Space Threat Assessment 2020

An interactive summary of Space Threat Assessment 2020, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project.

This interactive article is an excerpt from Space Threat Assessment 2020, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. View a PDF version of the full report here.


The purpose of this annual report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project is to aggregate and analyze publicly available information on the counterspace capabilities of other nations. 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 more attention.

While the report focuses on the capabilities of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, Space Threat Assessment 2020 places relatively more emphasis than previous years on the counterspace capabilities of select other countries, including some allies and partners of the United States. These include India, France, Japan, and others. This assessment is not fully comprehensive and is intended to give highlights and insights of changes in counterspace capabilities over the past calendar year. The information in this report is current as of February 22, 2020.

Read "A Foreword to Space Threat Assessment 2020"



This analysis is built on the CSIS Aerospace Security Project’s categorization of different types of counterspace capabilities. Commonly referred to as ASAT (antisatellite) weapons, there are four distinct categories of ASATs: kinetic physical, non-kinetic physical, electronic, and cyber. All four of these categories have their own characteristics, and all have several sub-types within these categories.  


The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2020, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Emily Tiemeyer / CSIS

“No force will stop or shake China or its people from achieving its goals.”

President Xi Jinping, 20191

In the past decade, China has been barreling toward its lofty space goals. China’s civil, military, and commercial capabilities are rapidly growing, and its 2020 plans show that the country aims to launch over 60 satellites into orbit via 40 launches over the coming year.2 China’s civil space program is focused on its network of BeiDou positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites, similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS).

Since early 2019, Chang’e-4, the Chinese lunar lander mission that delivered a successful lunar rover called Yutu-2, has been conducting an exploration mission on the far side of the Moon. China plans to follow up this mission in late 2020 with Chang’e-5, a mission that aims to return samples from the Moon back to Earth for further study. China is continuing to move forward with a new modular space station, estimated to have a 10-year lifespan, with the possibility of extension. 3

To support its growing space capabilities, China has “built an expansive ground support infrastructure to support its growing on-orbit fleet and related functions including spacecraft and space launch vehicle (SLV) manufacture, launch, C2 [command and control], and data downlink.4

Taking a Break, SJ-17’s Lack of Movement

SJ-17, a Chinese satellite in geostationary orbit known for its unusual behavior, appears to have put a pause on its rendezvous and proximity operations in 2019. Compared to its first two years of operation, when the satellite appears to have performed close approaches and rendezvous operations with four Chinese satellites—Chinasat 5A, 6A, 20, and 1C—the lack of movement in 2019 is notable. According to CSIS analysis, SJ-17 restarted rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) with another Chinese satellite in GEO, Chinasat 6B, in late December 2019 and was still in an unusually close orbit in late January 2020. In the past, SJ-17’s RPOs have lasted anywhere from a few weeks to over three months.5

Chinese Rendezvous and Proximity Operations in GEO. Image Source: / CSIS Aerospace Security

In a 2015 paper published in a Chinese research journal, scientists speculated that a small satellite could be used to approach a large satellite in GEO in order to take high-quality pictures and quickly retreat or pass the target satellite to minimize detection.6 While SJ-17 is by no means a small satellite, it is possible that China is developing the skills and technology to accomplish such intelligence-gathering missions.7

Spoofing in the Port of Shanghai

Incidents were reported sporadically throughout 2018 and 2019 of the GPS signals for Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders being inaccurate in the main port of Shanghai. AIS signals broadcast the location, speed, and direction of a ship, as required by international maritime law.8 Documented by a U.S. container ship, the Manukai, spoofing activities caused nearby ships’ signals to be misrepresented in ways that could have caused a serious disaster.

For example, a nearby docked ship’s signal was reported as traveling down the channel toward the Manukai at significant speed. However, the captain could visually identify the ship in question as clearly docked and unmoving in a nearby slot at port. The incidents did not stop there, while the Manukai was securely docked at port, its AIS signals were reporting the ship being over three miles away from its actual location. 

Source: Skytruth / AIS data courtesy of Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire

Dubbed “crop circles” by confused researchers, this shape is unusual for GPS spoofing. According to Todd Humphries, “To be able to spoof multiple ships simultaneously into a circle is extraordinary technology.” It is extraordinary because a single attack appears to have been able to spoof several vessels simultaneously, each to a different inaccurate location.9 Furthermore, the D.C.- based research organization C4ADS also confirmed that civilian GPS was affected.

Who is responsible? Again, this remains unclear. Early sources speculated that the attacks are actually GPS hacking caused by a non-state actor: sand smugglers.10 However, the technology appears to be quite advanced, which researchers believe indicates that the Chinese government may be behind these spoofing attacks. What would be the Chinese government’s motive to cause disruption in their own ports? Skytruth researcher Bjorn Bergman suspects they could be hiding illegal imports of sanctioned Iranian oil.11

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 2020, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Emily Tiemeyer / CSIS

“[Russian] leadership must be restored [in the space domain]. This is not just a question of  prestige, but of national  security.”

Dmitry Medvedev, Former Russian Prime Minister12

With the dissolution of the soviet union in 1991, Russia inherited both the majority of the former state’s vast space infrastructure and its place among the global space powers.13 Since then, Russia has maintained a leading role in the global space community by operating the third-largest number of satellites on orbit, serving as a critical partner in international human spaceflight, and managing several of the world’s busiest spaceports—all while facing an inconsistent federal budgetary environment and claims of widespread internal corruption.14.

By some metrics, Russia’s space activity pales in comparison to the Soviet Union, which launched more payloads to orbit than all other countries combined before its collapse.15 Other measurements, however, such as launch vehicle reliability and human spaceflight achievements, describe a formidable space actor with remarkable resilience in a rapidly changing space domain.

Despite the geopolitical tensions on Earth, Russia has pursued robust international partnerships in the space domain in addition to its commitments as part of the ISS agreement. For example, the Russian space agency has entered into discussions with the China National Space Administration to pursue cooperative lunar exploration missions beginning in 2020.16 Since 2011, Russia has used the low-latitude Guiana Space Centre operated by the European Space Agency to launch Soyuz rockets, making it the only country in the world to launch a native orbital launch vehicle from a spaceport operated by another space agency.17 Russia has also indicated its interest in continuing its partnership with the United States after the ISS retires.18

Spying on a Spy Satellite

On November 25, 2019, Russia launched a small satellite, Cosmos 2543, into what the Russian Ministry of Defense described as a “target orbit from which the state of domestic satellites can be monitored.”19 Two weeks later, the ministry announced that a subsatellite, Cosmos 2542, had been deployed from Cosmos 2543.20

Three days after its deployment, Cosmos 2542 performed an orbital maneuver to synchronize its orbit with USA 245, what is believed to be a U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite. Amateur satellite observers who record and share satellite observations online noticed that USA 245 performed its own maneuver soon thereafter, possibly to steer clear of Cosmos 2542.21

In January 2020, Cosmos 2542 maneuvered toward the American spy satellite again, this time coming as close as 50 km.22 A day later, USA 245 made another maneuver, further distancing itself from the Russian inspector satellite.23 In an interview with SpaceNews, General John Raymond, the Commander of U.S. Space Command and Chief of Space Operations of the U.S. Space Force, confirmed the close approach, adding that he believed it was intentional.24

A $4,000 Taxi to the Kremlin 

In June 2016, visitors to downtown Moscow began noticing a problem with their mobile devices’ mapping services.25 When driving or walking near the Kremlin, at the center of the city, users reported being directed to follow implausibly inefficient routes. In some cases, mapping software suggested a detour of just a few blocks. In others, mobile device users were directed as far away as the Vnukovo Airport, almost 50 kilometers southwest of the Kremlin.26

Visitors were particularly affected when using ride-sharing services, complaining on Twitter about $3,000 to $4,000 fare estimates due to the mapping errors.27 These map users were likely receiving false positioning signals, leading them to specific, incorrect locations away from the Kremlin. Residents of St. Petersburg began reporting similar issues during a visit from President Vladimir Putin in December 2016.28

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 2020, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Emily Tiemeyer / CSIS

“The United States will not allow Iran to use its space launch program as cover to advance its ballistic missile programs,” 

Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State29

Often cited as a thinly veiled cover for its ballistic missile program, Iran’s space capabilities are relatively minimal.30 Iran’s space and ballistic missile systems are likely based on Russian and North Korean programs.

This analysis is supported by the weak aerospace industrial base in the country, suggesting that Iran is unlikely to have the technical and industrial capability to develop complex launch technology from scratch.31 In 2009, Iran successfully launched its first domestically-manufactured satellite on a Safir-1 rocket, making it the ninth country at the time to have launched an indigenous satellite.32 The Iranian Space Agency (ISA) continues to claim to have sent various living creatures into space in the last decade, including a monkey two times in 2013.33 The agency had previously aimed to put a human in space by 2025, but human spaceflight aspirations were put on hold in 2017 due to budget constraints, likely linked to U.S.-imposed sanctions. 

Failed Launch Attempt

Iranian Launch Attempt on August 25, 2019.
Source: CSIS / Maxar Technologies

On August 25, 2019, the head of the Iran Space Agency was quoted in state media saying that the agency planned to launch three satellites into orbit by March of 2020. The goal of these three satellites would be to help aid civilians through improving navigational, agricultural, and environmental monitoring services.34

Four days later, on August 29, satellite imagery from the Earth-imaging company Maxar Technologies showed a launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center that appeared to be the aftermath of a failed launch attempt. Satellite imagery analysts were able to note that the pad had been recently painted, likely for the launch itself and to cover up previous damage from failed launches, with smoke billowing from the ground, indicative of a failed launch. An anonymous Iranian official admitted to Reuters that the incident was caused by technical issues but would not go into further detail.35 President Trump tweeted a high resolution image of the scarred launch pad, underscoring that the United States was not involved.36 Days after this third failed launch attempt of the calendar year, the Trump administration added the Iran Space Agency, the Iranian Astronautics Research Institute, and the Iran Space Research Center to the U.S. sanctions list.37

New satellite images surfaced in January 2020 which showed the launch pad being repaired, possibly in preparation for another launch attempt with a Simorgh launch vehicle.38 This timing coincided with statements from the Iranian Minister of Information and Communications Technology, who announced that the program had six satellites ready to launch. He announced that two are communications satellites, named Zafar-1 and Zafar-2, were reportedly ready for a launch in early February.39

On February 9, 2020, the Simorgh rocket launched with a satellite on board, but the satellite did not reach high enough velocity to stay in orbit. A spokesman for the Iranian defense ministry’s space program claimed that the Simorgh functioned properly, calling it a “remarkable” feat for the space program. The minister of Information and Communications Technology continued by saying the program is “UNSTOPPABLE! We have more Upcoming Great Iranian Satellites!”40

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 2020, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Emily Tiemeyer / CSIS

“North Korea has been building new missiles, new capabilities, new weapons as fast as anybody on the planet,”

General John E. Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States Air Force41

North Korea successfully orbited its first satellite in December 2012 after three failed attempts in July 2006, April 2009, and April 2012. Its fifth attempt, in February 2016, successfully placed a second satellite in orbit. Both successful orbital launches from North Korea have been on the Unha-3 SLV, whose militarized adaptation is likely the same vehicle outfitted with a reentry vehicle in place of an orbital satellite.42

Like many other spacefaring nations around the globe, North Korea’s space capabilities are closely tied to its ballistic missile development. A North Korean law journal referenced the close relationship between space capabilities and ballistic missiles, stating “it is an undeniable truth that satellites launched into orbit by many countries around the world were made possible by rocket propulsion.”43

Space Launch Facilities

North Korea has two established launching areas for space capabilities: the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground and the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground. The Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground is North Korea’s oldest ballistic missile and space launch facility, although a successful orbital launch has never been achieved at the facility. According to December 2019 satellite imagery, there was increased activity at the site, including a group of people and possibly crates, but no sign of major renovations that would have to take place to prepare the facility for a vehicle test. However, North Korea has used mobile launching platforms for all recent land-based ballistic missile tests, which could be conducted in the grounds of Tonghae.44

Imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground after a test on December 7, 2019. Source: Planet / Beyond Parallel

The Sohae Satellite Launching Ground showed initial steps of disassembly in satellite imagery in the summer of 2018, but reassembly began again after U.S – North Korea Summits in Singapore and Hanoi.45 In late 2019, North Korea conducted two engine tests at the Sohae Satellite Launching ground, believed to be modified liquid-fueled engines for long-range missiles.46 While the specifics of the tests were unconfirmed, KCNA state media referred to the successful tests as “defence science achievements” that will “have an important effect on changing the strategic position” for the country.48

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

The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2020, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Emily Tiemeyer / CSIS

“When India celebrates [its] 75th year of Independence in 2022, and if possible even before, an Indian son or daughter will undertake a manned space mission on board ‘Gaganyaan’ carrying the national flag” Prime Minister Narendra Modi 49

India joined the world stage as a rising space power by launching its first satellite from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in 1980. India has since developed highly successful launch vehicles, a range of communications, imaging, and other critical satellites, and is beginning serious development of counterspace capabilities. While India has no overarching national space policy yet, the government of India is in the process of creating one.50 Currently, it does have various organizations dedicated to the space domain in both the military and civil sectors, each with supporting policies and doctrine. Among these organizations is the principal space organization in India, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which is responsible for maintaining the SLVs and spaceports of India. 

Mission Shakti 

On March 27, 2019, India successfully launched a Prithvi Delivery Vehicle Mark-II (PDV MK-II) missile defense interceptor at one of its own satellites. Launched in late January 2019, the target satellite, Microsat-R, was specifically placed in a low-altitude sun-synchronous orbit as the target for an ASAT test. After the successful test in March, independent analysts realized that an earlier attempt to intercept the satellite on February 12 of the same year failed.51

Depiction of Kinetic Physical ASAT Test by India in 2019. Muted international outcry in response to this ASAT test was, in part, due to the low amount of debris created because of the slight downward trajectory of the missile on impact. Source: Aerospace Security Project / Emily Tiemeyer

What was perhaps most notable about the Indian ASAT test was the muted international outcry that occurred afterward. This was likely due in part to the minimal amount of orbital debris created—only about 400 pieces remained in orbit immediately after the test, compared to the over 3,000 pieces of debris created during the 2007 Chinese ASAT test. The Indian ASAT test took place at a relatively low altitude, and at the time of impact, the interceptor was on a downward trajectory. This resulted in much of the debris having a downward trajectory, allowing it to be more quickly deorbited. Given these factors, it is likely that the Indian government was attempting to limit the potential for long-lasting orbital debris.52 Since the test, a majority of the debris has deorbited, and by the end 2019, just 18 pieces of debris large enough to track remained in orbit.53

The Indian ASAT test did not receive the same level of international outcry as the Chinese ASAT test, in part because it produced much less orbital debris. The United States, for example, only had one government official speak out against the test. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine decried the test because some pieces of debris were pushed to a higher altitude, threatening the astronauts on the International Space Station.54

While public international outcry was minimal, Pakistan was one of few states to openly denounce the test, urging all countries to “condemn India’s action and strengthen international laws regarding the militarization of space.”55 Additionally, the Union of Concerned Scientists denounced the test, expressing that this test harmed international efforts to prevent further weaponization of outer space.56

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

The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2020, a featured report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Image Source: Emily Tiemeyer / CSIS

“I’m convinced that in the future, if we were to get into a conflict with a peer or near-peer competitor, we’re going to have to fight for space superiority.”

General John Raymond,Chief of Space Operations and Commander of U.S. Space Command57

While the previous sections have been dedicated to the countries making the largest strides in counterspace capabilities—China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and India—they are not the only ones thinking strategically about the changing space environment. This chapter includes significant discussion and developments related to counterspace capabilities in other countries and non-state actors. 


France issued a new Space Defense Strategy in 2019. Among other things, the French strategy calls for the creation of a Space Command under the Air Force and renaming the Air Force to the Air and Space Force. The strategy notes that “renewed analysis of the space environment and its threats, risks and opportunities, as well as the recognition of the strategic nature of the space assets for France force our country to revisit its model in order to remain a leading space power.” The Space Defense Strategy further declares that France will establish a “space defense capacity” in order to “enable the armed forces to impose a peaceful use of space, deter unfriendly or hostile acts against our space assets, and be able, as the case may be, to defend our space-based interests.”58

Spoofing in the Mediterranean Sea

Civil and commercial marine users reported consistent loss of GPS signal in the Mediterranean Sea and surrounding areas throughout 2019. These outages ranged from the coast of Libya to Greece and Egypt’s Suez Canal. The U.S. Maritime Administration issued alerts that specifically mention the possibility of GPS interference in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean regions. The increased instances of GPS jamming have led captains to suppress their AIS data and switch to receive only. This has led to a decrease in situational awareness on the sea.59

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To learn more about all of notable Other countries’ counterspace activities, read the full Others assessment here

The following section has been adapted from Space Threat Assessment 2020, 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

This year’s edition of the CSIS threat assessment, finds that threats to space systems are growing as more countries and non-state actors acquire counterspace capabilities and, in some cases, employ them in more ways. While this report primarily details the developments in counterspace weapons that have occured in the last year, some of these developments have been ongoing for several years. This section highlights the types of threats and counterspace activities where more developments are expected to occur in the coming months and years.

Electronic counterspace weapons continue to proliferate at a rapid pace in both how they are used and who is using them. Satellite jamming and spoofing devices are becoming part of the every-day arsenal for countries that want to operate in the gray zone—i.e., below the threshold of overt conflict. The jamming and spoofing of satellites has become somewhat common, and without strong repercussions these adverse activities could gradually become normalized. The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to travel with GPS jamming devices in his motorcade and that China appears to be spoofing GPS signals to conceal illicit activities in its own ports demonstrate how important and integrated these capabilities have become at all levels. One should expect that the rate of satellite jamming and spoofing incidents will only increase as these capabilities continue to proliferate and become more sophisticated in the coming years.

One of the most significant counterspace developments in the past year was the Indian test of a direct-ascent ASAT weapon. This incident proved that a kinetic test done in a way that minimizes orbital debris may not generate the same degree of diplomatic backlash as the Chinese ASAT test in 2007. Moreover, the Indian test and how it was received could incentivize other nations, such as Pakistan, to develop and demonstrate ASAT capabilities of their own.

Russia also continued to step up its co-orbital activities in the past year. The Russian Luch satellite continued its close inspection of satellites in geostationary orbit, despite international denunciation of its activities. Russia also placed a widely-reported inspector around a classified U.S. Government satellite in low Earth orbit. Both the Indian ASAT test and Russia’s co-orbital activities may provide further incentive for nations to develop and deploy defensive counterspace capabilities of their own, as France announced it intends to do. Nations may also seek to draw distinctions between offensive and defensive counterspace weapons in order to justify the latter while delegitimizing the former.

As nations reevaluate the threats to their space systems, some have moved to reorganize existing space organizations or create new military organizations to better focus on space as a warfighting domain. France is creating a Space Command within its military and renaming its Air Force the Air and Space Force, while the United Kingdom may not be far behind in reorganizing its space forces. In the coming years, more nations may continue to reorganize and elevate space forces within their militaries both to focus attention internally and to signal externally.

A final area to watch in the coming year is how the United States continues to adapt to face threats in the space domain. The U.S. military is in the midst of what is arguably the most significant reorganization since the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. With the re-establishment of United States Space Command as a geographic combatant command for space and the new establishment of the Space Force as an independent military service for space, many things are in flux within the military space community. While there is great opportunity in this reorganization process, there are many risks as well. A chief concern is that an excessive focus on building bureaucracy (and attempts to limit bureaucracy) could distract senior leaders’ attention from the evolving threats to space systems and the U.S. military’s efforts to counter these threats. Key developments to watch within the United States are updates to space doctrine, strategy, and policy and investments in new space capabilities and missions. Developments in these areas would be a clear indication that the reorganization efforts put in place in 2019 are part of a fundamental shift in the U.S. military’s overall approach to making space more defendable. Aerospace

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