This article is the second in a three-part series on How to Prevent a War in Space. Part One presented a primer on military space capabilities, and the state-level weapons that threaten them. Part Two investigates non-state kinetic threats, such as the risk of extremist or criminal groups putting a satellite into orbit. Finally, Part Three discusses the concept of deterrence, and how it could be applied to the defence of ADF spacecraft.
“As the cost of entry declines over time, if offense remains dominant, then the application of asymmetric space warfare by nonstate actors will become an even greater threat to all states with interests in space.”
– Dr. Gregory Miller, Professor of Leadership Studies, USAF ACSC
Diverse, Disruptive, Disordered, and Dangerous
Access to space is no longer the sole privilege of national governments. The explosive growth of the commercial space industry has lowered the barriers to entry of every element of the space endeavour, from building and operating satellites to accessing launch services. Over 50 nations have at least one object in orbit.
In 1990, 70% of satellites were operated by the military; that number is now closer to 13%
The Second Space Age is differentiated as “more diverse, disruptive, disordered, and dangerous,” as access to space opens faster than regulation can police it
There were around 3,000 satellites sharing Low-Earth Orbit in 2002; that number is now closer to 8,000
Access to space is rapidly becoming available to all. Small-satellite startups like EnduroSat allow customers to design a bespoke satellite as though they were buying a car, for a base cost of $40,000 USD – cheaper than a new Toyota Hilux
SpaceX’s Transporter rideshare program, for example, will inject customer satellites into virtually any chosen Earth orbit for as little as $275,000 USD
Malicious space actors can be categorised as guerrillas and terrorists pursuing a political, religious, or social agenda; or pirates, who are economically motivated (Miller, 2019). Groups are distinguished by intent, and thus choice of target:
- Guerrillas usually have a national focus and intend to overthrow an existing power structure. Seeking to be viewed as legitimate by the local population and international community, their targets will generally be military.
- Terrorists are ideologically motivated and seek to promote their cause through violence. Terrorists attack government, military, civilian, and symbolic targets.
- Pirates seek profit and can include both criminal organisations and commercial actors engaging in corporate sabotage
(Viets, 2018). Seeking to avoid military retaliation, their targets will primarily be confined to commercial ones.
Malicious space activities include hijacking, jamming, data theft, and spoofing, up to outright physical disabling or destruction of a satellite. These activities are differentiated by environmental and collateral damage, reversibility, and attributability. Different groups will favour different methods, with terrorists the most likely to seek kinetic damage to satellites, being the least concerned about collateral or environmental impacts and seeking to maximize public attention.
Non-state, non-kinetic action against satellites has already occurred, but to date no guerrilla, terrorist, or pirate has either launched a satellite, or physically attacked another
ASAT For Sale
Missile proliferation could provide non-state actors with an anti-satellite weapon. Iran’s Ghadr-110 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) projects a 750kg payload to an altitude of 400km
Iran actively proliferates its ballistic missiles to non-state actors, including ideologically aligned extremist groups
Ballistic missiles could also provide a platform to bootstrap a domestic space launch capability. To get to orbit, a rocket must both be able to reach the correct altitude and generate sufficient speed – about 8km/s – to prevent it from falling back to Earth
The Second Space Age has resulted in a Cambrian explosion of alternative space launch techniques. Several commercial providers are pursuing air-launched space vehicles; Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne carries small satellites to orbit from beneath a Boeing 747
This allows much smaller rockets to deliver payloads to orbit. Air-launched vehicles also need no fixed launch site, increasing security, and could deliver a co-orbital or K-ASAT weapon beneath to the orbital plane of a target satellite, minimising time to target. It can move to take advantage of orbital mechanics; launching east from equatorial regions increases delta-V by around 20%, reducing the thrust a vehicle’s engines must produce to achieve orbit
Such a system is currently unfeasible for terrorist groups, not least for the difficulty of maintaining heavy-lift aircraft, but could be realised as Autonomous Launch Vehicle (AuLV) technology matures. The largest operational UAS, Aevum’s Ravn X, is currently selling launch services to the U.S Space Force
How to Build a Satellite-Killer
A hostile co-orbital satellite could be as simple as a mine-laying or kamikaze CubeSat, designed to endanger an orbital path through deliberate debris creation, all the way up to a guided autonomous weapon capable of targeting specific satellites
Access to aerospace technology is also proliferating. The Iranian Shahed-136, Israeli Harops, and Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, all both combat-proven and for sale, feature guidance packages capable of autonomous targeting
A package this advanced may not even be required; simple radar systems for entry-level ASAT missiles have been proposed
A Clear and Present Danger
It’s critically important to note that, while the idea of a hostile non-state actor directly threatening spacecraft is currently theoretical, the scenarios mentioned above are either achievable with technology currently available to sufficiently resourced groups, or just need a little technical extrapolation. Extremist groups aggressively pursue methods of imparting asymmetric effects on greater powers; as students of manoeuvre warfare, the reader can appreciate this approach. Given the advantages a modern military derives from space systems, acquiring offset methods presents an attractive goal to a non-state adversary.
Non-state actors could represent a greater threat to human space activity than states. They generally fear reprisal less, are less concerned about unintended escalation, and have no space assets of their own to lose
The inevitable media coverage and public attention would project a terrorist organisation’s cause to a global audience. Attribution for an attack may be difficult to place or could be misdirected. While the risk of killing astronauts might deter a state from attacking orbital targets, terrorist groups may seek fatalities to magnify the impact of their action. Then there are the truly long-tail consequences.
Cascading debris generation in orbit could render space permanently inaccessible. The denial of space exploration, to not only present humanity but generations of our descendants, would represent an unparalleled moral catastrophe. This sense of profound loss is unlikely to be shared by groups motivated by religious or cultural extremism. It may, again, even present an attractive goal.
ASAT proliferation will be difficult to police. Arms control agreements have been proposed to stymie their development
Part Two of How to Prevent a War in Space has explored the motivations for different non-state groups seeking to threaten objects in space and explored potential methods by which a terrorist group could acquire ASAT capability. Part Three discusses different concepts of deterrence, and present deterrence as a practical method of safeguarding ADF and partner spacecraft.