A space race with Russia and China may seem like a concern of the 20th century, not the 21st. It has been decades since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I and Americans landed on the moon. In that time, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Soviet Union has dissolved, and China has become one of the United States’ largest trading partners.
Nevertheless, a space race born from the Cold War continues to unfold. While the current space race may not have the same monopoly on the American imagination as the sprint to the moon held during the 1950s and 60s, it deserves our equal attention. We are now witnessing the rapid and increasingly international development of anti-satellite weapons. The race for these weapons not only increases the risk of global conflict—it could jeopardize all future space exploration.
What Are Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASATs)?
Difficult to define, ASATs occupy a gray zone in international arms control. On one level, they are exactly what the term suggests: weapons designed to destroy or limit satellites for military purposes, such as undermining the command and control centers of an adversary’s military. ASATs can function in several ways. For example, kinetic energy ASATs (KE-ASATs) destroy satellites by physically colliding with them at high velocities. Drones, ballistic missiles, and explosives detonated near satellites can all function as KE-ASATs.
Conversely, non-kinetic ASATs use any non-physical mechanism to render a satellite inoperative, such as blinding satellites with lasers, launching cyberattacks, or jamming frequencies.
But definitional issues arise because any technology that can physically or non-kinetically damage a satellite can be considered an ASAT weapon. For example, supposedly benign technology aimed at removing defunct satellites or other space junk—known as Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology—can also remove active satellites. With ostensibly civil but covertly military capabilities or functions, many space technologies, including ADR, are put in a category commonly known as “dual-use.” The dual-use nature of space infrastructure makes differentiating between weapon and non-weapon nearly impossible. As a result, regulating ASATs—and many other space-based weapons systems—is extremely difficult.
A Brief History of ASAT Proliferation
The earliest ASAT testing began during the Cold War, when the success of Sputnik I in October of 1957 catalyzed American fears about the Soviet Union’s potential goal of developing nuclear armed satellites capable of circling the globe. In response, the US developed its first ASAT: Bold Orion, an air-launched ballistic missile. The Soviet Union responded with its own ASAT program, developing weapons through the 1960s and 70s known as co-orbitals. Unlike previous KE-ASAT designs, these co-orbitals worked by syncing up with a target satellite’s orbit, then detonating.
The United States responded to Soviet co-orbitals in the 1980s with the ASM-135 weapon, an air-launched KE-ASAT distinguished by its hit-to-kill method. Unlike the Soviet co-orbitals, the hit-to-kill system did not require explosives; it just used the energy generated by the collision between the craft and the satellite, making delivery more stable. In a 1985 demonstration authorized by President Ronald Reagan, an ASM-135 successfully destroyed a defunct satellite.
Roughly 30 years later, China joined the space race. In 2007, China successfully tested a KE-ASAT, destroying an old weather satellite with a ballistic missile. And just last year, India also successfully tested an ASAT in what the Indian government referred to as Mission Shakti.
As of 2018, Russia and China were still developing more advanced non-kinetic ASATs. Russia is specifically developing an ASAT system known as Nudol, which operates in Lower Earth Orbit and can move between orbital paths, threatening more satellites than weapons limited to just one orbital path. So, despite the end of the Cold War era, more and more nations are jumping into a space arms race that is resulting in the rapid proliferation of advanced space weaponry.
The ASAT Appeal
A global fixation on anti-satellite weapons is arguably the logical end result of the main American project of the late 20th and early 21st century: the movement to digital communications. Via the telephone, computers, and eventually the internet, the United States pioneered the use of space-based communications for most civil and military functions. The benefits of satellite-based communications—namely increased efficiency, precision, and volume of information transmitted—are self-evident; however, the US lead in the transition to space-based systems posed a threat: relying on satellites for military use more than any other country created an asymmetric dependency. In other words, an unexpected denial of space-enabled information or capabilities would be more debilitating to the United States than to any other country because no other country is as dependent on satellite communications.
In an era of US hegemony, powers like Russia, China, and India are looking for arenas in which they can make the most gains against a conventionally stronger opponent. The space race has an asymmetric nature: the more the United States develops in space, the more it has to lose. Thus, space warfare provides an arena where emerging powers can gain a strategic advantage relative to the US.
More broadly, ASATs are also desirable because they can function as conflict deterrents. If a conflict arises, countries may be less likely to escalate if they believe their opponents are capable of essentially blinding their military. Just as two nuclear armed opponents risk mutually assured destruction (MAD), two ASAT armed countries risk mutual impotence. If they both can “turn off” each other’s militaries—or deny access to the satellites upon which their opponent’s conventional and nuclear forces rely—both countries are rendered close to defenseless, a risk they would be extremely reluctant to take.
A Uniquely Dangerous Arms Race
Despite their deterrent functions, ASATs are more likely to provoke or exacerbate conflicts than dampen them, especially given the risk they pose to early warning satellites. These satellites are a crucial element of US ballistic missile defense, capable of detecting missiles immediately after launch and tracking their paths.
Suppose a US early warning satellite goes dark, or is shut down. Going dark could signal a glitch, but in a world in which other countries have ASATs, it could also signal the beginning of an attack. Without early warning satellites, the United States is much more susceptible to nuclear missiles. Given the strategy of counterforcing—targeting nuclear silos rather than populous cities to prevent a nuclear counterattack—the Americans might believe their nuclear weapons are imminently at risk. It could be twelve hours before the United States regains satellite function, which is too long to wait to put together a nuclear counterattack. The United States, therefore, might move to mobilize a nuclear attack against Russia or China over what might just be a piece of debris shutting off a satellite.
Additionally, accidental warfare, or strategic miscalculation, is uniquely likely in space. It is much easier to hold an adversary’s space systems in jeopardy with destructive ASATs than it is to sustainably defend a system, which is expensive and in some cases not technologically feasible because of limitations on satellite movement. Space is therefore considered offense-dominant; offensive tactics like weapons development are prioritized over defensive measures, such as improving GPS or making satellites more resistant to jamming.
As a result, countries are left with poorly defended space systems and rely on offensive posturing, which increases the risk that their actions are perceived as aggressive and incentivizes rapid, risky counterattacks because militaries cannot rely on their spaced-based systems after first strikes.
There are several hotspots in which ASATs and offensive-dominant systems are particularly relevant. Early warning satellites play a central role in US readiness in the event of a conflict involving North Korea. News of North Korean missile launches comes from these satellites. Given North Korea’s history of nuclear provocations, unflinchingly hostile rhetoric towards the United States and South Korea, and diplomatic opacity, North Korea is always a threatening, unknowable adversary, but recent developments have magnified the risk. With the health of Kim Jong-un potentially in jeopardy, a succession battle or even civil war on the peninsula raises the chances of loose nukes. If the regime is terminal, traditional MAD risk calculus will become moot; with nothing to lose, North Korea would have no reason to hold back its nuclear arsenal. Or China might decide to seize military assets and infrastructure of the regime. If the US does not have its early warning satellites because they have been taken out in an ASAT attack, the US, South Korea, and Japan are all in imminent nuclear peril, while China could be in a position to fundamentally reshape East Asian geopolitics.
The South China Sea is another hotspot in which ASATs could risk escalation. China is developing Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) in the South China Sea, a combination of long range radar with air and maritime defense meant to deny US freedom of navigation in the region. Given the disputed nature of territory in the South China Sea, the United States and its allies do not want China to successfully close off the region.
But the most effective way to break an A2/AD system would be with anti-satellite weapons. ASATs could neutralize the maritime surveillance China relies upon to deny access to the region and guide cruise missiles. Thus, China is extremely wary of US ASAT development: risks to Beijing’s South China Sea strategy are seen as threats to China itself because of territorial sovereignty claims that are deeply important to the regime and have only become more pronounced under President Xi Jinping. If a Chinese satellite went dark, Beijing might perceive it as a US ASAT designed to undermine the A2/AD approach, and escalate with conventional force.
An Even Greater Risk
Many of these conflict scenarios start with the loss of satellite function, which may seem unlikely. But ASATs threaten satellites through more than just direct attack. ASAT testing, rather than deployment, risks the exponential accumulation of debris, which endangers satellites and creates a host of other problems.
KE-ASATs rely on smashing satellites into thousands of pieces, so each test adds tremendous amounts of space debris. The 2007 Chinese KE-ASAT test alone increased the number of objects in orbit by 20 percent, producing more than two thousand pieces of debris large enough to be tracked and likely thousands more too small to be counted that will remain in orbit for centuries.
Even the smallest pieces of debris can do great damage; traveling at more than 15,000 miles per hour, they can crash into other debris in a proliferation known as the Kessler Syndrome. The situation in space could approach a critical mass in which collision cascading occurs even if all launches were halted, choking orbits with debris until all satellites are destroyed and spaceflight rendered impossible. Compared to the negligible debris created during commercial launches, ASAT tests—especially if the arms race continues to escalate and countries with less developed space programs join with cruder designs—may accelerate the debris in space closer and closer to this critical mass.
If debris knocks out a satellite, an increasingly likely possibility in a world with ASAT tests, then the aforementioned conflict scenarios become more likely. Conflict aside, ASAT-based debris clouds are terrifying in their own right. Public health, transportation, climate science, and a litany of other crucial infrastructures are dependent on satellites that are now at risk. Satellite GPS is a cornerstone of the modern economy; some pundits believe that the slightest glitch in GPS satellites could shock the stock market and further destabilize an unstable global economy. During the pandemic, satellites are playing a crucial role in geospatial data collection for infectious disease modeling.
Essentially, it is hard to imagine a world without satellites, but that is a possible outcome given that there are no reliable methods of withdrawing debris from space.
There are two conflicting views on how the US could mitigate the worst effects of an ASAT arms race. The first, put forward by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2001, is fairly simple: Space militarization is inevitable, and the United States will have to rely on superior capabilities to prevent conflict—essentially, end the arms race by winning it. This is classic escalation dominance theory: the idea that sustainable deterrence can be created when a nation escalates conflict to a level greater than their adversary can match.
However, the nature of an arms race makes escalatory advantages inherently ephemeral, and the advances Russia and China have made since Rumsfeld’s 2001 report suggest that relying on US space superiority might be a poor strategy. Even if it were possible, attaining escalation dominance would require near constant weapons testing, which produces more debris.
The second viewpoint calls for an end to the arms race not by winning it but by calling it off entirely, through comprehensive space arms control. Such regulations are complicated and have a long history, but could be a more sustainable solution than an endless proliferation of weapons.
The first iteration of arms control in space came in the 1960s. The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) banned nuclear weapons tests in outer space, and the more comprehensive 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), considered the cornerstone of peaceful space development, prohibited any military activity on celestial bodies including stationing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space. Both treaties are still in effect today, but despite additional treaties in recent decades, there are still no international regulations banning weapons other than WMD in space.
The most recent attempt at an ASAT ban was proposed by Russia and China in 2014. A revision of a draft from 2008, the Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) was rejected by the United States because it lacked verification and permitted the stockpiling of terrestrial-based ASAT systems. It only banned space-based ASATs, which would enable China and Russia to continue developing ground-launched systems known as direct-ascent ASATs.
The PPWT was an empty solution for an arms race, clearly designed to benefit Russia and China rather than prevent additional weapons development. But a comprehensive agreement that the US, Russia, and China all find satisfactory seems unlikely. The Proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Space Treaty (PAROS) has been discussed since the 1980s without much progress.
Perhaps a more feasible solution is a limited test ban treaty: an agreement to stop testing debris-producing ASATs. It has precedent—the PTBT successfully prevented the testing of nuclear weapons in space—and could stave off the worst effects of debris accumulation by eliminating debris-producing tests. Additionally, in the long term, a test ban could reduce countries’ confidence in their ASATs; capabilities atrophy without regular testing, meaning countries would be less likely to base their military strategies on ASATs in the event of a conflict.
By banning specific systems, a test ban treaty is not too vague as to be unenforceable like the PPWT, but it could be limited enough to not affect broader space development. Russia and China might find the terms acceptable; after all, debris threatens their satellites too, and they have a reciprocal interest in reining in US weapons development.
It’s hard to conceive of a future for humanity that does not feature space in some capacity. Big businesses are already pursuing space commerce more aggressively, with visions of space colonies and large scale resource extraction. But the continued, unchecked proliferation of ASATs could close off space entirely—and help induce a nuclear war. Now, more than ever, it remains urgent and imperative that international negotiations reach an arms control treaty.