Militarization of space, anti-satellite weapons, collateral damage: the new arms race of the space powers

In March 2019, India became the fourth country, after the United States, Russia and China, to prove its ability to destroy a satellite in low Earth orbit by destroying its own spacecraft. Indian Prime Minister Modi describes this feat as a major accomplishment allowing India to become a real space power. This successful trial is part of the global dynamic of militarization of space and the development of Earth-based, stratospheric or space-based anti-satellite weapons. But this modern arms race that takes place in space engenders considerable geopolitical tension.

The militarization of space refers to the development of weapons and military techniques in space; it can also include land-based anti-satellite weapons including kinetic energy weapons, cyber-attacks, anti-satellite missiles … It is the use of one of these missiles that has recently made the news. India destroyed on 27 March 2019 one of its own satellites in low orbit with a missile. This is the fourth country, after the United States, Russia and China, to prove its ability to destroy a satellite in low Earth orbit. To accomplish such an operation, nations must be able to independently access space and master advanced technologies leaving little room for cooperation between states, making such an achievement rare.

Space, recent military playground of the great powers

To supor amongother things its many military activities, the United States relies mainly on the space environment which is, moreover, ultra dominated by the country. In the first line, we find the GPS, whose use is primarily military; the then MUOS satellites, which are military communication satellites; and finally, many other spacecraft used especially for the observation of the Earth, used among others by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the US Air Force, the CIA, the 5 Eyes, etc.

Nevertheless, times change. All these space military tools, then real assets for the country, became a weakness for the Americans. Indeed, the US Department of Defense (DoD) is now totally dependent on its satellites and the opponents of the United States have understood. In response to this American “domination” of space, China conducted its first anti-satellite missile in 2007, showing the world its space power. Its last test dates from 2018. After a series of failures during the Cold War, Russia has, in turn, proved its ability to destroy spacecraft in 2015 and 2018. India has thus joined this restricted circle.

However, these technological prowess must be qualified: only satellites in low orbit have so far been reached (between 300 km and 2,000 km). The constellations of satellites such as Galileo, GPS or MUOS are located more than 20 000 km away from the terrestrial ground, out of range of missiles recently used. Nevertheless, if one can send satellites into geostationary orbit, one can theoretically also send weapons or missiles capable of destroying these satellites. This is what China says by announcing that it is close to being able to destroy any satellite, regardless of its orbit. But an anti-satellite missile is not the only type of weapon that can neutralize a satellite: there is a wide panel.

Spatial and terrestrial antisatellite weapons in full development

The appliation and scope of the “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placing of Weapons in Outer Space, Threats or the Use of Force on Objects of Outer Space” (Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects “(PPWT)) are not challenged by anti-satellite missiles launched from the ground. Indeed, the treaty only prohibits the placement of weapons in orbit around the Earth. In order to clarify this ban, in 2008 and 2014, China and Russia requested its revision. The other major powers, including the United States, reject this request in its entirety, arguing that there is a lack of clarity in the words used (particularly the definitions of “outer space object”, “use of force” or “threat of force”, unspecified) and non-covered topics (no direct reference to anti-satellite missile processing). This lack of legal precision therefore allows the development of many land-based weapons (non-exhaustive list):

Antisatellite Missiles (ASAT): Kinetic energy threats, or ASATs, are designed to destroy satellites without placing the weapon system or one of its components in orbit. These tools are usually composed of a fixed or mobile launching system, a missile and a vehicle of kinetic destruction. These weapons could also be launched from aircraft. With regard to ASAT missiles, it is easy for a state to establish its provenance.

Electronic Warfare (GE): It includes the use of scrambling and spoofing techniques to control the electromagnetic spectrum. GE can be difficult to attribute and distinguish from unintentional interference. Uplink interference is directed to the satellite and adversely affects the services provided to all users in the satellite receiving area. Downlink interference has a localized effect as it is directed to ground users such as, for example, a land forces unit using satellite navigation to determine their location.

Directed Energy Weapons: uses directed energy to disrupt, damage, or destroy enemy equipment and facilities. These weapons, which can have effects ranging from temporary to permanent, include lasers, high power microwaves and other types of radio frequency weapons. Depending on the type, it may be difficult to attribute the origin of a directed energy attack.

Cyberattacks: Cyberspace invades all areas of war, including space; many space operations depend on cyberspace and vice versa. With in-depth knowledge of the satellite and data distribution networks, actors can use offensive capabilities in cyberspace to produce a range of reversible and irreversible effects on space systems, associated ground infrastructure, users and links linking them.

Moreover, if the treaty prohibits the sending of weapons that can be parked for a long time in space, it does not prohibit States to develop them. By definition, orbital or space systems are satellites that can produce temporary or permanent effects on other spacecraft. These systems could include payloads such as kinetic neutralization vehicles, radio frequency cell phone jammer, lasers, chemical sprays, high power microwaves and robotic mechanisms. Some of these systems, such as those using robotic technology for satellite maintenance and repair and debris removal, have peaceful uses but could also be used for military purposes.

China, Russia and the United States are the three major players in this militarization of space and develop all the aforementioned weapons. The US DoD has called for a budget of $ 304 million in 2020 for space-based lasers, particle beams and new forms of anti-satellite missiles. But other states are also in the race and are also developing space weapons such as:

India, with the recent destruction of its own satellite, shows China and Pakistan that it has the means to attack spacecraft;

Iran, for example, has publicly acknowledged that it has developed jamming capabilities for communications and GPS signals;

North Korea has highlighted its possession of non-kinetic anti-satellite weapons, including jamming of GPS and satellite communications.