WASHINGTON — Experts have warned for some time that wars in space are not just Hollywood fiction. And the scenario appears increasingly more likely, according to the latest analysis by the U.S. intelligence community.
“We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against U.S. and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil or commercial space systems,” warns the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, released this week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The United States has benefitted from a tidal wave of innovation in the space industry, but so have many other nations. “Foreign countries — particularly China and Russia — will continue to expand their space-based reconnaissance, communications, and navigation systems in terms of the numbers of satellites, the breadth of their capability, and the applications for use,” said the report.
Both Russia and China continue to pursue anti-satellite weapons knowing that, if successfully employed, could undermine U.S. military capabilities, analysts noted. “Russia and China aim to have nondestructive and destructive counter-space weapons available for use during a potential future conflict.”
Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, has been researching China’s space weapons for years. Its arsenal includes ground-based direct ascent missiles that can physically destroy a satellite, jammers that can interfere, and lasers that can be used to dazzle or perhaps even blind imaging satellites, he told SpaceNews.
China has conducted a series of tests of on-orbit proximity and rendezvous operations, Weeden said, although the publicly available evidence “does not indicate they are explicitly aimed at offensive capabilities.”
Russia had several operational anti-satellite systems right up until the end of the Cold War, he noted, and there is “strong evidence to suggest they too are active again.” There are indications that Russia is developing its own ground-based direct ascent system known as Nudol, and also resurrected an airborne laser dazzler system known as the A-60, he said. There are multiple reports of Russia using GPS jammers in Eastern Ukraine, and Russia has also done a series of its own on-orbit proximity and rendezvous operations demonstrations, both in low-Earth and geosynchronous orbits.
“What’s driving this is the desire to blunt the ability of the United States to use space in a future conflict,” said Weeden. If a war broke out in the Baltic region or in East Asia, the United States would be heavily reliant on its space capabilities. “They think that by developing these systems they can deter the U.S., and if that doesn’t work then they hope to take out enough U.S. space capabilities to win the war.”
The United States also bears some responsibility for turning space into a battlefront, said Weeden. “While the U.S. only has one publicly acknowledged anti-satellite system, the counter communications satellite system, it has a lot of latent capabilities, particularly through its ground-based missile defense interceptors.” The United States is probably the world leader in on-orbit proximity and rendezvous operations, he said, and there have been a lot of rumors about the U.S. considering developing more offensive capabilities to “defend” its satellites or take out Russian and Chinese satellites.
What is worrisome, said Weeden, is that all parties have strong incentives to go after the other side’s space capabilities early in a conflict. “That could lead to some very unstable crisis dynamics and an outcome — armed conflict — that everyone says they want to avoid.”
This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.z