Space arms race: several great powers are interested in anti-satellite technology

An artist’s rendition of an older Soviet anti-satellite system. Illustration: Wikimedia

The world’s great powers are becoming increasingly interested in weapons that can be used against other nations’ satellites, according to a report from the American defence think tank Secure World Foundation.

“The existence of counterspace capabilities is not new, but the circumstances surrounding them are. Today there are increased incentives for development, and potential use, of offensive counterspace capabilities,” the Secure World Foundation concludes in the report.

The think tank also points out that the risk of serious consequences increases with the spread of anti-satellite technologies. Indeed, an increasingly large share of the international community and the global economy is dependent on satellites, which means that attacks that target them also pose a threat to civil society.

In addition to the major players such as the United States, Russia, and China, several smaller countries have also increased their military focus on space. This includes France, Australia, India, and to some extent South Korea.

Secrets in space

It makes sense that different countries have an interest in being able to attack satellites, says Karsten Marrup, head of the Air Warfare Centre at the Royal Danish Defence College.

“Satellites are used as aid in military operations, either in form of images, communication, or positioning, among other things. Therefore, we are very dependent on the resources in space being able to be used as aid in operations,” he says.

There are several technologies that can be used to attack a satellite. One known method is to shoot satellites down with a missile fired from the ground. This carries the disadvantage of satellite debris being sent into orbit and risking damaging other satellites—including the attacker’s own ones. Another method is to use satellites to attack other satellites. However, it is unclear what is actually out there.

“We have a good overview of what satellites are available. But we don’t know what’s on board them. Thus, we also don’t know if a satellite is equipped with a jammer or something else that can be used against other satellites,” Karsten Marrup says.

A privilege for great powers

Regardless of the method, waging war in space is a relatively complicated affair, and it is far from an option for all countries.

“Launching a satellite, which should be able to do something with another satellite, is probably something few countries can do. The same applies to launching a missile into space,” Karsten Marrup says.

However, space operations are not the only way to influence an enemy’s satellites. Alternatively, one can also try to destroy the facilities on Earth that receive the signal from the satellites, and most countries have the capability to do that. A third possibility is to disrupt the signal itself with, for example, a jammer.

But even though space operations are more complicated, they also provide an advantage, which today is only available to the great powers.

“It’s almost impossible to defend satellites. Therefore, you have a better opportunity to influence your opponent if you have the capacity to hit them in space,” Karsten Marrup says.

Peaceful satellite swarm

Satellites have received a lot of publicity in connection with the war in Ukraine. This is especially true of the Starlink satellite network, which is used to facilitate internet for civilians using thousands of satellites orbiting relatively close to Earth.

As Ingeniøren has previously described, both China and Russia consider the American-owned Starlink a threat. It is difficult to put the satellite network out of operation because it consists of many thousands of satellites. Chinese researchers have argued that it is necessary to develop completely new technology that can be used against satellite swarms such as Starlink.

According to Karsten Marrup, however, the role Starlink plays in a defensive perspective is limited. This is because it is primarily a closed-loop communication system. Therefore, the Chinese concern should be seen in a different light.

“If you have a country that’s trying to prevent its people from gaining unrestricted access to the internet, then it’s clearly a problem if they can get internet through a receiver,” Karsten Marrup says.