July 19, 2021

IntelBrief: ASAT Proliferation Unchecked as Great Powers Bolster Space Capabilities

(Mark Wright/Missile Defense Agency via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Once a largely uncontested domain, lower barriers to entry have allowed more nations to access outer space with satellite technology.
  • Anti-satellite weapons, or ASAT, have existed for decades, but to date have never been used in armed conflict.
  • A major obstacle in countering the proliferation of ASAT has been the lack of international consensus on how to establish norms and regulate state behavior in outer space.
  • Tackling ASAT proliferation appears to be following a parallel trajectory to that of nuclear proliferation since the Cold War.

The global proliferation of anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) poses a challenging security dilemma for the international community. A broadly inclusive but sophisticated capability, ASAT refers to counterspace weapons designed to disrupt, degrade, or destroy satellites. ASAT includes both physical (kinetic) and non-physical (non-kinetic) activities, such as electronic interference with satellite signals; cyber hacking and data manipulation; laser and microwave weapons; and general physical destruction. Several countries have tested ASAT capabilities by destroying their own satellites, including the United States, China, Russia, and India. To date, the most significant obstacle to countering the proliferation of ASAT has been the lack of international consensus on how best to regulate space behavior and norms, or reflect existing treaties and conventions in outer space. Although most United Nations member states have recognized the need to prevent the weaponization of outer space, diplomatic efforts to devise new space arms control agreements and binding enforcement mechanisms have repeatedly stalled. In this sense, tackling ASAT proliferation appears to be following a parallel trajectory to that of nuclear proliferation since the Cold War, —with similar players, grievances, and stakes.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 codified the use of space for “peaceful purposes,” but stopped short of defining what activities could be included. As a result, states have interpreted peaceful purposes to include a wide range of national security and defensive measures. States have also been hesitant to deem threatening ASAT developments as illegal, settling for condemnation while continuing to improve their own capabilities. In a June 16, 2021 congressional hearing, the U.S. Space Force indicated that the development of directed-energy systems will remain a defensive priority for the fledgling agency, and Chief of Space Operations General Jay Raymond called the systems “an effective capability for space dominance.” Indeed, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) 2021 Worldwide Threat Assessment identified Russia and China’s continued development of ASAT as an effort to undermine U.S. military dominance. Moving forward, space will likely be a highly contested domain in the arena of great power competition.

Described as a “wake-up call” in the U.S. defense community, China conducted its first successful ASAT test in 2007 just four years after its first human spaceflight, a demonstration of its rapidly improving capabilities and growing military aspirations in space. Once dominated almost exclusively by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, lower barriers to entry have allowed more nations to access outer space with satellite technology, with over 6,500 satellites in Earth’s orbit as of early 2021, and make it an increasingly contested space. Space debris from ASAT testing, or any intentional destruction of a space object, is also a growing international security concern. Apart from potentially colliding with and destroying a space station or satellite, growing debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the most crowded altitude range, could prevent the basic exploration and utilization of space.

Following China’s 2007 test, the U.S. and Russia rekindled their ASAT programs, and in 2008 the U.S. launched its first test since 1985. The U.S. and Japan expressed particular concern with China’s test because it was launched near the altitude of their imagery intelligence (IMINT) satellites. But U.S. dependence on satellites goes far beyond strictly national security applications. Peacetime intelligence gathering activities, economic security, and civilian communications technology—such as radio transmissions, GPS navigational tools, and weather prediction systems—are all heavily reliant on the U.S. satellite network. This reality has led some analysts to believe that the U.S.—the state with more than half of the world’s active satellites—has the most to lose from advanced ASAT capabilities. Much ASAT technology is also dual-use; ballistic missiles have an inherent ASAT capability, depending on their range and launch vehicle.

In March 2019, India became the latest country to demonstrate ASAT capabilities when it destroyed one of its own satellites, an action that starkly contradicted its own public rhetoric on the dangers of weaponizing space. The Secure World Foundation and the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) both released open-source assessments of global counterspace capabilities in 2021, and their analyses emphasize several international actors attempting ASAT development. The CSIS report listed North Korea and Iran as aspiring proliferators, highlighting their evolving non-kinetic capabilities (e.g., frequency jamming, lasers, and cyberattacks) as well as their kinetic ambitions (e.g., ballistic missiles and drones). One of the revelations from the Secure World Foundation report was the assessment that China is testing Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) technologies in both LEO and Geo Synchronous Orbit (GEO). ASAT technology that could reach satellites in GEO is inherently the most threatening, as some satellites in GEO support the operation of ballistic missile defense systems.

There are several diplomatic avenues that states have pursued to limit ASAT proliferation. One of these is blanket test-bans, though states have balked at these negotiations. China and Russia’s 2008 draft treaty, the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force Against Space Objects (PPWT), was criticized by the U.S. for its lack of a verification mechanism and failure to include all forms of ASAT technologies. The UN Conference on Disarmament regularly considers member state treaty proposals for hindering the weaponization of space under the agenda item PAROS, or the prevention of an arms race in outer space. The UN General Assembly has also established working groups and resolutions devoted to confidence building and transparency. Passed in 2020, resolution A/RES/75/36 calls for states to submit ideas on the implementation of norms and principles of responsible behaviors in space. But it remains unclear if these efforts will be adequate to deter states from developing ASAT technologies. In a strategic response to NASA’s collaborative Artemis Accords, an international agreement signed in October 2020 that describes a shared vision for space exploration and utilization, the March 2021 Sino-Russian lunar landing agreement almost guarantees that great power competition will shape alliances in space.