Governing Space as a New Warfighting Domain – Part One: Countries and Capabilities

18th August 2020

In 2018, Professor Michael Schmitt, a lecturer at Exeter University and space war expert, claimed that ‘it is absolutely inevitable that we will see conflict move into space’.1 In the same year NATO, at a summit in Brussels agreed to develop a space policy for the organisation declaring space to be ‘essential to a coherent Alliance deterrence and defence posture’.2  Since then NATO recognised space as ‘a new operational domain’  in December 2019. The United States has also labelled space as ‘critical to the nation’s security and economy and is no longer a benign environment’, with Russian President Vladimir Putin suggesting at the September 2019 Eastern Economic Forum that there could be a new arms race between the United States and Russia, which could spread into outer space.3 4 5  The extra-terrestrial sabre-rattling of world powers continued into 2020 when Russia was accused of testing a space weapon in July.6 In this article, the varying types of space weapons will be explored as well as the differing range of capabilities countries have.

Its dual use for both military and civilian purposes, as well as our over-reliance on satellites for all manner of daily tasks, including situational awareness and early warning, has meant that many states most vulnerable spot is in space.7 Whilst previously an attack on space infrastructure would more often than not have come from a state-sponsored hacker ‘to confuse or shut down an enemy’s satellites’, investment in space-grade military capabilities would allow states to take a more active offensive, or defensive posture in the newly declared operational domain.8 Lieutenant General Scott Kindsvater, the Deputy Chairman of the NATO Military Committee pointed out this vulnerability in a November 2019 speech saying that ‘space is part of our daily lives, and while it can be used for peaceful purposes, it can also be used for aggression’.9

The categorisation of space weapons can be broken down in many ways, the most basic of which puts them into two groups, one being ‘anti-satellite’ used to disrupt satellite transmissions, and the other is ‘space-based’ capable of targeting objects both on earth and in orbit.10 However, this somewhat oversimplification of space weaponry allows for vast overlapping of the two groups and does not allow for accurate identification.  In response to this, a more detailed assessment of space weaponry has been put forward by the Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

The first category devised by the CSIS is ‘Kinetic Physical Counterspace’ which includes weapons that ‘attempt to strike directly or detonate a warhead near a satellite or ground station’. The most common weapons in this category are direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles that can be launched from a fixed or mobile launch system to intercept and destroy a target satellite, these systems can also be fixed to an aircraft.11 Similar to the direct ascent anti-satellite systems are the co-orbital systems that can be launched into space and placed in a similar orbit to the target satellite, which can then be manoeuvred into the path of an enemy satellite in order to intercept, interfere, or destroy the target.12 Whilst kinetic physical counterspace weapons can be effective in retiring an enemy satellite, they are also easily traced and attributed to a country of origin. Further to this, the collateral damage caused by this type of attack can be excessive, creating large quantities of debris drastically affecting the way in which space is able to be used.

The second category listed by the CSIS is ‘non-kinetic counterspace’ which uses technology to interfere or temporarily damage satellites. Most commonly this type of weapon involves a laser, high-powered microwave, or electromagnetic pulse which can affect the operation of a satellite.13 The use of directed energy such as lasers has already proven to be effective and is used to ‘dazzle’ spy satellites in order to stop them from collecting information.14 Non-kinetic counterspace action is also much harder to detect or attribute to a particular nation as attacks occur at the speed of light and so are difficult for third-parties to observe.15

A third category identified by CSIS is ‘Electronic Attacks’ which uses radiofrequency’s to interfere with communications to and from satellites. Electronic attacks can come in two forms, the first of which is jamming that is designed to disrupt all users in a satellite reception area when applied to an uplink or with a more localised effect when applied to a downlink. Using it in this way could disrupt communications and information sent to ground forces using the satellite and is difficult to concretely attribute malicious intent to due to the possibility of unintentional interference.16 The second use of electronic attacks is called spoofing which uses a fake signal that tricks the receiver into believing that the received signal is the real one, therefore providing the receiver with incorrect information.17

The last category is ‘Cyber Attacks’ which ‘uses software and network techniques to compromise, control, interfere or destroy computer systems that are linked to satellite operations’.18 Cyber-attacks can be utilised in a myriad of ways and can be used to identify the parties communicating via a satellite system or to corrupt data received by a satellite and thereby causing data loss, disruptions, or ‘even permanent loss of a satellite’.19

It is estimated that roughly 2,000 satellites are currently active and in orbit belonging to 50 different actors, including nations and multinational organisations, and providing a plethora of different functions on earth.20 Whilst arguably the launching of satellites are purely functional for multinational organisations, the importance placed on ‘space-faring’ are exceedingly more significant for country’s which are attempting to sustain their place in the world, such as the United States, recoup their place in the world such as Russia, cement their place in the world, such as China, or are vying for world power status, such as India. According to the Secure World Foundation’s 2020 Global Counter Space Capabilities report, all of the above-mentioned countries have confirmed counterspace capabilities, with all but Russia having used ground-based anti-Satellite systems to destroy a satellite.21 But what is the extent of these abilities?


Although newer than that of Russia’s and the United States space programmes, China was able to make a number of large leaps in space technology and demonstrated its anti-satellite capability in January 2007 when it launched a ballistic missile at a non-operational Chinese weather satellite, destroying it, and, whilst not military action, showcased to the world its military capabilities.22 The action was near-universally condemned due to the collision resulting in a further 3,000 pieces of space debris that will pose a threat to others in orbit for decades.23

Since the anti-Satellite test, China has conducted over 200 orbital launches with plans to launch a further 60 satellites in 2020.24 The country has also made clear its intentions for space, having integrated cyberspace,  space and electronic warfare capabilities into the Strategic Support Force in the 2015 military reforms, and releasing a white paper in 2016 declaring their intentions ‘to explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry, and build China into a space power’.25 26

It has been reported that China has slowed development on kinetic physical counterspace technology such as anti-Satellite systems but the fact that they have displayed the capability reinforces their military might and opens up weaknesses in other country’s militarily, particularly the United States who are known to rely on satellites for precision-guided weapons.27 It is also likely that kinetic physical counterspace weaponry is now considered to be a weapon of last resort due to the international condemnation associated with its use, as experienced in 2007, and its overt nature.28 Whilst slowing research and development in kinetic physical counterspace technology, it is believed that the Chinese military has increased their development of non-kinetic and electronic counterspace weaponry to go alongside their sophisticated cyberspace presence such as satellite blinding lasers and jamming and spoofing technology. In particular, there have been reports of the Chinese military using jamming and spoofing techniques in military exercises to disrupt communications systems as well as GPS and radar, and it has also been reported that GPS spoofing has been detected over 20 times along the Chinese coast.29

United States of America

As mentioned in the introduction the United States sees ‘unfettered access to and freedom to operate in space’ as vital to national interest and, as such, ‘are committed to defending such space access and deterring any harmful interference with or attacks upon critical components of our space architecture’.30 In light of this, in August 2019 a new wing of the military was established to join the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard called the Space Force. This new Space Force is estimated to have access to a budget of $15.4 billion for 2021 which is believed to increase by $2.6 billion over the next five years.31 According to the Brookings Institute, the new Space Force will be utilised to combat counterspace systems by other countries ‘designed to contest or deny U.S. access to and operations in the [space] domain’. In addition to this, the United States has implemented a new Defence Space Strategy for the next decade in which they aim to ‘maintain space superiority’, ‘ensure space stability’ and ‘provide space support’. In order to do this the United States want to ‘build a comprehensive military advantage in space’, ‘integrate military space power into national, joint, and combined operations’, ‘shape the strategic environment’, and ‘cooperate with allies, partners, industry, and other U.S. government departments and agencies’.32

It would appear that the United States are well placed to achieve these aims having developed their counterspace capabilities since the cold war. In terms of kinetic physical counter-space weaponry, the United States has had both air-launched and ground-launched anti-satellite capability since 1984. It is also believed that the United States has a well-developed electronic warfare system, with a Joint Navigation Warfare Centre established in 2004 and a Counter Communications System launched in 2003 that reportedly provides ‘expeditionary, deployable, reversible offensive space control (OCS) effects applicable across the full spectrum of conflict’ that can prevent enemy satellite communications, early warning systems and propaganda.33  It is also known that the United States researched, developed and tested non-physical kinetic counter space weapons throughout the 1980s and 1990s and into the early 2000s, with a specific focus on directed energy weapons such as ground-based lasers. However, the Secure World Foundation’s 2020 open source assessment on global counterspace capabilities have reported that ‘there is no public indication that the United States has transitioned from a research phase to an operational capability’.34


Similarly to the United States, Russia have a space-faring pedigree inherited from the Soviet Union, having launched the first satellite and the first person into orbit. As a country once deemed a pole in a bipolar world, Russia has put huge emphasis on their space programmes as a means of elevating their status in the world. Acknowledging this past also puts into perspective Russia’s more brash display of space capabilities.

In 2015, Russia established the Aerospace Forces after merging the Air Force and Aerospace Defence Troops, with the newly established forces mandate including the conducting of space launches and ‘maintaining the ballistic missile early warning system, the satellite control network, and the space surveillance network’.35 In 2016 the government also approved a new 10-year budget for the country’s space programme worth $20.5 billion.36 Whilst Russia also have cyber and electronic warfare capabilities in recent years their focus has been on a new family of satellites dubbed ‘Russian doll satellites’ that are believed to have both intelligence gathering and anti-satellite implications, which have continued to cause the international community headaches. The first of these instances occurred between 2015 and 2018 when an unregistered Russian satellite, believed to be controlled by the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, moved close to the Luxembourg-US communications satellite called Intelsat, which provides intelligence to the United States military in 2015. In 2018 that same satellite was accused of espionage by the French Defence Minister who exclaimed that ‘anyone would have thought it was attempting to intercept our communications’ after it moved close to the Athena-Fidus satellite that provides military communication for France and Italy.37 The second incident occurred in July 2020 when Russia seemingly tested an on-orbit anti-satellite weapon that released a projectile from the Cosmos 2543 satellite.38 Despite Russia claiming its activities in space to be ‘entirely peaceful’ and used to perform checks on their own space equipment UK Air Vice-Marshall Harvey Smyth has said that the Russian satellites have ‘the characteristics of a weapon’ and ‘threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends’.39 Further to this, as pointed out, if Russia can tamper with their own equipment they will be able to tamper with others.40

Misuse of space capabilities can very quickly lead to a proliferation in space weapons as demonstrated by Russia’s misadventures in space, leading France to announce its intentions to develop ‘body guard satellites’, using high powered lasers in order to protect French and Allied assets.41 To this end, the French government have committed to increasing its military space budget by 700 million euros between 2019 and 2025.42

As more countries, including those deemed to be ‘rogue states’ beginning to develop the capacity to launch military satellites, space will become perceived as more and more unstable and there will be more of an incentive for countries to invest in varying degrees of extra-terrestrial military applications.43 As this occurs it is inevitable that the probability of a war in space will increase and as a result putting in danger the very use of space as a tool for human technological advancement. With space technology becoming more accessible, such as the UAE’s launching of a reconnaissance satellite with the help of SpaceX, the international community is crying out for the revisiting of space laws, norms and treaties – or could potentially face the consequences.44