Insight - Global Proliferation of Counterspace Capabilities and Space Sustainability

Thursday, April 12, 2018

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

Space security has become an increasingly salient policy issue. Over the last several years, there has been growing concern from multiple governments over the 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. This in turn has led to increased rhetoric from some countries about the need to prepare for future conflicts on Earth to extend into space, and calls from some corners to increase the development of offensive counterspace capabilities and put in place more aggressive policies and postures.

Unfortunately, much of this debate has taken place out of sight of the public, largely due to the reluctance of most countries to talk openly about the subject. Part of this can be traced to the classified nature of the intelligence on offensive counterspace capabilities and to the unwillingness to reveal details that could compromise sources and methods. But part of it is also the political sensitivity of the topic, and the discrepancies between what countries say in public and what they may be doing behind the scenes. At the same time, some media outlets and pundits have used what little information is known to make hyperbolic claims that do not add constructively to the debate.

We feel strongly that a more open and public debate on these issues is urgently needed. Space is not the sole domain of militaries and intelligence services. Our global society and economy is increasingly dependent on space capabilities, and a future conflict in space could have massive, long-term negative repercussions that are felt here on Earth. Even testing of these capabilities could have long-lasting negative repercussions for the space environment, and all who operate there. The public should be as aware of the developing threats and risks of different policy options as would be the case for other national security issues in the air, land, and sea domains.  

To address this, SWF launched a project in the summer of 2017 to develop an open source assessment of global counterspace capabilities. The purpose of the project was to provide a public assessment of counterspace capabilities being developed by countries based on unclassified information. We hope doing so will increase public knowledge of these issues, the willingness of policymakers to discuss these issues openly, and involvement of other stakeholders in the debate.

We convened a group of international experts to work with our staff to compile publicly-available information for various countries developing counterspace capabilities across several categories: direct ascent, co-orbital, directed energy, electronic warfare, and cyber. For each of these categories, we assessed what the current and near-term capabilities might be for the countries examined in the report, based on the open source information. We also assessed the potential military utility for each capability, which includes both the advantages and disadvantages of the capabilities. Finally, when possible, we also examined each country’s policy, doctrine, and budget to support the offensive counterspace capabilities being developed. Taken together, the analysis is intended to provide a more holistic picture of what each country is working on, and how these capabilities may be used.

The conclusions of the report are worrying, but also provide a ray of hope. The publicly-available evidence shows significant research and development of a broad range of kinetic (i.e. destructive) and non-kinetic counterspace capabilities by multiple countries. However, only non-kinetic capabilities are actively being used in current military operations. And over the last decade, the testing of non-kinetic capabilities has been limited in ways that do not create large amounts of orbital debris. This suggests that countries feel there are there are still some normative and legal restraints on both the testing and use of counterspace weapons, and that widespread conflict in space is not yet inevitable.

We intend this counterspace report to be the foundation of future SWF work on space security issues. 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 the burgeoning commercial development of space. We also anticipate developing future versions of the report, potentially with additional partners and sources of support, that will increase our ability to provide a comprehensive assessment of these trends.

Last updated on April 10, 2018