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Anti Satellite Capabilities Race among US, Russia China and now India as Space becomes a war fighting domain

Space capabilities have become central to many military operations, including missile warning, geolocation and navigation, target identification, and tracking of adversary activities.  US, Russia and China are world leaders in  militarization of space possessing extensive space infrastructure. The NASIC report said there number of foreign intelligence and imaging satellites “has tripled” to 300 in orbit in the last two decades. The U.S. itself has 353 of its own space assets in orbit for those purposes.


The growing dependence of militaries on space has made space a strategic target denying all the advantages of space to the adversaries during conflict.  In response, military superpowers have poured funding into researching and developing anti-satellite weapons. In response other countries have also been driven to develop them as deterrent.


Chinese and Russian military doctrines indicate that they view space as important to modern warfare and view counterspace capabilities as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness. China and Russia are developing anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles that could shoot US low Earth orbit (LEO) objects and will be combat-capable as early as 2020, according to US Intelligence reports. It was already established by the US military that those two countries are developing satellites that are able to maneuver through space, potentially enabling them to smash into US satellites. Russia was seeking a “diverse suite of capabilities to affect satellites in all orbital regimes,” such as a laser gun.


Both reorganized their militaries in 2015, emphasizing the importance of space operations, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released  report Feb 2019,  “Challenges to Security in Space,”  that examines the space and counterspace programs that could challenge U.S. or partner interests in the space domain. Both have developed robust and capable space services, including space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Moreover, they are making improvements to existing systems, including space launch vehicles and satellite navigation constellations. These capabilities provide their militaries with the ability to command and control their forces worldwide and also with enhanced situational awareness, enabling them to monitor, track, and target U.S. and allied forces. Chinese and Russian space surveillance networks are capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all earth orbits. This capability supports both space operations and counterspace systems. Both states are developing jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based antisatellite missiles that can achieve a range of reversible to nonreversible effects.


On April 2020,  Russia conducted a test of its direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile system, which is designed to destroy satellites in low Earth orbit. This test followed the country’s on-orbit test maneuvers of two satellites that “exhibited characteristics of a space weapon,” COSMOS 2542 and COSMOS 2543, which the U.S. has been closely following, the U.S. Space Force said in a statement. In February, the U.S. Space Force spotted these Russian satellites following a U.S. spy satellite, behavior that Space Force commander Gen. John “Jay” Raymond described at the time as “unusual and disturbing.”


In July 2020, The US and Britain  accused Russia of carrying out an anti-satellite weapons test in space, firing a projectile from a Russian satellite that could be used to take down other satellites in orbit. “We are concerned by the manner in which Russia tested one of its satellites by launching a projectile with the characteristics of a weapon,” said Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth, head of the UK’s Space Directorate, in a statement late Thursday. “Actions of this kind 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. We call on Russia to avoid any further such testing,” he said. Russia’s Defense Ministry said of the July 15 test that “During testing of the latest space technology, one of the domestic satellites was examined close up using the specialized equipment of small space craft,” adding that “valuable information about the technical condition of the object under investigation” had been obtained.


US Space Command said that on July 15, a Russia satellite called Cosmos 2453 “operated in abnormally close proximity to a US government satellite in low-earth orbit before it maneuvered away and over to another Russian satellite, where it released another object in proximity to the Russia target satellite.” This test is inconsistent with the intended purpose of the satellite as an inspector system, as described by Russia.” “This is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk,” he added.


The U.S. Space Force also has serious concerns about this recent DA-ASAT missile test. “Russia’s DA-ASAT test provides yet another example that the threats to U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious and growing,” Raymond said in yesterday’s statement. “The United States is ready and committed to deterring aggression and defending the nation, our allies and U.S. interests from hostile acts in space.”The Director of National Intelligence’s annual report to Congress stated that the PRC and Russia have operational ASATs for targeting low Earth orbiting satellites, and the PRC is “probably” developing capabilities for geostationary orbit


Compared to both Russia and China, US Military is more  dependent on space assets, hence more  vulnerable to ASAT weapons which are regarded as important asymmetric warfare weapons. “We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against U.S. and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil or commercial space systems,” warns the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, released  by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.


The US, of course, has its own military capabilities in space. It tested an anti-satellite missile in 2008, and regularly operates the X-37B spacecraft, a miniature space shuttle that can also maneuver in space and whose purpose is the subject of much speculation. Congress added more than $32 million to the Air Force’s space budget in fiscal 2015 to study future antisatellite capabilities, including offensive and “active defense” capabilities. It also instructed DOD to “conduct a study of potential alternative defense and deterrent strategies in response to the existing and projected counterspace capabilities of China and Russia.”


The Boeing X-37B unmanned space plane may also figure in U.S. anti-satellite warfare. OTV-5, a 780-day-long X-37B mission, is reported to have released three small cubesats into orbit. These cubesats, Breaking Defense suggests, could be part of an anti-satellite warfare research program. US Defense officials have asked for $304 million to fund research into space-based lasers, particle beams, and other new forms of missile defense. Pentagon is undertaking two studies. The first is a $15 million exploration of whether satellites outfitted with lasers might be able to disable enemy missiles coming off the launch pad. Defense officials have said previously that these lasers would need to be in the megawatt class. They’re also  studing of space-based neutral particle beams, a different form of directed energy that disrupts missiles with streams of subatomic particles traveling close to light speed — as opposed to lasers, whose photons travel at light speed.


All three countries are also advancing space robotics  and launching  “experimental” satellites for on-orbit  satellite inspection, refueling and repair that can also be used against adversary spacecraft. There has also been unusual behavior from China’s SJ-17 inspector satellite in geostationary orbit that has raised eyebrows, Kaitlyn Johnson, associate director of the Aerospace Security Project said. “This is a great example … of a dual-use system,” she noted. The satellite could be used for on-orbit servicing missions such as testing ways to refuel a satellite on orbit, or used for counterspace attacks, she said. “This is a great place to have on-orbit servicing and we see the United States doing the same thing,” she said. “But it also is the same technology you would need to carry out a co-orbital counterspace attack.”


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared  in March 27, 2019  that the country had pulled off an ASAT missile launch that same day. The launch, “Mission Shakti,” likely struck an Indian satellite in low Earth orbit, turning the object into debris. The satellite used in the mission was one of India’s existing satellites operating in lower orbit. The significance of the test is that India has tested and successfully demonstrated its capability to interdict and intercept a satellite in outer space based on complete indigenous technology.


Japan is considering building anti-satellite weapons but also uses the same radar and missile system involved in Operation Burnt Frost, giving it a latent ASAT capability. France is working to develop laser dazzlers to blind satellites.


Countries such as North Korea and Iran have active space programs but progress is slow and both are a long way from fielding operational weapons. Iran has placed its focus on space launch vehicles and has had four launch attempts from 2019 to 2020, all of which ended in failure, said Makena Young, a research associate with the Aerospace Security Project and co-author of the report. Similar to Iran, North Korea has a long history of counterspace activities. However, this year the county has largely been focused on rebuilding its Sohae satellite launching facility.  “In late 2019, North Korea conducted two engine tests at this site, believed to be modified liquid-fuel engines for long-range missiles, she said. “Although it was conducted at the satellite launching pad, experts assessed that it was likely another missile test or a step towards [intercontinental ballistic missile] development.”

 Russian ASAT Capability

According to the missile review, “Russia is developing a diverse suite of anti-satellite capabilities, including ground-launched missiles and directed-energy weapons, and continues to launch ‘experimental’ satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities to advance counterspace capabilities.”


Since 2009, the Russian Ministry of Defense officials have repeatedly and publicly confirmed that anti-satellite weapons development is being conducted in Russia. Russian Nudol missile tests  which Moscow has claimed is for use against enemy missiles, are ASAT tests according to reports. And as recently as February 2017, a Russian Air Force Squadron Commander stated that Russia is developing new missiles with the express intent of destroying satellites. Furthermore, we have read statements from the Russian Ministry of Defense that it is working on creating “a mobile attack anti-satellite system,” said  Yleem DS Poblete, US assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, was addressing the UN’s Conference on Disarmament in Geneva .The Russian Ministry of Defense recently announced that its Space Troops have received a mobile laser system, which Vladimir Putin announced to the world on March 1 2018. Russia’s leader has himself alluded to space weapons being more “acceptable in the political and military respect.”


There are indications that Russia is developing its own ground-based direct ascent system known as Nudol, and also resurrected an airborne laser dazzler system known as the A-60. Russia conducted another successful flight test of its new anti-satellite missile system in Dec 2018, according to two people with direct knowledge of a classified U.S. intelligence report. The anti-satellite missile flew for 17 minutes and 1,864 miles before successfully splashing down in its target area.


Russia’s PL-19 Nudol, a system U.S. military intelligence assesses will be focused primarily on anti-satellite missions, was successfully tested twice in 2018. The weapon, which was fired from a mobile launcher, was last tested on Dec. 23 and marked the seventh overall test of the system, according to one of the people who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Nudol is viewed by the Pentagon as a so-called “direct ascent” anti-satellite missile. Russia, however, has sought to mask the missile’s anti-satellite capabilities by claiming the missile is for defense against incoming ballistic missiles. Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza declined to comment. “We generally don’t comment on other countries’ capabilities,” she said.


“It is unclear whether or not it was an ASAT test,” according to Theresa Hitchens, senior research scholar at the Center for International & Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Howver it also could be part of the Russian military’s missile defense system. “Of course, any ballistic missile used for missile defense could also be used as an ASAT,” she added. “Perhaps the answer lies in the eyes of the beholder.”


There are multiple reports of Russia using GPS jammers in Eastern Ukraine, and Russia has also done a series of its own on-orbit proximity and rendezvous operations demonstrations, both in low-Earth and geosynchronous orbits. Russian Lt. Gen. Oleg Ostapenko, former commander of space forces, has  claimed that the S-500 anti-missile system is capable of hitting “low-orbit satellites and space weapons.”


Russian Satellite Cosmos 2519 was launched into space in 2018 is considered by US as killer satellite. After launch, Cosmos 2519 deployed two smaller satellites, and maneuvered to rendezvous with them. Because bringing propellant to space is difficult, most satellites are designed to fly to a designated orbit and then make small adjustments to their position. A satellite that can travel between orbits to check in on other satellites is relatively unusual.


Such a vehicle could be used for many purposes: To perform maintenance on or re-fuel older satellites, extending their lives, or to clean up space debris, even sending old satellites to storage orbits or to burn up in the atmosphere. It could also be used to spy on other satellites and attack them with lasers, robotic manipulators or simply by crashing into them. The official statement from Yleem Poblete, the top US diplomat on arms control issues, suggests American intelligence agencies have reason to believe the satellite may be surveilling US space assets—or practicing to attack them in the future.


Russia, another great power competitor as identified by the National Defense Strategy, has made advances in almost all four of the counterspace categories of major space threats noted in the report, said Thomas Roberts, an adjunct fellow with the Aerospace Security Project and co-author of the report.


One of the nation’s more notable advancements is a ground-based laser weapon, Roberts said. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in December that a weapon system had been deployed and placed on standby alert with troops, Roberts said. “This is not the first ground-based laser system [developed] by Russia, but it’s the first one that I have noted to be mobile,” he said. “This is installed on a truck-mounted platform, it’s a two-part system over two trailers. Likely the second trailer … is the power source for this laser.” The weapon has drawn attention from many in the space community, as it is unknown how much power is being pumped through the system’s power source and how much damage it is capable of, he said.


China’s Counterspace capabilities

China continues to develop a variety of capabilities designed to limit or prevent the use of spacebased assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict, including the development of directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers. “As China’s developmental counterspace capabilities become operational, China will be able to hold at risk U.S. national security satellites in every orbital regime,” says 2015 Report to Congress. “Space operations probably will form an integral component of other PLA campaigns,” the DIA said. The report suggests China is building up space capabilities as a way to deter the United States or others from intervening in military conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region.


Concerns have grown in the aftermath of Chinese antisatellite tests, most recently in July 2014, that demonstrated the capability to destroy military communications satellites, perhaps even those in geostationary orbits. Since 2005, China has conducted eight anti-satellite tests. Tests conducted in 2010, 2013, and 2014 were labelled “land-based missile interception tests.” “There have been additional tests that didn’t destroy a satellite since that time.” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado: “The testing has continued, so that is an ongoing concern, something that we are watching.”


The People’s Republic of China is conducting “sophisticated satellite operations and probably is testing on-orbit dual-use technologies that could be applied to counterspace missions,” said the DIA in its first unclassified report made public on China’s military power. China has conducted a series of tests of on-orbit proximity and rendezvous operations, although the publicly available evidence “does not indicate they are explicitly aimed at offensive capabilities,” saidBrian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation.


China has conducted a flight test of a new anti-satellite missile, the The Washington Free Beacon reports. The test of a so-called Dong Neng-3 missile occurred on October 30 2015 at the Korla Missile Test Complex in western China. According to the Hong Kong-based newspaper Ming Pao the “final-phase missile interception test had been conducted in the upper atmosphere.” However, in the past, China has repeatedly tried to disguise anti-satellite tests as missile defense interceptor tests. Since 2005, China has conducted eight anti-satellite tests. Tests conducted in 2010, 2013, and 2014 were labelled “land-based missile interception tests.”


“On July 23, 2014, China conducted a space launch that had a similar profile to the January 2007 test that resulted in the deliberate destruction of a defunct weather satellite, and the creation of hundreds of pieces of long lived space debris. Much of that debris continues to orbit the Earth where it poses a risk to the safe operation of many nations’ satellites. China’s 2014 launch did not result in the destruction of a satellite or space debris.”


On May 13, 2013, China launched ballistic missile (DN-2) on a ballistic trajectory with a peak altitude above 30,000 km. This trajectory took it near geosynchronous orbit, where many nations maintain communications and earth sensing satellites. Analysis of the launch determined that the booster was not on the appropriate trajectory to place objects in orbit and that no new satellites were released.


The launch profile was not consistent with traditional space-launch vehicles, ballistic missiles or sounding rocket launches used for scientific research. It could, however, have been a test of technologies with a counterspace mission in geosynchronous orbit. The United States and several public organizations expressed concern to Chinese representatives and asked for more information about the purpose and nature of the launch. China thus far has refrained from providing additional information


PLA writings emphasize the necessity of “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance … and communications satellites,” suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to “blind and deafen the enemy.” PLA analysis of U.S. and coalition military operations also states that “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors … will deprive an opponent of initiative on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision guided weapons into full play.”


Independent analysts have revealed considerable details about China’s growing arsenal of counterspace capabilities such as directed-energy anti-satellite weapons and satellite jammers.  In September 2006 the U.S. publication Defense News, citing unnamed U.S. officials, was the first to report that China had used ground based lasers to “dazzle” or blind U.S. optical surveillance satellites on multiple occasions.


Possible Chinese confirmation of their ground-based laser testing appeared in the December 2013 issue of Chinese Optics was an article titled “Development of Space Based Laser Weapons” written by Gao Min-hui, Zhou Yu-quan and Wang Zhi-hong, all from the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics. It is one of China’s leading institutes for the development of civil and military application laser technology. The article states: “In 2005, we have successfully conducted a satellite blinding experiment using a 50-100 KW capacity mounted laser gun in Xinjiang province. The target was a low orbit satellite with a tilt distance of 600 km. The diameter of the telescope firing the laser beam is 0.6 m wide. The accuracy of ATP (acquisition, tracking and pointing) is less than 5 microradians.


This would constitute militarily useful performance; an accuracy sufficient to track a large number of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) surveillance satellites and to degrade their optical imaging systems. A “tilt” distance of 600km means it can reach higher if the target passes closer to the laser. While the target satellite for the 2005 test was not identified, the ground-based laser was likely located in Korla, Xinjiang Province. Starting with the 640 Program, Korla has hosted a major base deeply involved in testing China’s anti-missile and anti-satellite weapons, writes Richard D. Fisher, Jr. Senior Fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center.


US ASAT capability

US Navy itself shooted down a satellite in 2009, stated to be in danger of falling out of earth’s orbit at 133 miles and traveling at 17,000 mph with an SM-3 missile, which the US military fields hundreds of. Recently the  ageing US Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 (DMSP-F13), is said to have suffered a “catastrophic event” due to which it exploded into 43 unsalvageable pieces. Furthermore the “catastrophic event” happened after “a sudden spike in temperature,” followed by “an unrecoverable loss of attitude,” According to the US Air Force.


The incident was not revealed to the public even though it happened on 3 February. Details of the event were only publicized after questions were asked by the Space News website. The first public indication of a problem with DMSP-F13 came from T.S. Kelso, a senior research astrodynamicist for Analytical Graphics’ Center for Space Standards and Innovation in Colorado. He noted that in 25 February that there had been “another debris event with 26 new pieces”. The more plausible theory is that it was an US ASAT test, either of laser ASAT weapon or killer microsatellite.


The U.S. Air Force, under pressure from Congress to take more seriously a potential war in space, is creating a new job for a three-star general who will serve as a space advisor on staff with the Air Force secretary and chief of staff. The new general will “come to work every day focusing on this: making sure that we can organize, train, and equip our forces to meet the challenges in this domain,” said Gen. Jay Raymond, head of Air Force Space Command.


The United States also bears some responsibility for turning space into a battlefront, said Weeden. “While the U.S. only has one publicly acknowledged anti-satellite system, the counter communications satellite system, it has a lot of latent capabilities, particularly through its ground-based missile defense interceptors.” The United States is probably the world leader in on-orbit proximity and rendezvous operations, he said, and there have been a lot of rumors about the U.S. considering developing more offensive capabilities to “defend” its satellites or take out Russian and Chinese satellites.


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