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Counterspace Weapons 101

Caroline Amenabar / CSIS

Counterspace weapons vary significantly in the types of effects they create, the level of technological sophistication required, and the level of resources needed to develop and deploy them. These diverse capabilities also differ in how they are employed and how easy they are to detect and attribute and the permanence of the effects they have on their target. There are four distinct categories of counterspace weapons: kinetic physical, non-kinetic physical, electronic, and cyber. Many different counterspace systems are either in development or are operational today. Depending on the technological capacity of a specific actor, one method may be preferred over another. Any of these types of weapons could be used against a satellite or the ground stations that support it, making it an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon.  

Kinetic PhysicalDepiction of a missile, or a kinetic counterspace weapon

Kinetic physical attacks attempt to damage or destroy space- or land-based space assets. They typically are organized into three categories: direct-ascent, co-orbital, and ground station attacks. The nature of these attacks makes them easier to attribute and allow for better confirmation of success on the part of the attacker. 

Non-Kinetic PhysicalA laser blinding a satellite

A non-kinetic physical attack is when a satellite is physically damaged without any direct contact. Non-kinetic physical attacks can be characterized into a few types: electromagnetic pulses, high-powered lasers, and high-powered microwaves. These attacks have medium possible attribution levels and often provide little evidence of success to the attacker.

Electronic electronic counterspace weapon

Rather than attempting to damage the physical components of space systems, electronic attacks target the means by which space systems transmit and receive data. Both jamming and spoofing are forms of electronic attack that can be difficult to attribute and only have temporary effects.

Cyber Graphic depiction of a hacked laptop, the result of cyber counterspace weapons

Cyber attacks can be used to intercept data, corrupt data, or seize control of systems for malicious purposes. Unlike electronic attacks, which interfere with the transmission of data via radio frequency signals, cyber attacks target the data itself and the systems that use this data. Any data interface in the system is a potential intrusion point, including the antennas on both the satellites and ground stations, as well as the landlines connecting ground stations to terrestrial networks. The effects of a cyber attack on space systems can range from loss of data to widespread disruptions and can potentially lead to the permanent loss of a satellite.

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