Insight - Ukraine Highlights The Threat of Counterspace Capabilities In Future Conflicts

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

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

Space and counterspace capabilities are increasingly important aspects of military operations, as highlighted in the current armed conflict in Ukraine. Recent news stories have indicated the use of government and commercial space-based remote sensing and satellite communications by Ukraine, and also reports of cyber and electronic warfare attacks against some of those same systems along with global navigation satellite services in Ukraine. Thankfully, we still have yet to see use of destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons in an armed conflict.

The use of counterspace capabilities as seen in the Ukraine conflict is an unfortunate example of one of the potential scenarios that prompted SWF to publish the first edition of our Global Counterspace Capabilities report back in 2018. Over the last four years, we’ve discussed the growing number of countries 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. We’ve also tracked the growing number of countries that have made significant policy, budgetary, or organizational changes to prepare for future conflicts on Earth to extend into space, and the growing concerns about what impact that might have on the long-term sustainability of space.

This week, we are releasing the fifth edition of our report, which shows these trends continuing. Unfortunately, the previous year saw yet another destructive anti-satellite test in space, this time by Russia in November 2021, which created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris that will pose a hazard to other satellites and crewed space stations for years to come. The United States and Russia continue to conduct national security space activities that involve close approaches with other country’s satellites, while China demonstrated the ability to remove one of its own dead satellites from the active geostationary belt to the satellite graveyard. All three countries continued strong investment in counterspace systems. Meanwhile, we added three new countries - Australia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom - who are all exploring or developing counterspace capabilities of their own.

2022 also marks some major changes to the layout and composition of our report. We decided to reorganize the report into three major sections. The first section includes countries that have conducted destructive ASAT testing in space, ordered by the year of their first such test (the United States, Russia, China, and India) and concludes with a summary of the debris those tests created and how much of it is still in orbit. The second section includes countries that are considering or developing counterspace capabilities, but have not yet done destructive tests, ordered alphabetically (Australia, France, Iran, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and the United Kingdom). The third section focuses on cyber counterspace capabilities across all countries, as they remain difficult to assess and attribute on a per-country basis. Finally, we close with two appendices documenting all known ASAT tests in space and satellite imagery of major counterspace-related facilities. 

Last year, we discussed with some hope the potential for multilateral progress on mitigating threats to space with the passage of UNGA Resolution 75/36 and resulting inputs from nearly 40 States, intergovernmental organizations, and civil society. Since then, there has been further progress with UNGA Resolution 76/231’s creation of a new United Nations Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Space Threats that would meet in 2022 and 2023 to discuss ideas for mitigating threats to space. Unfortunately, the first expected meeting in February 2022 was delayed and now is expected to be held in early May 2022. 

We continue to urge countries to come together and find ways to reduce the threat to our continued use of space posed by counterspace weapons and their use in future armed conflicts. We reiterate our call to the countries that have tested destructive ASAT weapons to declare unilateral moratoriums on further testing of their antisatellite weapons that could create additional orbital debris and to work with other countries towards solidifying an international ban on destructive ASAT testing. The continued testing or demonstration of antisatellite capabilities, including the targeting of one own’s space objects, is an unsustainable, irresponsible, and destabilizing activity in space in which no responsible spacefaring state should engage. There is also an ever-present need for increased transparency and confidence building measures to balance the growing hyperbole and aggressive rhetoric about space as a “warfighting domain” and help prevent misperceptions and mishaps from sparking armed conflict. 

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 1, 2022