Space Threat 2018: Other Actors Assessment

Other actors, including allies, adversaries, and non-state, are developing or using counterspace weapons.

The following article is an excerpt from Space Threat Assessment 2018, a report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

MANY OTHER COUNTRIES AND NON-STATE ACTORS have developed technologies that are dual-use in nature or are directly intended as counterspace weapons. This section explores the counterspace capabilities beyond those available to China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. It highlights how some of these counterspace weapons have been employed so far and the challenges they create.

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Israel’s Arrow missile defense system could in theory be used as an ASAT capability. Israel successfully demonstrated the required capabilities for an ASAT intercept (detection, targeting, and discrimination of a satellite target) using its Arrow-3 defense systems in December 2015.1 Though not a true ASAT test, like those conducted by China in 2007, the test proved that Israel could have a latent ASAT capability.


India has not successfully demonstrated a direct-ascent ASAT capability. However, high-ranking government officials have claimed such capability through their Agni-V ICBM system. In 2010, the then-head of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, Director General V.K. Saraswat also stated that India would “validate the anti-satellite capability on the ground through simulation,” rather than active tests.2 While they have reiterated that they possess ASAT capabilities, Indian officials do not want to weaponize space or create harmful debris in orbit from a test.3


Due to the dual-use nature of many space technologies, even benign space capabilities can be viewed by others as counterspace weapons. In 1998, Japan proved it could rendezvous and successfully dock two orbiting satellites.4 In this same rendezvous, Japan tested the functionality of a robotic arm that could grapple and exercise coordinated control over a second satellite. Both of these capabilities could be used as part of a co-orbital ASAT weapon, but Japan has given no indication that it plans to do so.


Several European countries have developed space capabilities that can also be used for co-orbital ASAT weapon. In 2000, a British satellite was launched in the same faring as a much larger Chinese satellite. Despite some technical difficulties, the British spacecraft successfully maneuvered within 2km of the Chinese satellite.5 In 2010, two Swedish satellites, dubbed Mango and Tango, performed a series of rendezvous maneuvers and formation flying.6

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Image Source: U.S. Air Force

India and Pakistan


Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that can reach orbital altitudes. India has several medium-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon into orbit.7 Similarly, Pakistan has developed nuclear weapons and integrated them with ballistic missile systems. Pakistan’s longest-range missile, the Shaheen 3, could potentially deliver a nuclear weapon into LEO.8 However, neither country has indicated that it plans to test or field such a system.

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Image Source: Jose Gil / Adobe Stock


Thuraya Satellite Communications, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, accused Libyan nationals of multiple satellite jamming activities occurring over six months in 2006. Concerned that smugglers were using the company’s services to bring illegal contraband into the country, Thuraya claimed that three separate locations in Libya carried out a barrage of jamming activities on its satellite communications services. The situation was rectified by “a diplomatic initiative made by the government of the United Arab Emirates to the government of Libya.”9 Five years later, in 2011, Thuraya’s satellite communications were once again jammed over Libya.10 This time, Thuraya claimed the attack was intended “as a revolt continued against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.”11


In 2013, the Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera reported that its satellite signals were being jammed by Egyptian authorities in order to block the news site from reporting on the military takeover of the government. The company was forced to change frequencies several times to avoid the jamming. According to Al Jazeera, it traced the jammers back to at least four Egyptian military installations near Cairo.12

Non-State Actors

In what was possibly the first instance of satellite spoofing by a non-state actor, a disgruntled employee at a local satellite uplink station spoofed HBO programming in 1986 in order to display his own message: “Good evening, HBO, from Captain Midnight. $12.95 a month? No way! Showtime/The Movie Channel, beware.”13 Similarly, a Chinese spiritual organization, Falun Gong, spoofed Chinese satellite television broadcasts in 2002, replacing the footage with its own video.14

Video of Captain Midnight interference on HBO

Terrorist and insurgent organizations have also used electronic attacks against U.S. military space capabilities. In the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, insurgents or remnants of the former Iraqi regime repeatedly jammed commercial SATCOM links used by the U.S. military. At least five jamming instances were later determined to be deliberate jamming of the satellite uplink using a “sweeper” signal meant to create interference across a broad segment of the spectrum.15 The Washington Post, in 2013, reported on concerns within the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that “al-Qaeda was sponsoring simultaneous research projects to develop jammers to interfere with GPS signals and infrared tags that drone operators rely on to pinpoint missile targets.” The story cites an instance in 2011 in which U.S. intelligence believed that jihadists in Pakistan had started testing a GPS jamming capability for the first time.16


Electronic warfare has been a staple of Russian activity in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government is employing similar techniques to jam broadcasts supporting Moscow-backed separatists. Indeed, Ukraine’s Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council has stated that “blocking the destructive influence of separatist and Russian information propaganda … is one of our priorities.”17

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Image Source: spainter_vfx / Adobe Stock

Non-State Actors

In 2007, the Tamil Tigers, a non-state actor based in Southeast Asia, hijacked an Intelsat satellite and replaced the feed with its own propaganda and data.18 The attack caused Intelsat to shut down the satellite transponder after more than a year of unauthorized use.19 In 2014, a 25-year old British citizen was arrested for hacking into an unnamed satellite system used by the U.S. military, where he accessed hundreds of Pentagon employees’ personal information. In the same attack, the hacker also accessed data from about 30,000 satellite phones.20 At the 2015 Chaos Communication Camp hacker conference, attendees were given “software-defined radios” sensitive enough to pick up on satellite traffic from Iridium communications satellites. A presentation entitled “Iridium Hacking: please don’t sue us” taught attendees just how easy it was to access Iridium communication links and eavesdrop on traffic.21