A war in space will look nothing like Star Wars. It will look nothing like Star Trek, or Independence Day, or any familiar trope. To control the heavens, to contest space, nations will launch missiles at satellites and, to paraphrase Tacitus, create a debris field and call it peace. This rough approximation, a nightmare of explosions and permanent orbital shrapnel, only maps out the end state, should the long accepted neutrality of orbit get lost into the inertia of war. To map the particulars of a stand-off over space, the Secure World Foundation released a report this week on Global Counterspace Capabilities, an open-source assessment of what, exactly, nations can do in space.
“Space is not the sole domain of militaries and intelligence services,” write report authors Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson, “Our global society and economy is increasingly dependent on space capabilities, and a future conflict in space could have massive, long-term negative repercussions that are felt right here on Earth. The public should be as aware of the developing threats and risks of different policy options as would be the case for other national security issues in the air, land, and sea domains.”
To that end, the open-source report comes across as a foundational text, designed to cover the whole of the field, rather than a narrower report aimed at exploring just one aspect. For people already immersed in the literature of space weaponry and the debates about both its development and deployment, there might not be much new here. For an interested reader curious about the stability of space, the 148-page is a rich universe to explore.
Here are some highlights.
Celestial Spheres of Influence
Who has the means to fight in space? The slate of nations is mostly what a casual observer on the street would guess, with a couple twists. These include, in the order presented in the report, the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the United States of America, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Republic of India.
This list mostly overlaps with existing nuclear powers: apart from Iran, every nation here has successfully developed and tested a nuclear weapon, and all possess ICBMs. (Notably absent from the space weapons club, though present in the league of nuclear states, are the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Pakistan.) The relationship between nuclear weapons programs and space programs is interlinked, from the missiles designed to carry warheads to the space-based cameras and sensors built to detect hostile nuclear launches.
It is from this trade-off, that space is more valuable as a place to put sensors than a place to put weapons, that the nations of the world have largely settled into an accepted peace in orbit. (International efforts like the Outer Space Treaty certainly help). But just because space is peaceful now, and has been for decades, doesn’t mean countries aren’t working on weapons in case war in orbit becomes part of future plans.
Not With Sticks And Stones
A war in orbit could be fought from the ground, between satellites, or even in cyberspace. Weapons are categorized first by their relation to space. “Direct ascent” weapons are launched from sea, air, or the ground below orbit into orbit to destroy targets. “Co-orbital” capabilities are objects designed to be already placed in orbit, which might someday attack other objects in orbit. As for means of attack, those range from direct energy (lasers) to electronic warfare (jammers) to cyber means (the fifth domain in the fourth domain).
The distribution of these means is not even across space powers. China, Russia, and the United States are all identified as having both some possible co-orbital capability as well as direct ascent weapons, with both Russian and the United States also featuring known electronic warfare capabilities. Russia alone has a long-running program of directed energy weapons for counter-space, giving it the most diversified counter-space arsenal.
Among aspirational space powers, most technologies are still in development. The report notes that Iran has no direct-ascent or co-orbital capabilities, and no means or military reason to develop them. Instead, the authors write, “Iran has demonstrated an EW capability to persistently interfere with commercial satellite signals, although the capability against military signals is difficult to ascertain.” North Korea is similar, without any stated doctrine regarding counter-space it’s hard to determine future goals. What capabilities North Korea has demonstrated is limited to some jamming of commercial GPS signals. As a nuclear state, there’s one further possible tool in Pyongyang’s arsenal, though the authors quickly dismiss it as unrealistic. “It is unlikely,” they write “that North Korea would use one of its few nuclear weapons as an electromagnetic weapon.”
While the report assesses Iran and North Korea as mostly relying on non-kinetic means, should they decide to counter objects in space, India’s active missile defense programs could possibly be adapted into an anti-satellite direct ascent capability, should missiles meet India’s strategic needs. Yet that itself is unlikely, as the nation’s long established and growing space program derives more from a peaceful stability in orbit than it stands to gain through denial. “Otherwise,” the authors write, “given the substantial investment the Indian military is making in its satellite capacity and the income that India is receiving from launching other countries’ satellites, it is unlikely that they will move to actively create an official counterspace program.”
Cyberspace in space
“In 2007,” the authors write, “it was reported that the Tamil Tigers extremist separatist group successfully hacked ground C2 nodes and gained control of the broadcasting capabilities of a U.S. commercial satellite.”
Cyber attacks are nation-state agnostic, and can even be conducted by non-state actors, though for now nations have demonstrated a greater ability for offensive cyber. Of the six nations discussed in depth in the report, all except India are known to have conducted some form of offensive cyber attack, which means that satellites could be a target like everything else connected to the internet.
One good way to discover a vulnerability is to dare hackers that it cannot be done, as Iridium discovered in 2008. The satellite communications company boasted of the sophistication of its satellite’s interface, and its security against adversaries, all selling points for a a service used by the Pentagon. Shortly after, the report notes, “A group of hackers promptly determined that it was possible to effectively eavesdrop on Iridium traffic with nothing more than a cheap, easily-accessible software-defined radio and the processing power of an old, low-end laptop.”
The ease of some hacks should not discount their utility. With space primarily a place nations put surveillance equipment, cyber attacks offer not just a way to disable or deny that capability to the country that owns the satellite, but also to eavesdrop on everything it records instead, or to send it false information. Cyber capabilities are also cheaper to develop, and can be developed far more discreetly than many other counter-space weapons, which require an object in space or capable of reaching space.
Dammit Jim, I’m a doctrine, not a forecast
In 2015, China expanded on its position of space as peaceful to state that China will respond to threats against its assets in space. While Russia has had no similar pronounced change in doctrine, its present situation reflects two somewhat contradictory realities. The first is Russia’s ability to maintain and utilize its own satellite network for warfighting in places like Syria, and the second is a strong awareness that the United States’ reliance on a similar network is a vulnerable point that could be exploited in the event of a greater conflict.
While the United State Congress floats the idea of a separate “Space Corps,” the Pentagon has undertaken organizational changes within the existing structure of the military to better monitor and respond to action in orbit, and to coordinate responses. Along these reorganizations, the report notes a shift in rhetoric around 2014 to talking more about “war in space”, and this talk has moved from rhetoric towards force planning. “Between May and August 2014,” the authors write, “the Department of Defense convened a Space Strategic Portfolio Review (SPR), which concluded there was a need to identify threats in space, be able to withstand aggressive counterspace programs, and counter adversary space capabilities.”
Building weapons and tools to monitor a possible war in space doesn’t guarantee that one will happen, but thinking about space as another possible domain for warfare certainly elevates the likelihood.
It is worth noting that none of the doctrine available from China, Russia, or the United States seek to be the first to open a salvo beyond the atmosphere. Yet there is a not-insignificant shift in language: space has gone from a peaceful realm, to a domain that needs to be defended. Preparing to defend against a war in space isn’t exactly the same as preparing to launch a war against assets in space, but it sets the stage for it.
What are we to make of the future of war in space? If nations want to turn orbit into a useless wasteland, they can, but for almost everyone involved, there is far more to gain by maintaining the current arrangement.
To the extent that news alters this picture, it is when countries clarify what new tools they have available, and just as often, we see countries quietly choose to not upset the celestial status quo.
Yet conflict may creep into the delicate balance above. And when it does, it will do so in the new forms that below-war activities have taken place in the past decade: surreptitiously, through code and monitoring and theft of data, the hacks that veer between spycraft and sabotage. To see the future of war in the fourth domain, we should look to the future of war in the fifth domain.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.