Report: Counterspace Capabilities Continue to Proliferate with Growing Implications for Space Security

by Director of Program Planning Brian Weeden and Washington Office Director Victoria Samson
Secure World Foundation

Over the last several years, there has been growing concern from multiple governments over the reliance on vulnerable space capabilities for national security, and the corresponding proliferation of offensive counterspace capabilities that could be used to disrupt, deny the use of, degrade, or destroy space systems.

This in turn has led to increased rhetoric from some countries about the need to prepare for future conflicts on Earth to extend into space, and calls from some corners to increase the development of offensive counterspace capabilities and put in place more aggressive policies and postures.

In 2017, Secure World Foundation launched a project to develop an open source assessment of global counterspace capabilities that would raise the awareness of space threats among policymakers and the public and lead to a more open dialogue on how to respond. The report – Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment – began tracking developments in multiple countries across five different categories of counterspace capabilities.

In April 2020, we released the third edition of the report that adds two more countries (France and Japan), a new category (space situational awareness (SSA)), and new activities from 2019 across all the countries and categories.

Looking across the three editions of our report, a coherent picture of the space security situation is beginning to emerge. The good news is that we have yet to see a confirmed case of destructive counterspace capabilities being used against another country’s space capabilities.

There are multiple examples of offensive non-kinetic counterspace capabilities being used in conflicts such as Ukraine and Syria, but they are limited to temporary, reversible capabilities such as jamming and electronic warfare.

The bad news is that research, development, and testing of a wide range of destructive and non-destructive counterspace capabilities continues to grow. In 2019, China, Russia, and the United States all continued to invest in a wide range of counterspace programs.

China conducted additional rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) with its SJ-17 and Chinasat 5C satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and appears to have tested widespread jamming of global navigation satellite system (GNSS) signals near the port of Shanghai that affected civilian shipping.

The United States secretly deployed three small satellites from its X-37B spaceplane, conducted its own RPO between the Mycroft and S5 satellites in the GEO region, and continued to exercise its own ability to jam GNSS.

The United States also reestablished the U.S. Space Command to be the warfighting combatant command for space and created the U.S. Space Force as a separate service focused on organizing, training, and equipping for military space operations.

Of all the countries surveyed in SWF’s Counterspace Assessment, Russia appears to have been engaged in the most counterspace activities in 2019.

The Russian Luch/OIymp satellite continued to conduct RPO to approach other countries’ satellites in GEO, while Cosmos 2535 and Cosmos 2536 conducted RPO in low Earth orbit with the release of small amounts of orbital debris. More worryingly, Cosmos 2542 released a subsatellite, Cosmos 2543, which subsequently maneuvered into a position to shadow a U.S. intelligence satellite, USA 245.

These LEO activities appear to be part of two separate counterspace programs, Burevestnik and Nivelir, which may correspond to a co-orbital ASAT program and a surveillance/tracking program, respectively.

Russia may have also conducted two additional tests of its Nudol ground-based direct ascent ASAT weapon in 2019, and has engaged in widespread GNSS jamming and spoofing throughout Russia, Crimea, and Syria. Finally, public evidence emerged of a new program called Numizmat to develop ultra-wideband radars for RPO applications and a program called Ekipazh that appears to be developing a nuclear-powered space-based electronic warfare capability.

Our 2020 report also adds two new countries, France and Japan, which have recently announced new policies or strategies for counterspace capabilities. In July 2019, France published the first French Space Defense Strategy that calls for enhanced space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities and developing an “active defense” against counterspace threats, perhaps involving ground-based lasers and small guardian satellites.

Japan is in the midst of a reorganization of its military space activities, with a significant focus on improving its own military SSA capabilities and is actively exploring whether or not to develop its own counterspace capabilities.

Meanwhile, India created a Defence Space Agency shortly after its March 2019 anti-satellite test and also featured its ASAT weapon system prominently at a defense expo held in early February 2020 to promote exports from the Indian defense industry. So although the Indian government continues to insist that it is against the weaponization of space, it is possible that Delhi has not entirely ruled out further development of its ASAT capability or use in a future conflict.

Overall, what we are seeing is an apparent shift in how offensive counterspace capabilities are being viewed. Instead of it solely being the preserve of the former Cold War superpowers, a growing number of countries perceive counterspace capabilities as tools that a major space power should develop and test to protect their own space assets and demonstrate its power.

But so far there is still a strong reluctance to use destructive counterspace capabilities in conflicts. Yet, with so many countries forming their own version of a Space Force and building up their own counterspace capabilities, it seems national policymakers are at least open to the theoretical possibility of using them in a future conflict.

This trend is why it is so important to continue to have conversations, both at the multilateral and bilateral level, to share information about priorities, concerns, and developments on space security issues. These discussions, along with more formal negotiating mechanisms, can stave off accidental misunderstandings or misperceptions that could lead to inadvertent escalation.

Furthermore, it is crucial to continue to work toward clear and accepted norms of behavior as part of developing transparency and confidence building measures in order to help reinforce responsible behavior in space and identify irresponsible behavior or threats. These steps can better ensure a predictable and stable space environment for all.