14.5 C
New York
Sunday, April 14, 2024

Analysts Warn Anti-Satellite Weapons Have Evolved Beyond Missiles

Last November, three months before Russian forces would invade Ukraine, Russia launched a Nudol missile interceptor that blew up Cosmos 1408, a defunct Soviet satellite, in the process flinging at least 1,400 bits of debris into low Earth orbit. The weapons test unsubtly demonstrated Russia’s anti-satellite military capabilities, which are comparable to those of China and the United States.

At the same time, Russia had reportedly been jamming GPS satellites, interfering with radio communications to and from spacecraft, thereby disrupting navigation tools the US military and others rely on. These kinds of electronic weapons, which can be deployed effectively against satellites and satellite-related infrastructure on the ground, are proliferating around the world, according to analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Secure World Foundation.

Last week, the think tanks each released a new annual report assessing what has changed over the past year—and what hasn’t—involving anti-satellite and other “counter-space” weapons, which more and more countries are developing. The counter-space world now extends well beyond the big three military space actors—the US, China, and Russia—and other newer space powers, like India, Iran, and Japan. Researchers now argue that Australia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom should be considered emerging space powers as well. 

“All these countries are laying the groundwork for more indigenous military space capabilities. They’re investing in military space organizations, they’re building resources for electronic warfare capabilities, and they’re building out a policy framework for some sort of military space aspirations,” says Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for the Broomfield, Colorado-based Secure World Foundation, or SWF.

Both reports draw attention to the Russian anti-satellite test, which like previous tests by Russia and other nations, generated long-lasting debris. The cloud of shrapnel from the blown-up satellite even briefly threatened the International Space Station, making the crew take shelter in a SpaceX Crew Dragon docked there, in case there was a collision. Other pieces of space junk still in orbit from earlier tests have remained there for decades, according to data from the SWF, which means continuing risks of collisions with active satellites. 

“That [Russian] test has really galvanized the international space community to continue to push for a ban on testing that creates this kind of debris,” says Kaitlyn Johnson, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and an author of the report.

Samson agrees. Even anti-satellite tests at lower altitudes, like the US’s and India’s, have still thrown hundreds, if not thousands, of bits of space garbage into higher orbits, where they linger longer and could endanger spacecraft. “There’s no such thing as a responsible anti-satellite test,” she says.

In the two reports, the analysts write that they also see nations increasing their investments in, and use of, electronic and cyberweapons. These technologies include the abilities to jam uplinks and downlinks, spoof satellites with fake signals, intercept data, or even possibly hack a satellite and seize control of it. 

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

From some militaries’ perspectives, these kinds of attacks could be considered advantageous, because they don’t pollute low Earth orbit with junk that could later affect their own spacecraft, and because they can be harder to attribute. “It’s easier, it’s lower cost, it’s less escalatory, and it’s effective—it does the job. Why try to shoot down a satellite when you could just launch a cyberattack and have the same effect with less backlash?” asks Todd Harrison, director of the CSIS’s Aerospace Security Project and an author of their report.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cast a shadow over the researchers as they finished writing their reports, and it will surely inform their future analyses. While other countries have also designed electronic weapons, like satellite communication jammers, the reports’ authors say Russia has demonstrated that it has no qualms about using them against GPS satellites and against drones

In particular, the CSIS report includes a map of GPS interference throughout the separatist region of eastern Ukraine before the war even started. The CSIS authors used data from the US-based radio frequency analytics company HawkEye 360, which they say indicates the estimated locations of suspected Russian jammers last November and December. And on the first day of the conflict, the US satellite communications provider Viasat reported a disruption to its ground terminals in eastern Europe; Harrison suspects that Russia is behind that cyberattack, though that has not yet been confirmed.

The Viasat attack could also be a sign of future problems for other companies as the private space industry plays a growing role in conflicts. “This has really driven home to commercial companies that they could become potential targets. If the Ukrainian government is buying imagery from a Planet Labs satellite, I think that makes the satellite a legitimate military target,” says David Burbach, a national security affairs expert at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who was not involved in the reports and was not speaking on behalf of the US Navy.

The reports also detail new weapons that are being researched and developed, mainly by the US, Russia, and China, including lasers and microwave beams that would be fired from the ground or aircraft to temporarily dazzle the sensors on satellites when they try to monitor something sensitive. The effect is like shining a flashlight in someone’s eyes. While the effects from a low-powered beam are reversible, a high-powered weapon could blind a satellite, causing permanent damage to its sensors or circuitry. There’s no known use of such weapons in war—at least not yet.

A close comparison reveals a few differences between the two reports. The CSIS report comes more from a US defense perspective, and unlike the one from SWF, it does not analyze the US’s own capabilities, but focuses more on the nation’s adversaries. (The organization’s funders include US-based aerospace companies and military contractors.) The CSIS analysts include two developments their SWF counterparts decided to leave out: China’s hypersonic weapon test and Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Last July, China test-launched a hypersonic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, which made at least a partial orbit before gliding to lower altitudes. It’s technically not a space or counter-space weapon, Harrison says, even if it briefly neared the edge of space. But it did raise questions related to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans nuclear weapons in space. Missile defense systems also don’t count as counter-space weapons, but similar technologies using ballistic missiles could be used against satellites.

Some space technologies, depending on how they’re deployed, create a “dual-use” dilemma, Burbach argues. “Almost anything useful on the civilian or commercial side has a direct military application too,” he says. 

For example, last year China launched a satellite that could dock with another orbiter, and observers claim that another of its satellites has a robotic arm. While these technologies can have peaceful uses—to service satellites or take dead spacecraft out of orbit—such rapidly advancing technologies could just as easily be used against an adversary’s satellite.

To avoid international misunderstandings about how these technologies are being used, Samson, Harrison, and their colleagues support ongoing attempts to develop norms or new rules for space. Debates about what kinds of behavior are allowed—and what are not—will be hashed out at the United Nations next month, as part of a long-term process.

Jessica West, a senior researcher at the research institute Project Ploughshares, based in Waterloo, Canada, says that more work needs to be done to make space safer. “We didn’t do arms control, and now we have a big problem,” says West, who’s not involved with either the CSIS or the SWF.

“Space is a military environment, but it’s overwhelmingly a civilian and a commercial environment” she continues. “I think about it like urban warfare: Yes, you have military combatants, but you also have a lot of important infrastructure.”


More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!The aftermath of a self-driving tragedyHow people actually make money from cryptoThe best binoculars to zoom in on real lifeFacebook has a child predation problemMercury could be littered with diamonds👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database💻 Upgrade your work game with our Gear team’s favorite laptops, keyboards, typing alternatives, and noise-canceling headphones

Related Articles

Latest Articles