The Space Arms Race Is Ratcheting Up
Even as a growing number of countries send weapons into orbit, there are no guardrails to prevent things from getting out of hand.
Prakash Singh / AFP / Getty
On April 22, after several failed attempts, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced a successful launch of what it described as a military reconnaissance satellite. That satellite joined a growing list of weapons and military systems in orbit, including those from Russia (which in April tested a missile program designed to destroy satellites) and India (which launched an anti-satellite weapon in March 2019).
Experts like Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation (SWF), a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado, worry that these developments—all confirmed by the newly rebranded United States Space Force—threaten to lift earthly conflicts to new heights and put all space activities, peaceful and military alike, at risk. Researchers at SWF and at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., both released reports this year on the rapidly evolving state of affairs. The reports suggest that the biggest players in space have upgraded their military abilities, including satellite-destroying weapons and technologies that disrupt spacecraft, by, for instance, blocking data collection or transmission.
Many of these technologies, if deployed, could ratchet up an arms race and even spark a skirmish in space, the SWF and CSIS researchers caution. Blowing up a single satellite scatters debris throughout the atmosphere, said Weeden, co-editor of the SWF report. Such an explosion could hurl projectiles in the paths of other spacecraft and threaten the accessibility of space for everyone.
“Those are absolutely the two best reports to be looking at to get a sense of what’s going on in the space community,” said David Burbach, a national security affairs expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who was not involved in the new research.
Today, Burbach added, the world is very different compared with the Cold War era, when access to space was essentially limited to the United States and the Soviet Union. Many more countries now have space programs, including India, Iran, North Korea, France, Japan, and Israel.
Despite this expansion—and the array of new space weapons—relevant policies and regulatory bodies have remained stagnant. “What worries us in the international community is that there aren’t necessarily any guardrails for how people are going to start interfering with others’ space systems,” said Daniel Porras, a space security fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. “There are no rules of engagement.”
The new reports use available evidence and intelligence to explore a range of weapons that various countries’ militaries are developing or testing—or already have operational. (Notably, CSIS’s report doesn’t include the American military.) Each nation has unique abilities and characteristics. For example, India has invested heavily in space infrastructure and capabilities, while Japan’s post–World War II space activities were limited until a recent change to its constitution. For Israel’s space program, Weeden said, little good data is available.
Potential missile attacks on military satellites “tend to get most of the attention, but that is not all that we see happening around the world,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS and a principal author of its report, during an April 6 livestream.
For example, the thousands of everyday satellites that already circle low-Earth orbit, below an altitude of 1,200 miles, could potentially suffer collateral damage. More than half of those satellites are from the U.S.; many of the rest are from China and Russia. They provide key services like internet access, GPS signals, long-distance communications, and weather information. Any missile that smashes into a satellite—either as an attack or during a test—would disperse thousands of bits of debris. Any one of those pieces, still hurtling at orbital speeds, could take out another spacecraft and create yet more debris.
“It’s very easy to pollute space,” Burbach said. “The debris doesn’t discriminate. If you create debris, it might just as well come back and hit one of your own satellites. So I think we’re pretty unlikely to see countries actually use those capabilities.” Still, he said, “it would be worrying to see countries showing off that [they] can do it and start testing.”
When China conducted an anti-satellite missile test in 2007, it created a massive cloud of space junk that drew international condemnation. India’s engineers tried to limit debris from their recent test by conducting it at a low altitude, so that Earth’s gravity would pull the pieces down and they would burn up on descent. But some pieces were flung up to the International Space Station’s orbit. There were no collisions; as of February, only 15 trackable pieces of debris remained in orbit, said Victoria Samson, director of the Secure World Foundation’s Washington office, during the CSIS livestream in April.
A number of countries are developing new military technologies for space. France, for instance, is working on laser beams that could dazzle another country’s satellite, preventing it from taking pictures of classified targets. North Korea is studying how to jam radio frequency signals sent to or from a satellite, and Iran is devising cyberattacks that could interfere with satellite systems. Meanwhile, the big three space heavyweights—the U.S., Russia, and China—are already capable of all three approaches, according to the SWF report.
The big three have also begun to master what the reports call “rendezvous and proximity operations,” which involve using satellites as surveillance devices or weapons. A satellite could maneuver within miles of a rival’s classified satellite, snap photos of equipment, and transmit the pictures down to Earth. Or a satellite could sidle up to another and spray its counterpart’s lenses or cover its solar panels, cutting off power and rendering it useless. Russia may be ahead with this technology, having already launched a series of small “inspector satellites,” as the Russian government calls them. Last fall, according to Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, one crept near a U.S. spy satellite, which he called a “potentially threatening behavior.”
So far, there are relatively few international policies or norms about what’s allowed in modern-day space and what’s not. The SWF report notes that an incident or misunderstanding could escalate tensions if it’s perceived as an attack.
The lack of guidance has left room for a range of activities. Weeden said that in December 2019, the Trump administration signaled its intention to strengthen the United States’ space weaponry and protect its spacecraft from possible attacks by Russia and China by transforming the Air Force Space Command into the U.S. Space Force. That shift “brought a full-time operational focus to the space domain, which was a needed change,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Christina Hoggatt, a Space Force spokesperson, in a statement to Undark. With these forces, the Defense Department seeks to “strengthen deterrence” and improve capabilities to “defend our vital assets in space,” she wrote. This emphasis, Burbach said, likely means that the U.S. military will focus on making satellites more resilient to attack, rather than developing offensive weapons.
Compared with the U.S., smaller space powers have fewer satellites and therefore less to lose, the U.N.’s Porras said. He argues that tense regional relationships could be particularly unpredictable. For example, he said, if North Korean leaders found themselves in a standoff with South Korea and the U.S., they might launch and detonate a nuclear weapon in space; its dangerous radiation would disable most satellites.
The U.N. and other international groups—including SWF and the Outer Space Institute, a global research organization based in British Columbia—are working to avoid such scenarios. Weeden said that as long as countries don’t launch destructive space weapons near other countries’ spacecraft, conduct overtly provocative tests, or disable critical satellites, peaceful space activities should continue. For now, he points out, countries have only tested missiles on their own defunct satellites, and exercises against other nations’ spacecraft have remained nondestructive.
Existing international laws offer little guidance for modern military technology in space. While these rules—including the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the U.N.’s Outer Space Treaty of 1967—prohibit weapons of mass destruction in space, they don’t explicitly limit other kinds of space weapons, tests, or military space forces.
Weeden points out that space diplomats could create new guidelines by developing something like the Incidents at Sea agreement, which the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed during the Cold War to maintain safe distances between ships and avoid maneuvers in heavy traffic. But until similar rules involving space weaponry are hammered out, he said, unexpected satellite tests will inevitably fuel speculation and paranoia.
“Any time you have militaries operating near each other without a lot of transparency or clarity,” he added, “you always have the opportunity for misperceptions that could lead to something very bad.”
Ramin Skibba is a writer based in San Diego. His work has appeared in Undark magazine, New Scientist, and Nature.