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  • The Battle for Extraterrestrial Security
    From the perspective of both commerce and national security nothing has changed more over the past 65-to-70 years than our exploitation of outer space.

    Obviously computing technology and networks have had a bigger impact in absolute terms, but those were built on the foundation of primitive mainframe computers and early transistor technology. In contrast no artificial satellite had ever orbited the earth, until 1957.

    At the end of 2021, there were 4852 satellites in orbit around the earth, with 136 new launches, last year. Most launches carry only one satellite into space, but that’s changing; a recent Space X launch carried 143 small satellites into earth orbit.

    Most are launched into low-earth orbit, or LEO. Another sizable proportion are launched into Geo-synchronous Earth Orbit, or GEO, which enables them to stay in a fixed position over the earth’s surface throughout their useful lives.

    These satellites come in many sizes and serve many purposes. Mega-satellites like the X-37B space plane, cost billions, weigh tons, and even return to earth for reuse. Others, like those making up the Starlink satellite constellation are tiny, cheap and expendable.

    Early-on, space was the exclusive domain of superpowers. The United States and the USSR worked feverishly to ensure that they were competitive on this new frontier. Initially, focused central planning enabled the Soviets to deliver spectacular results derived from their military research. However, by the end of the 1960s, the United States had pulled well ahead, even landing astronauts on the moon.

    From there, the fundamental aerospace research enabled by the “space race” increasingly complemented the explosion of info-tech technologies that began in the 1970s and grew exponentially. Today, space-based resources are an indispensable part of the global economy, touching the lives of virtually everyone on the planet.

    As a result, Russia and the United States have been joined by the EU, China, India, Iran, and even North Korea in launching satellites. And several private sector firms have gone beyond merely acting as government contractors; SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin provide full-service capabilities to satellite operators. And those operators provide myriad services to government as well as private sectors firms.

    Increasingly, we’re seeing the emergence of a viable space-based business eco-system.

    What do all these satellites do? And what makes them so indispensable?

    Satellites fall into five main varieties: scientific research, communications, weather, navigation, and the broad category of reconnaissance & sensing.

    Scientific research satellites include everything from the Hubble Space Telescope and planetary probes to the International Space Station and instruments designed to study the Big Bang.

    These get a lot of press, but they won’t offer economic payoffs in the foreseeable future. Visits to the moon and Mars fall into this category, but they have the added benefit of creating long-term “strategic options” that could be exercised down-the-road.

    Communications satellites are the real workhorses of today’s space economy. This is truly a major industry and keeping it safe is key. Over the past three decades, high quality fiber networks have limited the share of backbone traffic traveling via satellite. However, satellites remain the key to providing services to much of the earth’s surface.

    And as the Ukraine war has made painfully obvious, LEO-based constellations like Starlink have a real competitive advantage when terrestrial networks are jeopardized. Jamming or destroying this capability could wreak havoc on an economy, as well as its warfighting capability.

    Weather forecasting is probably the area in which satellites have had the “biggest bang for the buck.” Compared to the era prior to the 1960s weather forecasting has improved dramatically.

    And that’s primarily due to satellite imaging coupled with computer models. Consumers, farmers, airlines, insurance companies and government agencies benefit enormously from tracking weather activity as it evolves. The loss of these satellites would create a serious problem for commerce.

    Even though commercial GPS has only been available since the early 1990s, it’s hard to imagine how a modern society would function without navigation satellites. The U.S. system is the oldest and most widely used, but the EU, Russia, China also built navigation networks.

    Part of this redundancy is to avoid being denied access to foreign-based networks. Beyond these public resources each alliance possesses purely military navigation satellites, often kept dormant awaiting an emergency call-to-action. As with communication satellites, these resources have delivered trillions of dollars in value over their lives and their importance will only grow.

    Reconnaissance & sensing satellites use electromagnetic radiation to create images on and above the surface of the Earth. This includes images of farms, cities, forests and oceans. And they track details ranging from the cars and trucks in parking lots to airplanes and tanks on the ground to ships at sea.

    A sixth category of satellite could be termed offensive military satellites or “killer satellites.” Such satellites disrupt the performance of other satellites or ground-based targets. Even though international agreements severely limit the deployment and use of this technology, the United States, China and Russia have all investigated their use.

    That sixth category of satellite, while tiny, lies at the heart of an escalating Battle for Extraterrestrial Security which also involves ground-based offensive assets.

    Today countries are investing as never before in so-called counterspace military capabilities designed to threaten other countries’ space resources. To do so, these countries are realigning military organizations, doctrine, and strategy to include or better reflect space and counterspace capabilities.

    This threat is not imaginary. In November 2021, the vice chief of space operations, General David Thompson, reported that U.S. space systems are attacked “every single day” by reversible forms of counterspace weapons.

    Additionally, two destructive kinetic physical antisatellite (or ASAT) tests have occurred in the past three years, which is a worrisome trend. Also of concern is the increasing use of electronic warfare capabilities to deny or degrade access to space systems, using jamming and spoofing.

    The most recent example of this is the use of GPS jamming capabilities by Russia as part of its invasion of Ukraine.

    The Center for Strategic and International Studies has used unclassified sources to identify 13 types of counterspace weapons. (This summary appears in the printable Trends issue.) This analysis categorizes counterpace weapons into four broad types: kinetic physical weapons, non-kinetic physical weapons, electronic weapons, and cyber weapons.

    KINETIC PHYSICAL COUNTERSPACE weapons attempt to strike directly or detonate a warhead near a satellite or a ground station. The three main forms of kinetic physical attack are direct-ascent ASAT weapons, co-orbital ASAT weapons, and ground station attacks.

    Direct-ascent ASAT weapons are launched from Earth on a suborbital trajectory to strike a satellite in orbit, while co-orbital ASAT weapons are first placed into orbit and then later maneuvered near their intended target.

    These maneuvers are commonly known as rendezvous and proximity operations (or RPOs). Attacks on ground stations are targeted at the terrestrial sites responsible for command and control of satellites or the relay of satellite mission data to users.

    Kinetic physical attacks tend to cause irreversible damage to the systems affected and demonstrate a strong show of force that would likely be attributable and publicly visible. A successful kinetic physical attack in space will produce orbital debris, which can indiscriminately affect other satellites in similar orbits.

    These attacks are one of the few counterspace actions that carry the potential for the loss of human life if targeted at crewed ground stations or at satellites in orbits where humans are present, such as where the International Space Station resides.

    To date, no country has conducted a kinetic physical attack against another country’s satellite; but four countries - the United States, Russia, China, and India - have successfully tested direct-ascent ASAT weapons on their own assets. The former Soviet Union also tested co-orbital kinetic ASAT weapons as early as the 1960s.

    NON-KINETIC PHYSICAL COUNTERSPACE weapons have physical effects on satellites or ground systems without making physical contact. Lasers can be used to temporarily dazzle or permanently blind the sensors on satellites or cause components to overheat.

    High-powered microwave (or HPM) weapons can disrupt a satellite’s electronics or cause permanent damage to electrical circuits and processors in a satellite. A nuclear device detonated in space can create a high radiation environment and an electromagnetic pulse that would have indiscriminate effects on satellites in affected orbits.

    Non-kinetic attacks operate at the speed of light and, in some cases, can be less visible to third-party observers and more difficult to attribute.

    Satellites can be targeted with lasers and HPM weapons from ground-based or ship-based sites, airborne platforms, or other satellites. A satellite lasing system requires high beam quality, adaptive optics (if being used through the atmosphere), and advanced pointing control to steer the laser beam precisely - technology that is costly and requires a high degree of sophistication.

    A laser can be effective against a sensor on a satellite if it is within the field of view of the sensor, making it possible to attribute the attack to its approximate geographical origin. An HPM can be used to disrupt a satellite’s electronics, corrupt data stored in memory, cause processors to restart, and, at higher power levels, cause permanent damage to electrical circuits and processors.

    HPM attacks can be more difficult to attribute because the attack can come from a variety of angles, including from other satellites passing by in orbit. For both laser and HPM weapons, the attacker may also have limited ability to know if the attack was successful because it is not likely to produce visible indicators.

    Notably, the use of a nuclear weapon in space would have large-scale, indiscriminate effects that would be attributable and publicly visible. A nuclear detonation in space would immediately affect satellites within range of its EMP and create a high radiation environment that would accelerate the degradation of satellite components over the long term for unshielded satellites in the affected orbital regime.

    The detonation of nuclear weapons in space is banned under the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which has more than 100 signatories, although China and North Korea are not included.

    ELECTRONIC COUNTERSPACE weapons target the electromagnetic spectrum through which space systems transmit and receive data. Jamming devices interfere with the communications to or from satellites by generating noise in the same radio frequency band.

    An uplink jammer interferes with the signal going from Earth to a satellite, such as the command-and-control uplink. Downlink jammers target the signal from a satellite as it propagates down to users on Earth.

    Spoofing is a form of electronic attack where the attacker tricks a receiver into believing a fake signal, produced by the attacker, is the real signal it is trying to receive. A spoofer can be used to inject false information into a data stream or, in extremis, to issue false commands to a satellite to disrupt its operations.

    User terminals with omnidirectional antennas, such as many GPS receivers and satellite phones, have a wider field of view and thus are susceptible to downlink jamming and spoofing from a wide range of angles on the ground.

    Electronic forms of attack can be difficult to detect or distinguish from accidental interference, making attribution and awareness more challenging. Both jamming and spoofing are reversible forms of attack because once they are turned off, communications can return to normal.

    Through a type of spoofing called “meaconing,” even the encrypted military GPS signal can be spoofed. Meaconing does not require cracking the encryption because it merely rebroadcasts a time-delayed copy of the original signal without decrypting it or altering the data.

    The technology needed to jam and spoof many types of satellite signals is commercially available and inexpensive, making it relatively easy to proliferate among state and non-state actors.

    Finally, there are also purely Cyber-based Counterspace weapons. WHILE ELECTRONIC FORMS OF ATTACK just discussed attempt to interfere with the transmission of RF signals, cyberattacks target the data itself and the systems that use, transmit, and control the flow of data.

    Cyberattacks on satellites can be used to monitor data traffic patterns, intercept data, or insert false or corrupted data in a system. These attacks can target ground stations, end-user equipment, or the satellites themselves. While cyberattacks require a high degree of understanding of the systems being targeted, they do not necessarily require significant resources to conduct.

    The barrier to entry is relatively low and cyberattacks can be contracted out to private groups or individuals. So, even if a state or non-state actor lacks internal cyber capabilities, it may still pose a cyber threat.

    A cyberattack on space systems can result in the loss of data or services being provided by a satellite, which could have widespread systemic effects if used against a system such as GPS. Cyberattacks could have permanent effects if, for example, an adversary seizes control of a satellite through its command-and-control system.

    An attacker could shut down all communications and permanently damage the satellite by expending its propellant supply or issuing commands that would damage its electronics and sensors.

    Accurate and timely attribution of a cyberattack can be difficult because attackers can use a variety of methods to conceal their identity, such as using hijacked servers to launch an attack.

    Given the growing sophistication of the parties involved, their increased dependence on space technology and the turbulent geopolitical context, its certain that each of these threats will grow. And that means a growing defensive response is required.

    Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.

    First, the United States will remain the world’s leader in counterpace weapons technology throughout the 2020s.

    Its research investments in each of the four categories, dwarfs that of any other nation as does its access to state-of-the-art components. Furthermore, America’s tightly integrated land, sea, and air approach to warfare relies more on space than Russian and Chinese approaches, so maintaining battle-ready space capabilities is more important to the U.S. and its allies.

    Second, Russia’s once-formidable capabilities will become increasingly obsolete due to a lack of state-of-the-art technology.

    During the Cold War, Soviet counterspace technologies were best-ofbreed. However, AI and advanced signal processing are key to leadership in this field. Russia simply lacks the resources needed to keep up with Western capabilities.

    Third, as in so many other areas, China will increasingly fall behind the United States and its key allies Japan and South Korea in counterspace capabilities.

    Until recently, China was rapidly closing the capabilities gaps with the United States in counterspace technology. However, semiconductor sanctions are certain to take a toll in this area. Furthermore, as China relies more on satellites for commercial and military applications, it will become increasingly hesitant to “fire the first shot” in a counterpace war of attrition. And,

    Fourth, India will continue to develop its own counterspace capabilities so it is not forced to rely solely on the cooperation of the United States or its former ally, Russia.

    China and Pakistan are India’s mortal enemies. The United States is a new friend. And Russia is an old friend. In such a shifting world, China wants to have a domestic back up. However, Russia’s increasing reliance on China implies that India will be able to count on U.S. space assets when necessary.

    Resource List
    1. Center for Strategic & International Studies. April 2022. Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, Makena Young, Nicholas Wood & Alyssa Goessler. Space Threat Assessment 2022.

    2. Harvard Business Review. November-December 2022. Matthew Weinzierl, Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, Tarun Khanna, Alan MacCormack, and Brendan Rosseau. Your Company Needs a Space Strategy. Now.

    3. American Defense News. September 9, 2022. Paul Crespo. Why Communist China is Freaking Out Over NASA’s Artemis Moon Mission.

    4. American Defense News. August 10, 2021. Paul Crespo. Space Marines – Will US Need to Battle China and Russia for a Moon Base Site? (Part One).

    5. American Defense News. July 5, 2022. Paul Crespo. Yes, Communist China is Planning to Take Over the Moon – And We May Need to Fight for It.

    6. Harvard Business Review. February 2021. Matthew Weinzierl and Mehak Sarang. The Commercial Space Age Is Here.

    7. Center for Strategic & International Studies. February 2022. Todd Harrison & Matthew Strohmeyer. Commercial Space Remote Sensing and Its Role in National Security.