Insight - What Continued Global Proliferation of Counterspace Capabilities Means for Space Security and Sustainability

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

By Director of Program Planning Brian Weeden and Washington Office Victoria Samson

Space security continues to increase as a salient policy issue. A growing number of countries are voicing concerns about their reliance on vulnerable space capabilities for national security and the corresponding proliferation of offensive counterspace capabilities that could be used to disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems. Several countries have made significant policy, budgetary, or organizational changes over the last several years to prepare for future conflicts on Earth to extend into space, which has prompted concerns about such efforts making it more likely such conflicts may happen.

In 2018, SWF published the first version of our Global Counterspace Capabilities report to provide a public assessment of counterspace capabilities being developed by countries based on unclassified information. We hoped that the report would increase public knowledge of these issues, the willingness of policymakers to discuss these issues openly, and involvement of other stakeholders in the debate. 

2021 marks the publication of the fourth version of our report and we are proud to see progress on meeting some of these goals. There is indeed more public awareness and discussion of these issues by governments, academic, and civil society. Governments have also been more forthcoming with information about space activities they feel are threatening, and at the end of 2020, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution calling for member states to report to the Secretary-General what they deem to be threats to space security and how they view responsible behavior in space.

At the same time, several countries have continued to develop and test counterspace capabilities, including those that are aimed at physically damaging or destroying satellites. In 2020, Russia continued to test its Nudol ground-based direct ascent ASAT system and China’s SC-19/DN-2 system likely reached operational deployment. A Russian satellite also conducted a close proximity operation to a sensitive U.S. intelligence satellite before it backed away and fired a projectile into space. While the United States has not conducted a destructive ASAT test of its own since 2008, the U.S. military has publicly reiterated its plans to use the newly-established Space Force and reestablished Space Command to dominate the space domain and potentially expand that dominance to cislunar and lunar activities as it ramps up for Great Power Competition with Russia and China. France, India, and Japan are also taking steps towards establishing their own counterspace policies, doctrine, and capabilities.

While it remains true that only non-destructive counterspace capabilities have been used during military operations to date, we fear that may change in the near future. Active development and deployment of counterspace capabilities, establishment of doctrine and procedures for their use, and increased nationalistic rhetoric around the role of space superiority in future competition between countries is a potentially explosive mix that could lead to conflict in space in the near future. Such a conflict may lead to the loss of important space capabilities that provide benefits on Earth and the creation of long-lasting orbital debris that has implications for space activities long after the shooting stops.

We urge countries to come together and find ways to reduce the likelihood of this scenario. The development of counterspace capabilities must be balanced by increased transparency and confidence building measures to prevent misperceptions and mishaps from sparking armed conflict. And there is an urgent need for countries to discuss what types of space activities or capabilities present a danger to the entire community that outweighs their military benefit. While UNGA Resolution 75/36 is a positive step in the right direction, it is only that - a step. It will need to be followed by other steps, including discussions about future legally-binding agreements that can reduce the likelihood of conflict extending into outer space. 

For our part, we will continue to track and monitor the development and testing of counterspace technologies, as well as the policies and doctrine for their potential use. We will continue to encourage public dialogue between governments and the broader space community on the potential threat use of counterspace capabilities poses for space sustainability and stability, including potential consequences for the burgeoning commercial development of space. It is only by a shared, cooperative approach that space will continue to be accessible to and useful for all over the long-term. 

Last updated on April 6, 2021