Space Threat Assessment 2019

An interactive summary of Space Threat Assessment 2019, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project.

This interactive article is an excerpt from Space Threat Assessment 2019, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. View a PDF version of the full report here


While the vulnerabilities of U.S. national security space systems are often discussed publicly, the progress other nations are making in counterspace systems is not as readily accessible. The purpose of this report is to review the open-source information available on the counterspace capabilities that can threaten U.S. space systems. It is intended to raise awareness and understanding of the threats, debunk myths and misinformation, and highlight areas in which senior leaders and policymakers should focus their attention.

The report focuses on four specific countries that pose the greatest risk for the United States: China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. A fifth section analyzes the counterspace capabilities of select other countries, including some allies and partners of the United States, and some non-state actors. 



This report is not a comprehensive assessment of all known threats to U.S. space systems because much of the information on what other countries are doing to advance their counterspace systems is not publicly available. Instead, it serves as an unclassified assessment that aggregates and highlights open-source information on counterspace capabilities for policymakers and the general public. The information in this report is current as of February 22, 2019.

Foreword by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) "Deaf, Dumb, Blind, and Impotent in Space"

The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2019, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Caroline Amenabar / CSIS

“Exploring the vast

universe, developing

space programs and

becoming an aerospace

power have always

been the dream we’ve

been striving for.”President Xi Jinping1

Since its first satellite launch in April 1970, China has been steadily progressing as a global space power. A string of Chinese space achievements has marked the past 20 years including launching a human into orbit, successfully operating two space stations, and most recently, landing a lunar rover on the far side of the Moon. Carried into orbit by its robust family of Long March space launch vehicles, China is progressing rapidly in space. In 2018, China conducted 38 orbital launches, surpassing the United States’ 34 launches.2 China plans to attempt over 30 launches in 2019, including 10 satellites for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT), as well as a new launch capability, the Long March 11 via a sea-based platform.3 The Long March 5—the country’s heavy lift launch system—will return to operation after a two-year hiatus in July 2019. If all goes well, the Long March 5 will launch China’s next lunar probe and return lunar samples to Earth at the end of 2019.4

Inspecting the GEO Belt

China has proven its kinetic physical counterspace capabilities several times with a range of direct-ascent ASAT systems and conventional midcourse missile interceptors that could potentially be used as an ASAT. Thus far, its primary focus has been targets in LEO. Some experts argue “Chinese [direct-ascent] ASAT capability against deep space targets (Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO)) is likely still in the experimental or development phase, and there is not sufficient evidence to conclude whether it will become an operational capability in the near future.”5 However, speaking in 2015 then-Lt Gen James Raymond stated at a conference that because of China’s investment in ASAT weapons, “soon every satellite in every orbit will be able to be held at risk.”6

In November 2016, China tested rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) between two Chinese satellites in GEO. On the maiden launch of the Long March 5, it carried an experimental satellite designated SJ-17 into geostationary orbit.7 SJ-17 later went on to approach a Lockheed Martin-built Chinese communications satellite, Chinasat 5A. SJ-17 circled nearby Chinasat 5A several times before remaining in a nearby orbit.8 SJ-17 restarted maneuvers around the GEO belt in April 2017, visiting another Chinese satellite designated Chinasat 6A, and continued RPO activities with Chinasat 20, through April 14, 2018.9 SJ-17 has not continued RPO activities since August 2018.

Publicly available data suggests that Chinese satellite SJ-17 made several close approaches in GEO. The interactive figure below highlights the unusual movements of the satellite from January to September 2018.


Jammers in the South China Sea

Currently, China has the ability to jam common satellite communication bands and GPS signals, and it has made the development and deployment of satellite jamming systems a high priority.10 The DIA claims that China is developing jamming technologies to target SATCOM over a large range of frequencies, including several military protected communication bands.11

China carried through with some of these plans, namely installing jamming equipment on the Spratly Islands. As of April 2018, U.S. officials confirmed that there are two islands in the Spratly Island chain that have been equipped with jamming systems targeting communications and radar. This assessment is supported by satellite imagery that shows a suspected jamming system on Mischief Reef. China has been building military installations across the island chain since 2014, but this is the first visual evidence of jamming equipment on these islands.12 Shortly after the identification of the jammers, Vietnam condemned China’s continued militarization and weaponization of the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands, stating that the jamming equipment violates international law.13

Satellite imagery of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands on May 6, 2018. Source: DigitalGlobe / CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

To learn more about all of China’s counterspace activities, read the full China assessment here

The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2019, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Caroline Amenabar / CSIS

“Russia is developing

a diverse suite of

ground-launched and

directed-energy ASAT

capabilities.”U.S. Missile Defense Review14

Because of the Soviet Union’s dominance in the space domain during the Cold War—launching more payloads to orbit than all other countries combined—Russia remains a prominent space power today. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, marking the end of the first global space age, the Soviets were driven to outperform the United States by reaching several key space technology milestones first.15 The Soviet space agency placed the world’s first satellite into orbit (Sputnik 1 in October 1957), achieved first contact with the surface of the Moon (Luna 2 in September 1959), and sent the first human into space (Yuri Gagarin in April 1961).

After its founding, the Russian Federation inherited three active Soviet spaceports: the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, and the Kapustin Yar Cosmodrome.16 Since 1991, Russia has successfully launched space objects from three more facilities, including the relatively new Vostochny Cosmodrome in the country’s far east, where it hopes to support human space launches in the future. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no longer responsible for the majority of global space launches. Although it achieved the greatest number of successful orbital launches of any country in 2014, Russia fell behind China and the United States in 2018 with only 19 launches to China’s 38 and the United States’ 34.17

The launch of Soyuz MS-11 to the International Space Station on December 3, 2018. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty Images

Unusual Behavior in the GEO Belt

Suspicious RPO activity has also been observed in at least one Russian satellite in GEO.18 The satellite—known as Olymp-K, but misleadingly referred to as Luch by the Russian government—has attracted attention for shifting its position within the geosynchronous belt on a relatively frequent basis, occupying at least fourteen different positions since its launch in September 2014.19 Olymp-K first attracted attention when it repositioned itself between two satellites operated by Intelsat, a U.S. satellite communications company.20 The two Intelsat satellites were separated by approximately 0.2 degrees of longitude in the geostationary belt, likely occupying the same orbital slot.21 Approaching satellites in GEO in this manner could allow for close inspection or potentially intercepting their communication links.22 Kay Sears, an Intelsat executive, expressed her concern over the issue and highlighted the Russian satellite’s behavior as “not normal.”23 Although U.S. Space Command sent warnings to Russia after it predicted that Olymp-K would soon pass within 5 km of another satellite, Russia appeared unresponsive and later dismissive.24 In September 2015, Olymp-K approached a third Intelsat satellite.25 The international response escalated in September 2018, when French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly accused Russia of committing “an act of espionage” after it approached a French-Italian military satellite “a bit too closely” in October 2017.

The interactive figure below shows Olymp-K‘s orbital positions from July 2017 and November 2018.

GPS Jamming in Peacetime

For a week in September 2017, Widerøe—one of Norway’s largest regional airlines—suffered a loss of GPS signals in the northernmost region of the country.26 Analysis by the Norwegian National Communications Authority suggests that the signal disruptions originated from the east, where Norway’s Finnmark County borders Russia’s Murmansk Oblast.27 The affected week coincided with a Russian-Belarusian joint military exercise in Murmansk called Zapad-2017.28 A year later, in October and November 2018, Norway hosted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Trident Juncture 18 exercise in its eastern and central region—well south of Finnmark— using northern airports in Norway, Sweden, and Finland for supporting aircraft participating in the exercise.29

Soon after the exercise, NATO spokesman Oana Lungescu announced that “Norway has determined that Russia was responsible for jamming GPS signals in the Kola Peninsula during Exercise Trident Juncture.”30 Several prominent Russian officials adamantly denied the accusations.31 In January 2019, the northern Finnmark region of Norway again experienced GPS jamming during Exercise Clockwork, a British training exercise in Norway using Apache attack helicopters.32

For best experience, please view on a desktop computer.

To learn more about all of Russia’s counterspace activities, read the full Russia assessment here

The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2019, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Caroline Amenabar / CSIS

“Iran’s regional ambitions

and improved military

capabilities almost certainly

will threaten US interests in

the coming year.”Daniel R. CoatsU.S. Director of National Intelligence33

Iran’s pursuit of space capabilities is a relatively recent development, and its efforts in space are often viewed as a thinly-veiled cover for its developing ballistic missile program.34 Iran has a relatively weak space industrial base, especially given the Iranian Space Agency’s close ties to the nation’s Ministry of Defense, and evidence suggests that a portion of Iran’s space technologies were adapted from Russian and North Korean counterparts.35 Iran maintains a domestic space launch facility in the northeastern Semnan Province, and in 2014, it also secured an agreement to use the Russian-owned Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for space launch.36

Developing Launch Infrastructure

Iran may once again be developing and testing long-range missiles at a site that hosted a lone missile launch test in 2013, but has since been considered defunct. Recent satellite imagery of Shahrud, Iran, shows dramatic increases in facility infrastructure over the last few years, including buildings painted a vibrant hue favored by the former lead scientist of Iran’s long-range missile program.

Though analysts determined that the majority of the Shahrud facility features underground structures, openair evidence of missile activity is also apparent. Evident in the photos are highly specific signs of long-range missile testing such as prominent ground scars, a known result of missile test-fires. The scars appeared in 2016 and 2017 in front of missile stands capable of supporting engines with between 62 and 93 tons of thrust of power (enough thrust for an ICBM, or anti-satellite capability). If Iran is indeed working toward developing ICBMs, the process may take between 5 and 10 years.37

To learn more about all of Iran’s counterspace activities, read the full Iran assessment here

The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2019, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Caroline Amenabar / CSIS

“Pyongyang and Washi-

ngton’s position on their

satellite launches are

radically different, and

thus a crisis may arise

once again, and one can-

not say it will not end up

with a war.”Cheong Seong-ChangSejong Institute38

Like many spacefaring nations, North Korea’s space capabilities are closely tied to its ballistic missile development. The Unha-3—the space launch vehicle used for North Korea’s only two successful orbital launches—likely used components from other missiles within the country’s arsenal, including the medium-range Nodong and Scud-class ballistic missiles.39 Although reaching orbit is a significant achievement, many experts doubt that the few satellites launched by North Korea perform all of the functions the North Korean government claims.40 There is little indication that North Korea is making substantial efforts to build or sustain a space industrial base, but its missile program is growing and many believe that it is aided by technology from China, Iran, and Pakistan.41

Disassembling a Spaceport

Although North Korea has successfully achieved orbital space launch in the past, satellite imagery suggests that the nation’s only active spaceport—the Sohae Satellite Launching Station on the country’s western coast—was being actively disassembled in 2018.42 In a press conference following the release of a joint declaration between the U.S. president and the North Korean leader, President Donald Trump stated that leader Kim Jong-un agreed to destroy “a major missile engine testing site.”43 While such a commitment was not included in the signed declaration, the North Korean government appeared to have selected Sohae.44 More recent satellite imagery—acquired in March 2019—suggests that the North Koreans have sharply reversed their activities and are rapidly rebuilding the site.45

Satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, January 20, 2019. The spaceport has not been used for an orbital space launch attempt since July 2016. Satellite imagery shows some dismantling activity between June and August 2018, but little since then. Source: DigitalGlobe / CSIS Beyond Parallel

To learn more about all of North Korea’s counterspace activities, read the full North Korea assessment here

The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2019, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Caroline Amenabar / CSIS

“The security environment

is becoming more complex

with our adversaries’ deter-

mined pursuit of advanced

technologies across multiple

domains [including space].”LTG Robert AshleyDirector of the U.S. DIA46

Other actors beyond China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have developed or laid the foundation for counterspace weapons and dual-use technologies. This chapter explores the demonstrated space and counterspace capabilities of other countries, including some U.S. allies and partners, along with changes in doctrine, infrastructure, and financing that might contribute to counterspace capabilities in the future.

Active Debris Removal

Active debris removal technology toes the line between the peaceful use of outer space and potential counterspace weapons. Almost any technology designed to move, de-orbit, or destroy an object in space could hypothetically be used against an adversary’s satellite. However, space debris removal is a potentially lucrative business and companies from the United States, Japan, and other nations are developing several methods for active debris removal.47

One technique for removing space debris on orbit includes using a webbed net. Source: University of Surrey / BBC

A project led by the University of Surrey and sponsored by the European Commission and other partners has completed two successful tests of active debris removal in space.48 The project, known as RemoveDEBRIS, first successfully used a net to capture a pre-designated target in September 2018.49 Later, in February 2019, the RemoveDEBRIS mission deployed a harpoon to spear a tethered plate.50

To learn more about the counterspace activities of a selection of other countries and non-state actors, read the Other Actors assessment here

The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2019, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Caroline Amenabar / CSIS

As this report demonstrates, many countries have developed and tested a variety of counterspace weapons. However, only a portion of the threats to space systems identified in this report make significant advances in any given year. This section details a shortlist of specific threats and technical developments that are important to watch in the near future.

Perhaps the most important area to watch is how the United States responds to new and ongoing developments in the counterspace capabilities of others. The 2018 National Defense Strategy says the military will prioritize “resilience, reconstitution, and operations” to protect space assets. What remains to be fully defined, however, are the specific steps the Department of Defense intends to take to improve the protection of space systems across the full spectrum of threats posed by potential adversaries. Key developments to watch within the United States are changes in the organization of the national security space enterprise, further development and articulation of military space strategy and doctrine, and investments in new space capabilities, counterspace capabilities, and space situational awareness capabilities. Changes in these areas are an indication of the level of priority being placed on space and how the United States intends to compete in this domain.

Read the full “What to Watch” section of Space Threat Assessment 2019 here. Aerospace

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