitudes,” Roberts added.

Moscow has also continued its co-orbital activities in geostationary orbit and has received criticism for its satellite proximity operations around a classified U.S. government satellite in low-Earth orbit, according to the report.

Roberts also referenced a 2019 report conducted by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, which examined GPS spoofing sponsored by Russia.

Notably in 2017, 20 ships in the Black Sea recorded GPS discrepancies while their ships were sailing. Their GPS receivers suggested they were several kilometers further inland, he said.

Lesser powers at play, such as Iran and North Korea, are also working toward advancing their space capabilities, according to the report.

Iran has placed its focus on space launch vehicles and has had four launch attempts from 2019 to 2020, all of which ended in failure, said Makena Young, a research associate with the Aerospace Security Project and co-author of the report.

Similar to Iran, North Korea has a long history of counterspace activities. However, this year the county has largely been focused on rebuilding its Sohae satellite launching facility.

“In late 2019, North Korea conducted two engine tests at this site, believed to be modified liquid-fuel engines for long-range missiles, she said. “Although it was conducted at the satellite launching pad, experts assessed that it was likely another missile test or a step towards [intercontinental ballistic missile] development.”

Topics: Space, Space Operations, Space Resiliency, Strategic Defense Initiatives

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