Starlink's success in Ukraine amplifies interest in anti-satellite weapons

US think tank sees growing interest in counterspace capabilities

In a report published earlier this week, the Secure World Foundation, a space-oriented NGO, warned that in the past few years there's been a surge of interest in offensive counterspace weapons that can disrupt space-based services.

"The existence of counterspace capabilities is not new, but the circumstances surrounding them are," the report [PDF] says. "Today there are increased incentives for development, and potential use, of offensive counterspace capabilities."

"There are also greater potential consequences from their widespread use that could have global repercussions well beyond the military, as huge parts of the global economy and society are increasingly reliant on space applications."

One of the potential consequences is the proliferation of debris from disabled or destroyed satellites, which imperils other objects and people operating in space.

The growing use of, and reliance on, space for national security, the report says, has led more countries to look into ways to deal with space-based threats.

Chinese military scientists, for example, recently called for the development of anti-satellite (ASAT) technology to defend against the threat SpaceX's Starlink wireless broadband service poses to national sovereignty. And interest in countering rival nation's space systems is only expected to increase.

In an article published in a Chinese journal Modern Defense Technology in April and subsequently removed, Ren Yuanzhen of the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications Technology and his coauthors warn that Starlink satellites "can significantly enhance the US military’s operational communications capabilities" and recommends the development of "soft and hard killing methods for some satellites," as well as the ability to monitor and track them.

The Chinese language article has been translated by David Cowhig, a retired US State Department Foreign Service Officer who spent a decade working in China as a science and technology officer at the US Embassy in Beijing.

"While providing commercial services, this giant constellation [of satellites] harbors great potential for military applications, posing a great challenge to our existing situational awareness and traditional defense capabilities," the article concludes.

"Therefore, it is necessary to actively respond in various aspects, especially to develop and build situational awareness equipment and systems in a targeted manner, and vigorously develop various new disposal means, so as to maintain and obtain space advantages in the fierce space game."

Look to the stars

Starlink presently consists of a constellation of about 2,400 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites working together to provide wireless internet service. The first Starlink satellites launched in 2018 and the service is now up and running.

The satellite swarm has been worrying Chinese authorities since then. Last December, Chinese representatives at the United Nations complained [PDF] that Starlink satellites had "two close encounters with the China Space Station" on July 1 and October 21, 2021 and reminded the US of its obligations under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to avoid such dangers.

But Starlink's significance as conflict-resistant communications infrastructure came to the fore when SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk agreed to provide Ukraine with Starlink terminals in response to Russia's February 24 invasion.

The difficulties Russian forces face in trying to silence lots of Starlink dishes – harder to take out or take over than more centralized internet routing infrastructure – has US military leaders pondering how privately operated space-based comms can work within the US military's operational requirements.

In a March 2022 hearing, US Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) discussed Russia's efforts to block and jam Starlink signals in Ukraine and asked General James Dickinson, Commander of US Space Command, about the legal framework governing commercial communications firms in conflict environments.

General Dickinson said the military does look at these issues in its commercial integration cells. "I think what we're seeing with Elon Musk and the Starlink capabilities [being provided] is really kind of showing us what a mega constellation or proliferated architecture can provide," he said, "in terms of redundancy and capability."

Similar sentiments were expressed during testimony [PDF] from defense leaders before a subcommittee of the US Senate Armed Services Committee in May. During that hearing, John Plumb, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, noted the 2023 budget's inclusion of jam-resistant satellite communications for the military and called out China's and Russia's ongoing pursuit of Anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities.

"In contrast [to Russia's irresponsible ASAT test in November], the Department is committed to promoting norms of responsible behavior in space to ensure the space domain remains secure, stable, and accessible," said Plumb. "The Deputy Secretary of Defense stated in December at the National Space Council meeting, the Department would like to see all nations agree to refrain from anti-satellite weapons testing that create debris."

But where the US military sees utility in a difficult-to-disable private sector satellite network, the Chinese military sees a threat that it can't easily control or disable.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

US scientists previously criticized the Chinese government for breaking a de-facto moratorium on anti-satellite weapons that had been in place since 1985 with its 2007 anti-satellite test [PDF]. US pique about the perils posed by the debris proved short-lived: In 2008, the US Navy shot down its own spy satellite with a missile.

That was the last publicly known US ASAT test. But other nations since then have not been so restrained. Since 2010, according to the Secure World Foundation, China has conducted at least seven ASAT tests. Russia since 2014 has conducted at least 14 ASAT tests. And India conducted two such tests in 2019. About 3,200 pieces of debris from those tests are still in orbit.

There may be more yet to come. ®

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