DoD should forge an agreement with the intelligence community on space rules of the road to enable the Biden administration to negotiate more effectively internationally on such rules, per Space Threat Assessment 2021, an annual report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Aerospace Security Project.
“As the new U.S. administration develops and refines its overall national security strategy, one of the key areas to watch will be how it addresses space policy issues in general and the proliferation of counterspace weapons,” the new report says. “Calls within the United States and abroad for more clearly defined norms of behavior in space are growing. An early indication that the Biden administration intends to make progress toward building norms in space would be an agreement among DoD and the intelligence community for which norms the U.S. government is willing to support and abide by. Without an interagency agreement within the U.S. government, it will be difficult to start a meaningful conversion with other governments.”
Beyond the Outer Space Treaty of 1967’s prohibition on the placement of nuclear weapons in space and a commitment to use space peacefully, USSF leaders have said that space is the “Wild West.” The Biden administration has said that it plans to move ahead on discussions with allies and partners about establishing rules of the road for systems in space.
By 2025, Russia and China will have anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities that will threaten satellites in all orbital regimes, including weather/intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) up to the strategic missile warning and communications satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), a U.S. Space Force (USSF) official said last month (Defense Daily, March 11).
Established on Dec. 20, 2019, the Space Force has as its primary mission to protect U.S. military and commercial space assets, to deter conflicts from starting or extending into space, and to sustain U.S. capabilities that rely on space.
Despite Russian and Chinese ASAT tests last year, counterspace activities in other potential space powers, including India, Iran, and North Korea were not significant, CSIS said.
“Overall, 2020 was a slow year for counterspace activities,” per the CSIS report. “The coming year may prove more active overall as nations reemerge from lockdown and return to their prior plans and programs.”
Russia and China have been advancing direct ascent anti-satellite weapons (DA-ASAT), such as the Russian Nudol, and have not been interested in establishing space norms of behavior, but rather in working within the U.N. Committee on Disarmament to protect their DA-ASAT advantage through a treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT).
The U.S. and other Western nations have opposed the PPWT, as they believe the latter is unverifiable and does not touch on terrestrial counterspace systems, such as DA-ASATs and directed energy weapons, which Russia and China are developing. U.S. Space Command has also said that Russia has a co-orbital ASAT, which demonstrated an on-orbit kinetic weapon in 2017 and last year.
Last year, the United Kingdom and the U.S. said that Russia had launched the “nesting doll” Cosmos 2542 and 2543 satellites, which could pose a significant danger to LEO satellites (Defense Daily, Jan. 21).
CSIS’ Space Threat Assessment 2021 report said that China’s DA-ASAT capabilities “can threaten any U.S. satellite in LEO, and likely medium Earth orbit (MEO) and GEO as well.”
“From an operational perspective, a key development to track is the progress China makes integrating its electronic counterspace capabilities, such as jamming and spoofing, into its irregular warfare forces and tactics,” per the CSIS report. “In terms of norms of behavior in space, a key indicator to watch is the behavior of China’s SJ-17 GEO inspector satellite. While SJ-17 appears to have focused on inspecting other Chinese satellites so far, using this satellite to inspect another nation’s satellites in GEO would mark an important shift in its use that could have broader repercussions.”
“Russia is perhaps the most likely nation to conduct additional counterspace testing and deployment over the coming year,” the report said. “Given the tests of its direct ascent and co-orbital ASAT weapons conducted in 2020, a key issue to watch is whether these tests continue and if new capabilities are demonstrated. Other areas to watch for Russia include tests of new direct ascent or co-orbital ASAT capabilities, laser ASAT systems on additional airborne and ground-based platforms, electronic warfare systems for the protection of critical platforms, and emboldened cyberattacks against civilian infrastructure and government institutions.”
USSF and the National Reconnaissance Office have been working on a SILENTBARKER program to field space-based sensors to improve the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN). Better space situational awareness may provide insights on the intent of potential U.S. adversaries in space and may help deter such adversaries.