New weapons: anti-satellite technology ASAT

This is a top priority segment in modern weapons development and breakthrough inventions in ASAT may enable “killer satellites” and “first-strike capability”, denoting a crucial cutting-edge to an inventing party in the great power competition.

The US “Missile Defense Review 2019” states clearly the present American views regarding great powers’ military competition in space. Despite frequently criticizing the United States and allies for developing and fielding missile defense systems, potential adversaries have long made substantial investments in their own missile defense systems. Russia and China are developing ASAT capabilities that could threaten US space-based assets.

Russia maintains and modernizes its longstanding strategic missile defense system deployed around Moscow, including 68 nuclear-armed interceptors and has fielded multiple types of shorter-range, mobile missile defense systems throughout Russia. In addition, Russia is developing a diverse suite of ground-launched and directed-energy ASAT capabilities and continues to launch “experimental” satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities to advance Russian counter-space capabilities.

China is aggressively pursuing a wide range of mobile air and missile defense capabilities, including the purchase of S-400 systems from Russia, each with four interceptor missiles, and is developing additional theater ballistic missile defense systems. China also has announced that it is testing a new mid-course missile defense system. Further, China is developing a suite of anti-satellite weapons, continues to launch “experimental” satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities to advance counter-space capabilities, and has conducted multiple ASAT tests using ground-launched missiles.

As to the concept of “Weaponizing Space”, The US President also noted that in line with the new MDR 2019, Washington will recognize that “space is a new war-fighting domain with the Space Force leading the way”.

The US established the fifth force, Space Force, to its military apparatus besides army, mariners, navy, air forces and nuclear forces.

“My upcoming budget will invest in a space-based missile defense layer technology. It’s ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense and obviously of our offence”, Trump said. He also pledges to ensure that “enemy missiles find no sanctuary on Earth or in the skies above”, which he said is the direction that he is currently heading. Moscow called new Pentagon MDR-Report “Relaunch of Reagan-Era Star Wars Program”.

Space applications, civil or military, cover the following areas:

  • reconnaissance and remote sensing
  • satellite communications
  • satellite navigations (the US/GPS, Russia/GLONASS, China/BeiDou)
  • science, technology development and other special purposes

Nowadays nine countries have space launch capabilities: China, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, the US and European Space Agency. China and Russia have updating their space launch capabilities in all classes: light-, medium-, heavy- and proposed super heavy-lift space launch vehicles.

According to American military experts, Russia and China are developing, at least the following weapons and procedures that may disrupt or prohibit the use of US space services:

  • jamming global communications and navigation satellites
  • developing weapons to target satellites of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, e.g. laser weapons can blind imagery sensors
  • developing counter-space directed-energy weapons like lasers and highly focused radiofrequency emitters
  • developing anti-satellite missiles to shoot down satellites in low Earth orbit
  • testing sophisticated on-orbit, space based anti-satellite technologies and concepts, where a satellite targets other space systems (“killer satellites”)
  • military exercises of physical attacks against ground sites and infrastructure that support space operations
  • developing cyber capabilities to target US space systems and supporting infrastructure

 The list here above indicates the full range of all known application sectors in the present “space weaponizing context”.

The US Air Force Space Command Gen. John Hyten warned already in 2015 that both Russia and China are developing space warfare capabilities that threaten critical US satellites. Little information is available on the secretive Russian program but appears linked to its missile defense programs. Analysts say the space threat to satellites highlights a strategic vulnerability.

With as few as two dozen anti-satellite missiles, Russia or China could cripple US intelligence, navigation, and communications capabilities that are critical for both military operations and civilian infrastructure.

Former Pentagon official Mark Schneider said the Russian test highlights the failure of the United States to prepare for space warfare. A February 2015 unclassified Defense Intelligence Agency report to the Congress stated that “Chinese and Russian military leaders understand the unique information advantages afforded by space systems and are developing capabilities to deny US use of space in the event of a conflict,” Schneider added.

 The Pentagon is getting more worried about that China and Russia are developing anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles that could shoot US low Earth orbit (LEO) objects out of the stars within the next two years.

The intelligence directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Washington Free Beacon in early 2018 that these missiles are currently in development and will be combat-capable as early as 2020. In May 2018, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that Moscow and Beijing were “increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine.”  “Both will continue to pursue a full range of ASAT weapons as a means to reduce US military effectiveness,” Coats told Congress.

The Free Beacon estimated that Moscow spends $5 billion annually on ASAT weapons. China’s program is secretive, but thought to be formidable.

In 2010, 2013, and 2014, Beijing conducted mid-course missile defense tests that the Pentagon characterized as a system that could also be easily modified to shoot down satellites. “China’s military modernization program clearly includes an attempt to up its game in space. Weapons for space involve more than just ASAT systems, but these are the most overt signs of China’s progress,” said former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin to Cipher Brief earlier in January 2018.

In anticipation of the challenge, the Pentagon has begun development on counter-technologies such as satellite constellations: overlapping satellite networks that can retain their geolocating capabilities even if some of the satellites inside the network are lost.

Currently, no arms treaties exist regarding ASAT weapons. Such a treaty could undermine missile defense, as many missile defense systems also have latent ASAT capabilities. The RAND think tank also reported that the US has their own arsenal of ASAT weapons that they’d be unwilling to surrender, as they currently hold the edge in space warfare.

The US leaders in the Trump Administration have taken a hawkish tone in recent rhetoric regarding China and Russia. Earlier in January, US Defence Secretary James Mattis released a new defense strategy that said that countering China’s rapidly expanding military strength and Russia’s modernizing forces were the Pentagon’s top national security priorities.

“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, but great-power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of US national security,” Mattis said in a January 19, 2018 speech at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. “This strategy is fit for our time, providing the American people [with] the military required to protect our way of life, stand with our allies and live up to our responsibility to pass intact to the next generation those freedoms we enjoy today.”

China’s special ASAT-projects

In early 2018, less than a week after a US missile defense system failed to intercept a ballistic missile outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense claimed to have triumphed where the Americans stumbled. China carried out a missile interception exercise that was successful and achieved Beijing’s “expected goals”. The test was a success thwarted a ballistic missile during the “mid-course” stage of its flight path, which occurs outside Earth’s atmosphere. China has since 2005 made about ten test launches of Dong Neng-3 (DN-3) direct ascent missile and is developing an impressive ASAT-capability.

China is aiming to develop a satellite with a powerful laser for anti-submarine warfare that researchers hope will be able to pinpoint a target as far as 500 meters below the surface. It is the latest addition to the country’s expanding deep-sea surveillance programme and aside from targeting submarines – most operate at a depth of less than 500 meters – it could also be used to collect data on the world’s oceans. Project’s name is “Guanlan” (“watching the big waves”).

While light dims 1,000 times faster in water than in the air, and the sun can penetrate no more than 200 meters below the ocean surface, a powerful artificial laser beam can be 1 billion times brighter than the sun. But this project is ambitious – naval researchers have tried for more than half a century to develop a laser spotlight for hunting submarines using technology known as light detection and ranging (lidar).

In May 2018, China launched the Chang’e 4 lunar relay satellite on an unusual trajectory: a lunar swing-by that pulled the satellite in a wide arc before settling it into a “parking orbit” at Lagrangian 2 on the moon’s far side. The Chinese government has said the mission is part of a four-stage plan to build a moon base but a satellite on the far side of the moon might not be quite what the Chinese say, the US Air Force official warns.

China’s lunar probes may one day threaten critical US satellites, said one of the military’s top experts on space threats. “China and Russia now have the capability to go after” intelligence and communications satellites in GEO-altitude, American defense expert Griffin told. “Those assets are what we use for communication and reconnaissance and missile warning and position, timing and navigation, a whole bunch of features that we use for war fighting.”

Recently released images (March 2019), which were provided by retired Indian Army Col. Vinayak Bhat, a satellite imagery analyst who specializes on China, have revealed the presence of an anti-satellite laser base in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. According to the Washington Free Beacon, the base is located roughly 145 miles south of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and is situated near a lake.

​”In terms of satellite tracking, Chinese technology has grown in leaps and bounds. There are now many space tracking stations dotted all over the country — like one in Ngari, Tibet — which provide accurate data about satellites to be targeted,” Bhat said in his report for Indian outlet The Print. “Once the accurate satellite path and other data is known, directed energy weapons (DEW) located at five different places can take over the task. 

“China likely is pursuing laser weapons to disrupt, degrade or damage sat­ellites and their sensors and possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors. China likely will field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020, and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites.”

Russia’s special ASAT-projects

Russia carried out the first successful flight test of a new anti-satellite missile in November 2015, marking a new phase in the global militarization of space. Russia’s direct ascent anti-satellite missile is known as Nudol ASAT. With the successful anti-satellite missile test, Russia has joined China in arming its forces with strategic space warfare weapons.

The weapon is “being developed within the scope of the Nudol OKR (experimental development project)”. The Nudol system is supposed to look like a transporter erector launcher with two missile containers and the radar. The new weapon is being developed by the Almaz-Antey Air Defense Concern.

The available information of Nudol is scarce but it seems that it is developed as a component of a missile defense system. It may be related to the program that would upgrade the Moscow missile defense, being a part of the project known as “Samolet-M.” While the Nudol missile launcher is mobile, it would probably have a targeting datalink from both mobile and fixed Russian air defense radars.

New commercial satellite imagery shows hidden launch areas of the Russian anti-ballistic missile and anti-satellite weapon system in the area of Plesetsk spaceport in northern Russia. In reports released by Russia’s media, researchers said that launch areas of the newest PL-19 Nudol anti-satellite weapon system located it the Plesetsk military spaceport (approximately 800 kilometers north of Moscow), at the ex-launch site of the Cyclone-2 rocket.

The Triada-2S jamming system is another development project.  Triada-2S is the mobile complex of radio electronic destruction of communication satellites.  Russian sources refer to the Triada-2s appears to be destroying the satellite’s electronic communications (called “electronic suppression” in Russian terminology). All information and data regarding Triada-2S is highly classified.

Porubshchik-2 – the newly revealed ASAT

Yet another ASAT system is described: the Porubshchik-2.  While some info focuses mostly on the new electronic warfare capabilities, the other sources put more emphasis on the fact that this EW aircraft system will have also ASAT capabilities.  This system is still in development, but at the very least these show that the Russians are now developing a full array of anti-satellite systems.

Russia launched a “small space apparatus Kosmos 2521 from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in June 2017 to be used for “examining the condition of a Russian satellite,” the Russian Ministry of Defense announced. The ministry clarified in October 2017 that the satellite had been coupled to a larger satellite, Kosmos-2519 conducting tests of “controlling the maneuvering defense satellite, ground and orbital communication systems,” and “methods involving ballistic estimates and new software were employed,” before the smaller satellite returned to Kosmos-2519.

The US has raised a“big cry” about a Russian satellite exhibiting what it considers “abnormal” behavior, heavily implying it is a weapon of some sort. “We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior”, said US Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Yleem Poblete at a UN conference on disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland. “Its behavior on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities.” The US assumes the question is of testing “killer satellite”.

On September 14th, 2018, an image of a MiG-31D interceptor jet carrying a large missile sparked speculation that Russia has developed an air-launched anti-satellite weapon system, according to The Drive magazine. The idea is that Mig-31D was to fly as high and fast as possible to get the heavy anti-satellite missile in position to fire.