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Countries advancing space weapons for Space Warfare As Space becomes another domain of conflict

Over 80 countries own or operate satellites now, and practically every person on the planet is a user of space data/services in some form or another. Currently, around 3,500 active satellites are orbiting in space. SpaceX has already launched more than 1,000 satellites, so about one-quarter of all operational satellites are from one actor – a private actor, not a state actor. Furthermore, if one looks at filings for spectrum, there is the potential for over 107,000 additional satellites by 2029. As space becomes more accessible to humans, the ability  to control it becomes increasingly vital.


More and More physical spaces are now becoming militarized from deep oceans to the Arctic to Cislunar space up to the moon and technologies are being developed from surveillance, platforms, propulsion, materials to weapons for dominating these domains. Again, one of the chief motives is resource competition. For example, It is estimated that there are trillions of dollars worth of minerals and metals buried in asteroids that come close to the Earth hence there is a race for asteroid mining. There is global  space race among countries  to build Moon bases, harness it’s mineral resources and helium-3, fuel for future nuclear fusion power plants.


As the space domain has become more congested, the potential for intentional and unintentional threats to space system assets has increased. There has been an exponential growth of space objects, including orbital debris that has increased the in-orbit collision risk.  In addition to polluting space, space junk poses risks for safely navigating spacecraft. In the year 2010 alone, space debris increased by over 75%, posing huge collision risks for spacecraft operating in the low earth atmosphere.


LEO mega-constellations also complicate end-of-life considerations. Right now, the space debris mitigation guidelines endorsed by the United Nations called for efforts to be taken 25 years after the satellite’s life is over: either to be deliberately de-orbited so it burns up in earth’s atmosphere. However, compliance with this 25-year rule is partial at best in LEO at present, which is not suitable for the domain’s stability.



Space Warfare threat

Space is increasingly becoming another domain of conflict due to enhanced militarisation i.e. utilization of space systems by defence forces to support military operations along with the proliferation of counter-space weapons. However, due to the emergence of space weapons, this ever-increasing dependence on space has made the United States and many other countries more vulnerable. As space becomes more enmeshed in national security and economic stability, there is an increasing interest in ensuring continued access to space.


The militaries like of US and now of China, Russia and others rely heavily on its space capabilities to conduct war on Earth. The US relies heavily on its space assets for GPS, reconnaissance, weather tracking, communication, navigation. For example, reports indicate that the United States uses “satellites for [95%] of reconnaissance and surveillance information, [90%] of military communications, [and 100%] of navigation and positioning.”Because of this heavy reliance, if military satellites are not properly protected, the United States’ ability to engage in war will be severely diminished. Furthermore, the civilian infrastructure of the United States is largely based in space. Satellites are now frequently used to support “telecommunications, banking and finance, energy, [transportation], and essential government services,” which makes these industries increasingly vulnerable to a devastating attack.


China has extensively claimed the idea that the United States is militarizing space. Its state-run media notes that the “U.S. has long neglected the appeal of the international society, and rejected to initiate the negotiation of international treaties on the prevention of arms race in outer space.” China also has serious concerns over the establishment of the new U.S Space Force, considering it to be clear evidence of further militarization China and Russia are expanding their space and counter-space capabilities, challenging US space superiority to secure an economic and military advantage.


China continues to develop a variety of capabilities designed to limit or prevent the use of space based assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict, including the development of ground-based direct ascent missiles that can physically destroy a satellite, directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers.  Since 2005, China has conducted eight anti-satellite tests. Tests conducted in 2010, 2013, and 2014 were labelled “land-based missile interception tests.” China has conducted a series of tests of on-orbit proximity and rendezvous operations, Brian Weeden director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, said, although the publicly available evidence “does not indicate they are explicitly aimed at offensive capabilities.” China, meanwhile, continues to display advances in space capabilities including the launch of an experimental spaceplane that may have deployed at least one small satellite on orbit.


This has set off a space arms race among countries similar to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There has been enhanced testing of Anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) and space weapons designed to incapacitate or destroy satellites for strategic military purposes. Although no ASAT system has yet been utilized in warfare, a few nations have shot down their own satellites to demonstrate their ASAT capabilities in a show of force. Only the United States, Russia, China, and India have demonstrated this capability successfully. Russia and China are engaged in robust efforts to fight wars in space, developing technology and weapons designed to take out U.S. satellites that provide missile defense and enable soldiers to communicate and monitor adversaries, according to US reports.


Russia is expanding its anti-access/area denial approach in outer space in the form of electronic warfare (EW), sustainable communications systems, antisatellite (ASAT) capabilities and offensive capabilities against ground-based space infrastructure. Russia is focusing mainly on its counter space capabilities which include advancements in its cyber, anti-satellite rockets (ASATs), space-based ASATs, and Electronic warfare capabilities in space.  Moscow seeks to prevent its adversaries from using space-related infrastructure in the event of a military conflict with Russia. Russia maintains the third-largest satellite constellation in orbit, which has more than 160 satellites, 100 of which perform military-related functions.


Since 2010, Russia has been testing technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations in both low-earth and geosynchronous orbits. These technologies that could lead to or support a co-orbital capability. In this context, research suggests that Russia has prioritized two separate programs: Burevestnik, a co-orbital ASAT program, and Nivelir, a space surveillance/satellite tracking program. A third program that is currently in development called Ekipazh, will be used to develop nuclear-powered space-based electronic warfare capability


CSIS’ Space Threat Assessment and SWF’s Global Counterspace Capabilities are updated annually with open-source information. They highlight global developments in anti-satellite weapons. The most significant change from a year ago has been Russia’s more aggressive behavior, said CSIS. “Russia was the most active in testing anti-satellite weapons over the past year, including tests of a space-based weapon that appears to be capable of firing projectiles at other satellites,” said the Space Threat Assessment. According to the SWF report, “there is strong evidence that Russia has embarked on a set of programs since 2010 to regain many of its Cold War-era counterspace capabilities.


Russia also may be developing a space-based ASAT capability.  On 15 July 2020, Russian satellite Kosmos 2543 secretly released a sub satellite into orbit that could be part of a secret ASAT program.  Kosmos 2543 was itself deployed by the Kosmos 2542 satellite in December 2019.  While it is not unusual for a satellite to be deployed from another satellite, what makes the object different is that it was traveling faster than its parent satellite, leading to the strong possibility that this object could be used to destroy or disable other satellites.  In February 2020, Chief of Space Operations of the U. S. Space Force General John Raymond stated that the sub-satellites “exhibited characteristics of a space weapon”


CSIS noted that Russia tested a co-orbital anti-satellite weapon in July 2020, and tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon in December 2020. “These activities are not new and reflect a pattern of behavior in which Russia has continued to develop and reconstitute its counterspace capabilities.”


This potential arms race will also cost countries vast amounts of money and will put many weapons in space, which increases the likelihood that they will be used. Such an arms race would be expensive because launching weapons into space is incredibly costly. As a cost reference point, sending the X-37B on one mission costs roughly $100 million.


Another major concern is the amount of space debris that space weapons would produce.  An example of the disastrous effects of space debris was seen when the Chinese ASAT test in 2007 produced “2,087 pieces of debris, and in January 2013, one of these pieces severely damaged a Russian spacecraft. As this collision illustrates, if one controlled military test can cause harmful debris six years later, a space war could have disastrous consequences for space assets that could continue for years after the conflict has ended. As noted by Joel Primack, one of the premier experts on space debris, “the weaponization of space would make the debris problem much worse, and even one war in space could encase the entire planet in a shell of whizzing debris that would thereafter make space near the Earth highly hazardous for peaceful as well as military purposes.



Space Weapons

Space warfare will be combat that will take place in outer space. The scope of space warfare, therefore, includes ground-to-space warfare, such as attacking satellites from the Earth; space-to-space warfare, such as satellites attacking satellites; and space-to-ground warfare, such as satellites attacking Earth-based targets.


United Nations (U.N.) Institute for Disarmament Research proposed that: A space weapon is a device stationed in outer space … or in the [E]arth environment designed to destroy, damage or otherwise interfere with the normal functioning of an object or being in outer space, or a device stationed in outer space designed to destroy, damage or otherwise interfere with the normal functioning of an object or being in the [E]arth environment. Any other device with the inherent capability to be used as defined above will be considered as a space weapon.


There are variety of  space weapons from Direct ascent and co‐orbital anti-satellite weapons, Directed energy attacks, Electronic warfare such as jamming of communications, command and control systems / links. Space weapons are weapons used in space warfare. They include weapons that can attack space systems in orbit (i.e. anti-satellite weapons), attack targets on the earth from space or disable missiles travelling through space. In the course of the militarisation of space, such weapons were developed mainly by the contesting superpowers during the Cold War, and some remain under development today.


The roles include: a defensive measure against adversary’s space-based nuclear weapons, a force multiplier for a nuclear first strike, a countermeasure against adversary’s anti-ballistic missile defense (ABM), an asymmetric counter to a technologically superior adversary, and a counter-value weapon.


Space Warfare Challenges

Space warfare is likely to be conducted at far greater distances and speeds than terrestrial combat. The vast distances involved pose difficult challenges for targeting and tracking, as even light requires a few seconds to traverse ranges measured in hundreds of thousands of kilometers. For example, if attempting to fire upon a target at the distance of the Moon from the Earth, the image one sees reflects the position of the target slightly more than a second earlier.


Thus even a laser would need approximately 1.28 seconds, meaning a laser-based weapon system would need to lead a target’s apparent position by 1.28×2 = 2.56 seconds. A projectile from a railgun recently tested by the US Navy would take over eighteen hours to cross that distance, assuming that it would travel in a straight line at a constant velocity of 5.8 km/s along its entire trajectory.


Three factors conspire to make engaging targets in space very difficult. First, the vast distances involved mean that an error of even a fraction of a degree in the firing solution could result in a miss by thousands of kilometers. Second, space travel involves tremendous speeds by terrestrial standards—a geostationary satellite moves at a speed of 3.07 km/s whereas objects in low Earth orbit can move at up to 8 km/s.


Third, though distances are large, targets remain relatively small. The International Space Station, currently the largest artificial object in Earth orbit, measures slightly over 100m at its largest span. Other satellites can be orders of magnitude smaller, e.g. Quickbird measures a mere 3.04m.


Additionally, though not a problem for orbital kinetic weapons, any directed energy weapon would require large amounts of electricity. So far the most practical batteries are lithium batteries, and the most practical method of generating electricity in space is through photovoltaic modules, which are currently only up to 30% efficient, and fuel cells, which have limited fuel. Current technology might not be practical for powering effective lasers, particle beams, and railguns in space. In the context of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States worked on a project for expandable space-based x-ray lasers powered by a nuclear explosion, Project Excalibur, a project canceled in 1992 for lack of results.


Earth-to-space  kinetic

Physical systems launched from Earth, such as the anti-satellite missile test by India in 2019.  Such weapons risk leaving behind fields of space debris, and they could be conventional or, in theory, nuclear warheads.The United States, Russia, China and India have shown such capability, with the U.S. and Russia having performed nuclear tests in space in the 1960s Russia tested such a capability as recently as April.


Multiple test firings have been done as part of recent Chinese and U.S test programs that involved destroying an orbiting satellite. In general use of explosive and kinetic kill systems is limited to relatively low altitude due to space debris issues and so as to avoid leaving debris from launch in orbit.


Anti-satellite weapons, which are primarily surface-to-space and air-to-space missiles, have been developed by the United States, Russia, India and the People’s Republic of China.


In August 2021, China had tested a nuclear-capable missile that travelled around the Earth at low orbit before reaching its target. The five people familiar with the test revealed to Financial Times that the rocket which carried a hypersonic glide vehicle, had been launched by the Chinese military. The three people familiar with the test told The Financial Times that the missile had missed its target by nearly two dozen miles, reported The Financial Times. However, two other people aware of the test revealed that Beijing had shown “astounding progress” on the hypersonic weapons, the report said.


Earth-to-space non-kinetic

Jammers, laser dazzlers or cyberattacks launched from Earth, upward. The effects can vary wildly, but overall the goal is to interfere, temporarily or permanently, with satellite capability. Many nations have this capability, including the U.S., Russia, China and Iran.


Cyber Warfare

The most recent threat to space systems is  Cybernetic attack on space systems. Once effectively isolated, and so protected, from outside intrusions, SATCOM networks today have largely completed the transition from circuit- to Internet Protocol based technology, as integral parts of broader networks operated by the Department of Defense and industry. With that shift have come not only improvements in efficiency and interoperability, but also greater potential vulnerability to the advanced, persistent and apparently state-supported cyber-attacks that have become increasingly pervasive, writes MIT Editor Harrison Donnelly.


Formerly,  satellite systems used to be very stand-alone and isolated, relying on the ‘air gap’ as their security mechanism, however air gap mechanisms now have been shown to be breached. The then commander of Air Force Space Command, General John E. Hyten, told Congress in 2016 that “adversaries are developing . . . cyber tools to deny, degrade, and destroy” U.S. space capabilities that support war fighting, critical infrastructure, and economic activity.


Cyberattacks pose the greatest vulnerability to US assets in space. Russia has many self-trained and state-sponsored hackers who can disrupt U.S. and allied space operations. Cyberattacks can send false information to satellites, forcing them to collide with one another or change their orbits. Such attacks are difficult to trace.  Known by the nicknames APT29 or Cozy Bear, these Russian hacking groups are associated with Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service



Directed Energy Weapons (DEW)

Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) are an umbrella term covering systems that emits highly focused energy / atomic or subatomic particles and transfers that energy to incapacitate, damage, disable or destroy enemy equipment, facilities and/or personnel. The energy can come in various forms: Electromagnetic radiation, including radio frequency, microwave, lasers and masers, Particles with mass, in particle-beam weapons and Sound, in sonic weapons.


A high-powered microwave weapon (HPM) is type of Directed Energy Weapon (DEW)  for employing radio frequency energy against a variety of targets. They are principally counterelectronic weapons and could be used to destroy any enemy electronic systems, including radars, computer systems and communications infrastructures. Electromagnetic weapons can destroy, intercept or jam approaching enemy missiles, drones, rockets or aircraft at much lesser cost than firing an interceptor missile which can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.


Military also uses laser as weapons called  Laser Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs). Laser technology provides major advantages for military applications over kinetic weapons due to High precision and rapid on-target effect, precise and scalable effects, avoidance of collateral damage caused by fragmenting ammunition, Low logistics overhead, and minimum costs per firing.


The development of laser weapons requires many critical technologies, first is development of lasers capable of generating powers in kilowatts to megawatts range to be able to produce useful damage effects on the target. Laser require a power of the order of 100 kW, to be employed as directed energy weapons, in varieties of missions such as wide-area, ground-based defense against rockets, artillery and mortars; precision strike missions for airborne platforms; and shipboard defense against cruise missiles. To destroy anti-ship cruise missiles would require a beam of 500 kilowatts and demand megawatts of power. Directed-energy weapons are more practical and more effective in a vacuum (i.e. space) than in the Earth’s atmosphere, as in the atmosphere the particles of air interfere with and disperse the directed energy.


Michael Duitsman of the California-based James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies said the laser facility in Xinjiang was thought to have been started as far back as 2009. It “significantly predates both the Uighur cultural genocide and the current missile silo construction,” he said. US-based analysts – drawing attention to anti-satellite lasers in Xinjiang – warned that US satellites, the kind that could keep an eye on China’s military, were “increasingly vulnerable to China’s ground-based lasers”. Sydney-based space analyst Chris Flaherty said that when it came to lasers, “dazzling”, or interfering with a satellite’s camera, and “blinding”, permanently damaging a satellite, “are the prime technologies that are deployable right now”.


France plans to develop anti-satellite laser weapons but will only deploy them in self-defence, its defence minister said in July 2021, as she laid out the country’s new military strategy for space.


Space-to-Earth kinetic:

A classic of science fiction, the ability to bombard a terrestrial target from space would give a true upper hand to whatever nation perfected it. Damage can be inflicted using the kinetic energy of the weapon itself (such as dropping a bunch of rods off a satellite and letting them build power during descent), or a warhead could be deployed on a reentry vehicle. The U.S. military has contemplated it in the past, but there are no open-source examples of such a system being tested.


On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, a research program with a goal of developing a defensive system which would destroy enemy ICBMs. The defensive system was nicknamed Star Wars, after the movie, by its detractors. Some concepts of the system included Brilliant Pebbles, which were Kinetic Kill Vehicles, essentially small rockets launched from satellites toward their targets (a warhead, warhead bus, or even an upper stage of an ICBM).


Other aspects included satellites in orbit carrying powerful laser weapons, plasma weapons, or particle beams. When a missile launch was detected, the satellite would fire at the missile (or warheads) and destroy it. Although no real hardware was ever manufactured for deployment, the military did test the use of lasers mounted on Boeing 747s to destroy missiles in the 2000s, however these were discontinued due to practical limitations of keeping a constant fleet airborne near potential launch sites due to the lasers range limitations keeping a small number from being sufficient.


Space-to-space kinetic or orbital weapons

Satellites physically intercepting other satellites to disrupt or destroy them, or weapons put specifically in space for this purpose. Debris is once again an issue here, as is the potential for use of a nuclear weapon, which could have fallout on a number of systems.



Orbital weaponry is any weapon that is in orbit around a large body such as a planet or moon. As of September 2017, there are no known operative orbital weapons systems, but several nations have deployed orbital surveillance networks to observe other nations or armed forces. Russia has launched tracker satellites that shadow US government spacecraft and presumably surveil them.


Several orbital weaponry systems were designed by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. During World War II Nazi Germany was also developing plans for an orbital weapon called the Sun gun, an orbital mirror that would have been used to focus and weaponize beams of sunlight. The Soviet Union repeatedly tested co-orbital, kinetic anti-satellite weapons during the Cold War.


Development of orbital weaponry was largely halted after the entry into force of the Outer Space Treaty and the SALT II treaty. These agreements prohibit weapons of mass destruction from being placed in space. As other weapons exist, notably those using kinetic bombardment, that would not violate these treaties, some private groups and government officials have proposed a Space Preservation Treaty which would ban the placement of any weaponry in outer space.


Orbital bombardment

Orbital bombardment is the act of attacking targets on a planet, moon or other astronomical object from orbit around the object, rather than from an aircraft, or a platform beyond orbit. It has been proposed as a means of attack for several weapons systems concepts, including kinetic bombardment and as a nuclear delivery system.


During the Cold War, the Soviet Union deployed a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System from 1968 to 1983. Using this system, a nuclear warhead could be placed in low Earth orbit, and later de-orbited to hit any location on the Earth’s surface. While the Soviets deployed a working version of the system, they were forbidden by the Outer Space Treaty to place live warheads in space. The fractional orbital bombardment system was phased out in January 1983 in compliance with the SALT II treaty of 1979, which, among other things, prohibited the deployment of systems capable of placing weapons of mass destruction in such a partial orbit.


Orbital bombardment systems with conventional warheads are permitted under the terms of SALT II. Some of the proposed systems rely on large tungsten carbide/uranium cermet rods dropped from orbit and depend on kinetic energy, rather than explosives, but their mass makes them prohibitively difficult to transport to orbit.


As of 2020 the only true orbital bombardment in history has been executed for scientific purposes. On 5 April 2019 the Japanese Hayabusa2 robotic space probe released an explosive device called an “impactor” from space onto the surface of asteroid 162173 Ryugu, in order to collect debris released by the explosion. The mission was successful and Hayabusa2 retrieved valuable samples of the celestial body which it brought back to Earth.


Space-to-space non-kinetic:

A satellite is placed into orbit and uses non-kinetic, high-powered microwaves, jammers or some other means to disrupt another space-based system.  France directly accused Russia of performing this kind of action in 2018, in what Paris described as an attempt to intercept military communications.



Space Robotics

The space is also becoming increasingly militarized many countries are developing killer microsatellites and other antisatellite weapons (ASAT) that could be used to damage other satellites. There is also thrust on space robots which can perform repair of satellites and which could also put to deorbit adversary’s satellites. They could provide complete awareness of adversary’s activities in space so that one can take counter actions.


Protection from space weapons

A recent CSIS report (Feb 2021)  details, for example, various types of defensive systems that can be deployed on satellites and ways to design constellations to make them more resilient against disruptions. 

“If space is to remain a source of economic and strategic advantage, the United States must prioritize and expedite its efforts to improve space defenses,” states the report titled Defense Against the Dark Arts in Space: Protecting Space Systems from Counterspace Weapons, written by CSIS analysts Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson and Makena Young.

The proliferation of missiles, lasers, jammers and other anti-satellite weapons has been widely documented, but little has been said about ways to defend against these threats, said Harrison. 

Some takeaways from the report: 

  • There is a misconception that space only recently has been militarized. Space has been a battleground since the beginning of the space age. The Russians had space-based orbital weapons going back to the 1960s.
  • In workshops with space and national security experts, CSIS played out hypothetical scenarios on different types of conflicts that they may begin or extend to space. Wargaming can help frame how space defenses could be employed in the future. 
  • The United States needs better “space domain awareness.” That requires more investments in sensors and integration with commercial and foreign government space surveillance networks. 
  • The U.S. military should design proliferated space architectures that use diverse orbits. This is a powerful defensive measure that will make space systems difficult to attack and less attractive for an adversary to attack. 
  • The U.S. should invest in robotic systems that can grab objects in space such as an errant satellite that could collide with others or nefarious spacecraft. It should deploy vehicles that can dock with an uncooperative satellite and move it to a location where it’s not going to be a threat. 
  • The U.S. government should incentivize commercial space operators to put advanced defenses on their systems, make them more resistant to jamming and cyber attacks. 
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