The Final Domain

The Final Domain

Russian and Chinese counterspace weapons threaten U.S. forces in space and on earth.
Preston Timms

Over the next decade, U.S. power projection capabilities will become increasingly threatened by the development of Russian and Chinese counterspace weapons, so U.S. forces must evolve to fight effectively even when space access is contested or denied. Russia and China are actively researching and testing counterspace weapons to deny, disrupt, or destroy U.S. satellites in potential future conflicts. The complex nature of networked warfare and of satellite operations makes space assets a likely target in any future conventional war involving U.S. forces. An adversary can target satellite control systems on the ground, the satellite’s link or broadcast, or the satellite itself through a variety of counterspace weapons. To ensure its future ability to project power, U.S. forces must anticipate and prepare for possible conflict in space and must develop the capacity to fight jointly even if U.S. space assets are disrupted or destroyed.

The development and fielding of counterspace weapons has increased in scope and intensity over the past two decades, as modern conventional warfare has increasingly relied on space assets for global positioning, communications, and command and control. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed advanced counterspace weapons, conducting anti-satellite tests as early as the 1960s. [1] However, the likelihood that an anti-satellite attack by either side would be interpreted as a precursor to nuclear war discouraged the development and use of offensive counterspace weapons. [2] Since the end of the Cold War, the advent of networked warfare has made space assets indispensable, while global nuclear tensions have declined. As a result, the development of offensive counterspace weapons has surged.

The United States depends on its network of military satellites to effectively project power across the globe, but new Russian and Chinese counterspace weapons, designed to blind and deafen U.S. forces in a future conflict, are being fielded to exploit this dependence. U.S. space infrastructure is foundational to U.S. power projection, enabling C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and  Reconnaissance) over vast geographical distances. U.S. forces presently rely on military satellites for navigation, weapons guidance, ballistic missile early warning, weather tracking, tactical and strategic communications, and full-spectrum intelligence gathering. [3] Recognizing U.S. forces’ operational dependence on the space domain, “Russia and China aim to have nondestructive and destructive counterspace weapons available for use during a potential future conflict” according to the ODNI. The ODNI further assesses that Russia and China will be able to field “destructive ASAT weapons” “[with]in the next few years.” [4]

In the next decade, Russia will pose a grave counterspace threat to the United States in terms of strategy and capabilities, supported by its extensive ASAT development and fielding during the Cold War but hampered by its economic constraints. Since the end of the Cold War, Russian military and civilian space spending has declined, but Russia still possesses a full range of counterspace weapons and has increased its focus on co-orbital capabilities. Russian military planners recognize U.S. dependence on space and specifically emphasize the need to dominate information warfare in modern conflict by depriving the enemy of their space assets. [2] Responsibility for executing counterspace operations appears to rest with the Russian Space Forces, a branch of the Russian Aerospace Forces, which also includes the Russian Air Force and Missile Defense Force. [5]

Russia currently fields or is testing direct ascent, directed energy, and electronic counterspace weapons, and it actively conducts rendezvous and proximity operations using satellites that might have co-orbital ASAT capabilities. Russia operates a number of surface-to-air and antiballistic missile systems that appear to have direct ascent ASAT capability, such as the PL-19 and possibly the S300 and S-400. [5] Russia is also reportedly developing a direct ascent ASAT missile to be launched by the MiG-31BM aircraft. [5,6] Additionally, Russia possesses ground-based lasers that could be used to dazzle or possibly damage satellites, and it is actively developing an airborne laser system, based on the A-60 aircraft, to provide an unpredictable, survivable counterspace capability. [5,7] Moreover, Russia has conducted numerous rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), likely to test co-orbital ASAT capabilities, in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) since 2013. [5] Russia has launched at least four or five “inspector” satellites, designed to maneuver close to other objects in space. [8,9] At least one of these satellites has became dormant, only to suddenly approach and maneuver towards an object in orbit. [8] In 2017, the Russian inspector satellite Kosmos-2519 deployed an inspector subsatellite, Kosmos-2521, which deployed another subsatellite, Kosmos 2523. [10] While many nations, including the U.S., have developed or are testing inspector satellites, which can be used to repair or refuel old space assets, any satellite that can modify another satellite can also be used as a co-orbital weapon. In the case of Russia, its pattern of orbital activities strongly suggests the development and possible operational fielding of coorbital counterspace weapons.

In the next decade, China will also pose a grave counterspace threat to the United States, since China emphasizes U.S. space vulnerabilities within its military strategy and has created a dedicated military organization for the space domain. In 2015, a Chinese military strategy white paper described space and cyberspace as “new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties,” designating space and cyberspace as new warfighting domains. [5] Although China has not publicly outlined its counterspace strategy or doctrine, Chinese defense academics “stress the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance . . . and communications satellites,’ suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to ‘blind and deafen the enemy.’” [5,11] To this end, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, established the Strategic Support Force (SSF) in 2015, a new military organization dedicated to coordinating and executing electromagnetic, cyber, and space warfare. [5] In the event of space conflict, the SSF appears to be responsible for electromagnetic, cyber, and co-orbital anti-satellite warfare, although it is unknown whether responsibility for direct ascent ASAT weapons has been transferred to SSF. [12] If conflict occurs, Chinese military strategists plan to target U.S. military satellites to prevent American power projection, and the PLA has reorganized itself to meet this objective and exploit U.S. space vulnerabilities.

China appears to be operating or developing a full range of counterspace weapons, and it has demonstrated direct ascent and co-orbital counterspace capabilities. Over the past decade, China has exhibited an aggressive testing schedule for its military and civilian space systems. China appears to be developing as many as three direct ascent ASAT systems and demonstrated its ability to destroy satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) in January 2007 and May 2013 respectively. [5] Based on these and other tests, China likely possesses an operational capability to destroy LEO satellites and an experimental capability to destroy GEO satellites, although striking geostationary targets produces highly undesirable debris fields. [2,5,13] China is also actively developing co-orbital counterspace weapons, which would allow it to strike low or geostationary targets without producing debris. [4,11] From June 2010 to February 2018, China conducted three sets of spacecraft rendezvous and proximity operations, demonstrating the ability to approach and maneuver around other satellites in LEO and GEO orbits. In the second set of tests, a Chinese system named SY-7 deployed a robotic arm capable of manipulating other objects in orbit. [2] These operations could be used to aid future civilian space development, but they likely also served the purpose of advancing Chinese abilities to attack enemy satellites. [4] In the future, these tests may develop into an operational coorbital ASAT capability, if China has not reached this point already.

China also possesses or is developing directed energy, electronic, and cyber counterspace weapons, and it has launched cyberattacks against U.S. civilian space assets in recent years. In 2005 and 2006, China reportedly demonstrated the ability to use lasers to blind imaging satellites, indicating an operational directed energy ASAT capability. China also possesses the technological ability to jam communications and GPS satellites. While China’s direct ascent and coorbital counterspace development has had little impact on other nations’ space endeavors, with the exception of its 2007 ASAT test which created substantial debris, China has used cyber weapons to deny and disrupt U.S. satellites on multiple occasions. In June and October 2008, Chinese hackers took complete control of the command systems of NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite, although they did not issue commands to the satellite. In September 2014, Chinese hackers penetrated the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellite and weather systems, forcing the NOAA to stop transmitting weather images to the National Weather Service for two days while the system was secured. These and other past Chinese cyberattacks against civilian satellites strongly suggest similar capabilities against military satellites. [5] Across the full range of offensive counterspace weapons, China represents a highly advanced threat.

The widespread fielding of counterspace weapons by Russia and China will substantially reduce the effectiveness of the U.S. military response in the event of conflict in Eastern Europe or East Asia. The consequences of Russian and Chinese counterspace weapons development will be decreased global stability and weakened U.S. power projection capability. Following the demonstration of U.S. conventional military dominance in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom using networked command and control, air power, and precision-guided weapons, Russia, China, and other adversaries have adapted militarily to defeat U.S. power projection within their spheres of influence. This marked change in strategy, known as Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), focuses on the use of long range weapons and sensors prevent U.S. forces from even reaching the battlefield. [14] In response, U.S. military leaders developed Multi-Domain Operations, an opposing strategic concept that envisions the use of small, agile ground units networked with long-range air and maritime systems to pierce enemy defenses, by fighting cooperatively across the five domains: ground, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. [13] Because of the concept’s dependence on advanced networking across the military services, U.S. forces operating under the MDO paradigm remain vulnerable to counterspace attacks. Whereas U.S. forces depend on space assets in order to operate on a global scale, Russian or Chinese forces can use shorter range, earth-based capabilities to compensate if their satellites are destroyed. [15] Consequently, despite the development and adoption of MDO, U.S. forces will likely remain threatened in the space domain by Russian and Chinese A2/AD strategy for the foreseeable future.

Iran and North Korea, despite lacking direct ascent and co-orbital weapons, nevertheless pose potentially significant counterspace threats to U.S. forces as well, since they have developed advanced electronic and cyber weapons. Neither Iran nor North Korea have conducted direct ascent anti-satellite tests, and both countries’ space programs are relatively undeveloped, focusing primarily on ballistic missile capabilities. [1,2] Furthermore, while Iran or North Korea could potentially develop a crude direct ascent ASAT weapon or eventually some form of co-orbital weapon, neither appear interested in doing so. [2,5] Despite this, both countries have developed and demonstrated advanced electronic and cyber capabilities. In 2011, Iran reportedly used spoofed GPS signals or another form of electronic attack to force a U.S. RQ170 spy drone to land, capturing the stealthy, highly-sensitive aircraft mostly intact. [2,5] Iran has also repeatedly demonstrated its ability to interfere with satellite transmissions, notably interfering with Voice of America satellite broadcasts in 2003 and interfering with VOA and BBC broadcasts in 2010. [5] While North Korea has demonstrated advanced cyber capabilities against U.S. corporations and other targets, it is unclear how it might be able to use electronic or cyber weapons against U.S. satellites. North Korea has demonstrated an ability to jam civilian GPS signals, but not military GPS. It also has not demonstrated the ability to jam satellite broadcasts or links. [2]

U.S. forces should develop doctrine, tactics, and equipment to fight effectively on earth in the event that U.S. space assets are attacked, while the United States should also pursue diplomatic attempts to prevent a “counterspace race.” The present pattern of counterspace weapon development could escalate into arms race or even military conflict, given sufficient provocation. Despite these developing threats, the U.S. does have its own counterspace weapons with which it can respond. Moreover, coorbital counterspace weapons can be spotted hours to days in advance of potentially hostile action. [2] The U.S. should develop the means for geolocation and communications in the event that key military satellites are destroyed, and it should invest in defensive counterspace weapons to defend its assets. To further protect U.S. forces, the U.S. should field nanosatellites, which can be deployed quickly to replace damaged or destroyed space assets, and it should invest in systems that are inherently hard for adversaries to counter, such as laser communications which cannot be jammed. [16,17]

The Five Categories of Counterspace Weapons:

1. Offensive counterspace weapons are categorized by the means they use to destroy space assets:

2. “Direct Ascent: weapons that use ground, air-, or sea-launched missiles with interceptors that are used to kinetically destroy satellites through force of impact, but are not placed into orbit themselves

3. Co-orbital: weapons that are placed into orbit and then maneuver to approach the target

4. Directed Energy: weapons that use focused energy, such as laser, particle, or microwave beams to interfere or destroy space systems

5. Electronic Warfare: weapons that use radio frequency energy to interfere with or jam the communications to or from satellites Cyber: weapons that use software and network techniques to compromise, control, interfere, or destroy computer systems” [2]

  1. Jeffrey L. Caton. “Impacts of Anti-Access/Area Denial Measures on Space Systems: Issues and Implications for Army and Joint Forces.” Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press. September 2018. PUB1384.pdf
  2. Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson. “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment.” Secure World Foundation. April 2018. swf_global_counterspace_april2018.pdf
  3. “The Battle to Militarize Space Has Begun.” Stratfor Worldview. November 11, 2015.
  4. “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community.” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. February 13, 2018. https:// Testimonies/2018-ATA—Unclassified-SSCI.pdf
  5. Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, and Thomas G. Roberts. “Space Threat Assessment 2018.” CSIS Aerospace Security Project. April 2018. uploads/2018/04/ Harrison_SpaceThreatAssessment_FULL_WEB.pdf
  6. Tyler Rogoway and Ivan Voukadinov. “Exclusive: Russian MiG-31 Foxhound Carrying Huge Mystery Missile Emerges Near Moscow.” The Warzone. September 29, 2018. http:// exclusive-russian-mig-31-foxhound-carryinghuge-mystery-missile-emerges-near-moscow
  7. Patrick Tucker “Russia. Claims It Now Has Lasers To Shoot Satellites.” Defense One. February 26, 2018. technology/2018/02/russia-claims-it-now-haslasers-shoot-satellites/146243/
  8. Joseph Trevithick. “Russia Has Four Potential “Killer Satellites” In Orbit, At Least That We Know About.” The Warzone. August 16, 2018. russia-has-four-potential-killer-satellites-in-orbitat-least-that-we-know-about
  9. Joseph Trevithick. “Russia Just Launched Five Objects Into Space. One Problem, There Were Supposed To Be Four.” The Warzone. November 30, 2018. -war-zone/25238/russia-just-launched-fiveobjects-into-space-one-problem-there-weresupposed-to-be-four
  10. “Kosmos 2519 / Kosmos 2521 / Kosmos 2523.” Gunter’s Space Page. https://
  11. “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” Office of the Secretary of Defense. May 16, 2018. https:// -1/1/2018-CHINA-MILITARY-POWERREPORT.PDF
  12. Kevin L. Pollpeter, Michael S. Chase, and Eric Heginbotham. “The Creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force and Its Implications for Chinese Military Space Operations.” RAND Corporation. 2017. dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2000/ RR2058/RAND_RR2058.pdf
  13. Richard W. Gibson. “Multi-Domain Operations and Counter-Space.” Small Wars Journal.
  14. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. “A ‘Highly Lethal’ War Of ‘Fleeting’ Advantages: Multi-Domain Battle.” BreakingDefense. November 14, 2016.
  15. Elsa B. Kania. “China Has a ‘Space Force.’ What Are Its Lessons for the Pentagon?” Defense One. September 29, 2018. https://
  16. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. “Build Bare-Bones Network & Small Satellites For Multi-Domain Battle.” BreakingDefense. July 31, 2017. https://
  17. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. “Army, NASA Want Laser Micro-Satellites For 50 Times The Bandwidth.” BreakingDefense. August 2, 2018. -want-laser-micro-satellites-for-50-times-the- bandwidth/

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