Vulnerabilities in Space

CSPS Fellow Sarah Wells discusses the technological development and vulnerabilities of satellites.

The United States has become increasingly dependent on satellites since their introduction during the Cold War. Today, satellites are used for daily operations in both the military and civilian sectors, providing intelligence and navigational support to soldiers while supporting global communications and banking systems within the commercial domain. There is a growing threat related to the vulnerability of satellites to direct-ascent antisatellite (ASAT) weapons from U.S. adversaries, particularly Russia and China. The U.S. needs to increase its defensive capabilities in space to reduce the vulnerabilities of its satellite infrastructure to catastrophic effects from a satellite attack.

Satellites are considered any object that orbits a planet or star, whether that be a moon, planet, or machine. As of 2021, 4,550 satellites of various purposes were orbiting Earth across four different orbits: Low-Earth (LEO), Medium-Earth (MEO), Highly Elliptical (HEO), and Geosynchronous and Geostationary (GEO). The United States’ first satellite programs were developed within the context of the Cold War for military purposes as the U.S. worked to maintain its ability to deter the USSR from a nuclear first strike. During the 1970s and 1980s, the US was able to increase its operational capabilities and began to use satellites for intelligence, communications, and navigational systems which culminated during the Gulf War when the U.S. military showcased its ability to use space-enabled technology to improve efficacy in conventional warfare.

The commercial use of space has increased along with military capabilities as businesses, governments, and other institutions began to see the utility of satellite technologies. The biggest sector of commercial satellite use is within the field of communications where commercial satellites are dominant within the industry making up 63% of the 4,550 satellites in space. The military has become dependent on space systems for a variety of operations such as identifying targets, tracking movements, communicating to troops on the battlefield, transferring data, and monitoring attack results in near real-time which has simultaneously given them an edge against adversaries while also increasing vulnerability. In future combat situations, adversaries may be likely to consider striking the satellite infrastructure that the U.S. military and civilian economy have become dependent on.

There are many types of antisatellite weapons grouped as either kinetic, weapons that use physical attacks, or non-kinetic which usually use non-physical means such as cyber-attacks or jamming. Both Russia and China have showcased kinetic and non-kinetic ASAT capabilities that could strike U.S. satellites in orbit. Russia maintains the ASAT capabilities of the Soviet Union, including direct-ascent missile capabilities, and has tested a weapon as recently as November 2021. Russian military doctrine views space as a warfighting domain where the state with supremacy will have an advantage in warfighting and thus views maintaining a weapons arsenal that can potentially destroy enemy spacecraft as necessary. China also views space superiority as being integral to its military strategy for both offensive and defensive purposes, including having strong space situational awareness and an ASAT system that can target LEO satellites.

Satellites are difficult to defend due to their orbital nature and the high level of delicacy that comes from their environment and role. Space is considered an offense dominant arena that incentivizes the other side to strike first if general deterrence fails. Satellites cannot be moved easily, if at all, and currently there are few if any ways to actively defend a satellite from a kinetic attack or even accidental strike, whether that is from debris or another satellite. There is also a limit to space situational awareness, referring to the inability of states to monitor all satellites at all times. This can create windows of vulnerability where an adversary may be more inclined to attack a satellite. Satellite vulnerability is one of the largest security gaps within the current space system.

In an event where the U.S. is engaged in a conflict involving China or Russia, the current balance of powers and deterrence in space will be threatened. Russia and China perceive the U.S.’ reliance on space as one of its biggest weaknesses and could, therefore, within the context of conflict, be more willing to attack and destroy US satellites to gain an advantage on the battlefield as a way to escalate while still using conventional weapons. In order to prepare for the possibility of attacks on U.S. satellite systems, the U.S. needs to increase the resiliency of its satellite systems through sensor shielding, improved maneuverability, and diplomatic pressure to produce international arms agreements on satellite warfare.

Sarah Wells is a graduate student in the second year of her MA in International Security. She graduated from George Mason University in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in Government and International Politics. Sarah is currently a Pathways Intern with the Department of State in the Office of Children’s Issues. Her research interests include international development and its relationship with governance and European security issues.

Photo can be found here.