The following article is an excerpt from Space Threat Assessment 2018, a report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of the full report here.
IntroductionTHE UNITED STATES REMAINS A LEADER in the use of space for military purposes. From hunting down terrorists in remote parts of the world to securing a credible nuclear deterrent, the United States uses space systems across the full spectrum of military operations. Current U.S. military strategy relies on being able to project power around the world and over great distances—something space-based capabilities are uniquely able to support. But as the United States has developed more advanced national security space systems and integrated them into military operations in increasingly sophisticated ways, potential adversaries have taken notice. The U.S. military’s dependence on space makes these systems a natural target for adversaries to exploit. Space is simultaneously a powerful enabler for the U.S. military and a critical vulnerability.
U.S. national security space systems are vulnerable to a wide array of threats, ranging from cyberattacks and jamming to direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles. While some U.S. space systems incorporate protections against certain types of attacks, all are vulnerable in certain ways.For example, the latest generation of protected satellite communications satellites, known as Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF), incorporate a high degree of protection against jamming, spoofing, and other forms of electronic attack. But these satellites remain susceptible to kinetic attack, such as direct-ascent ASAT missiles or co-orbital weapons.
“The [Defense] Department will prioritize investments in resilience, reconstitution, and operations to assure our space capabilities.”2018 National Defense StrategyU.S. Department of Defense 1
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 of others that can threaten U.S. space systems. The report focuses on four specific countries that pose the greatest risk for the United States: China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Following these case studies, a fifth section analyzes the counterspace capabilities of other actors, including allies and partners of the United States, other nations, 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, this report serves as an unclassified assessment that aggregates and highlights open-source information on counterspace capabilities for policymakers and the public.
Types of Counterspace Weapons
This report classifies counterspace weapons into four categories: Kinetic Physical, Non-Kinetic Physical, Electronic, and Cyber. Each category differs in its development, deployment, detection, and attribution.
Kinetic Physical Counterspace Weapons
“New threats to commercial and military uses of space are emerging, while increasing digital connectivity of all aspects of life, business, government, and military creates significant vulnerabilities. During conflict, attacks against our critical defense, government, and economic infrastructure must be anticipated.”2018 National Defense StrategyU.S. Department of Defense 3
Ground stations can also be vulnerable to kinetic physical attacks by a variety of conventional military weapons, ranging from guided missiles and rockets at longer ranges to small arms fire at shorter ranges. Ground stations can be easier to attack in some respects because they are often highly visible, located in foreign countries, and are relatively soft targets. Ground stations can also be disrupted by attacking the electrical power grid, water supply, and the high-capacity communications lines that support them.
Kinetic physical attacks tend to have catastrophic and permanent effects on the satellites and ground stations they target. These counterspace weapons are likely to be attributable because the United States and others can identify the source of a direct-ascent ASAT launch or ground attack, and can, in theory, trace a co-orbital ASAT’s orbital data back to its initial deployment. Moreover, an attacker is likely to know if its attack is successful almost immediately because of effects that would be publicly visible, such as orbital debris.
Non-Kinetic Physical Counterspace Weapons
A high-powered microwave (HPM) weapon can be used to disrupt a satellite’s electronics; corrupt data stored in memory; cause processors to restart; and, at higher power levels, cause permanent damage to electrical circuits and processors. A “front-door” HPM attack uses a satellite’s own antennas as an entry path, while a “back-door” attack attempts to enter through small seams or gaps around electrical connections and shielding.5 Because electromagnetic waves disperse and weaken over distance and the atmosphere can interfere with transmission at high power levels, an HPM attack against a satellite is best carried out from another satellite in a similar orbit or a high-flying platform. Both front-door and back-door HPM attacks can be difficult to attribute to an attacker, and as with a laser weapon, the attacker may not know if the attack has been successful.
The use of a nuclear weapon in space is an indiscriminate form of non-kinetic physical attack. While a nuclear detonation would have immediate effects for satellites within range of the electromagnetic pulse it creates, the primary effect of a nuclear detonation in space is that it creates a high radiation environment that accelerates the degradation of satellite components over the long-term for all unshielded satellites in the affected orbital regime.6
Electronic Counterspace Weapons
Under severe stress situations, jamming can render all commercial [Satellite Communications, or SATCOM] and most defense SATCOM inoperable.Defense Science Board Task Force on Military Satellite Communications and Tactical Networking11
The technology needed to jam many types of satellite signals is commercially available and relatively inexpensive. Jamming can also be difficult to detect or distinguish from accidental interference, making attribution and awareness more difficult. In 2015, General John Hyten, then-commander of Air Force Space Command Space Command, noted that the U.S. military was jamming its own communications satellites an average of 23 times per month.12
Spoofing is a form of electronic attack where the attacker attempts to trick a receiver into believing a fake signal that the attacker’s device produces is the real signal it is trying to receive. Spoofing the downlink from a satellite can be used to inject false or corrupted data into an adversary’s communications systems. If an attacker successfully spoofs the command and control uplink signal to a satellite, it could take control of the satellite for nefarious purposes. Research has shown that even encrypted military GPS signals can be spoofed by a device that records the encrypted signal and rebroadcasts it with a slight delay. This specialized form of spoofing GPS signals, known as “meaconing,”13 does not require cracking the GPS encryption because it merely rebroadcasts a time-delayed copy of the original signal. Like jammers, once a spoofer is developed, it is relatively inexpensive to produce and deploy in large numbers and can be proliferated to other state and non-state actors.
Cyber Counterspace Weapons
Cyberattacks can be used to monitor data traffic patterns (i.e., which users are communicating), to monitor the data itself, or to insert false or corrupted data in the system. These different types of cyberattacks vary in terms of the difficulty and, correspondingly, technological sophistication required. A cyberattack on space systems can result in data loss, widespread disruptions, and even permanent loss of a satellite. For example, if an adversary can seize control of a satellite through a cyberattack on the satellite’s command and control system, the cyberattack could shut down all communications and permanently damage the satellite by expending its propellant supply or damaging its electronics and sensors. Accurate and timely attribution of a cyberattack can be difficult, if not impossible, because attackers can use a variety of methods to conceal their identity, such as using hijacked servers to launch an attack.