ON OCTOBER 13, 1959, just two years after the launch of Sputnik 1, the United States conducted the first test of an ASAT system, launching a Bold Orion missile from a B-47 bomber at one of its own satellites.2 In the years that followed this initial counterspace experiment, both the United States and the Soviet Union tested a variety of ASAT systems that could hold each other’s space assets at risk. These kinetic capabilities were never used in anger because each side recognized the destabilizing effects an attack in space would have on the balance of power on Earth. Today, the U.S. military is reliant on space across the full spectrum of conflict, from counter-terrorism operations to high-end combat against a near-peer adversary. The threats to space systems have also metastasized, with a variety of counterspace systems proliferating to more nations and even non-state actors.
I believe that any domain that humans move into will be subject to conflict… conflict will move into space.GEN. JOHN HYTENCommander of U.S. Strategic Command 1
As this report has discussed, other nations are making significant advances in counterspace capabilities. China is a rising space power that is progressing steadily in the development and testing of direct-ascent and co-orbital kinetic ASAT systems. China already appears to possess advanced jamming, spoofing, directed-energy, and cyberattack capabilities that can threaten a variety of U.S. space systems. Russia continues to benefit from legacy Soviet-era capabilities, but its space systems deteriorated significantly in the 1990s and 2000s. However, Russia is now modernizing its space capabilities, and has revived or developed new counterspace weapons of nearly all types, including direct-ascent and co-orbital kinetic ASAT systems, an airborne lasing platform, advanced jamming and spoofing capabilities, and formidable cyberattack capabilities. While North Korea and Iran still lag far behind Russia and China in their space and counterspace capabilities, each is making quick progress thanks to technology transfers from other countries and their own ballistic missile programs. For now, the main threats from both North Korea and Iran in space appear to be non-kinetic forms of attack, such as jamming, spoofing, and cyberattacks. These types of counterspace weapons tend to be cheaper, require less technological sophistication, and are already within the reach of some non-space actors as well.
Deterrence can be particularly challenging for non-kinetic, electronic, and cyber methods of attack because these can be more difficult to detect and attribute and can have reversible effects. As this report has shown, some of these counterspace weapons are already being used against the United States and its allies and partners on a regular basis. While it is difficult to imagine a world without the advantages space provides to the military and daily life, it is far too easy to take these capabilities for granted. The growing threats against U.S. space systems and the ground stations that support them require immediate attention and action from policymakers.