Space technology plays an important role in day-to-day affairs of people, businesses, and governments worldwide. The navigation system, communication, remote sensing among others are important applications of satellites that help to connect people, operate global economy and support military operations. From states’ security point of view, tracking of forces, troop movement, situational awareness and ensuring accuracy of precision-guided munitions are very crucial uses of satellites.
These advancements however are also equipped with a number of vulnerabilities and security challenges. Subsequently, counter-space capabilities are emerging to counteract the threats posed by advancements of other states, creating a race of power balancing in space. By the end of 2022, space was holding 6,718 satellites, Union of Concerned Scientists notes. Counter-space capability may refer to any technology used to disrupt or destroy another space-based system. Direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT), Co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, Electromagnetic Warfare (EW) and use of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW), and cyber-attack are most notable counter-space weapons used these days.
So far, the United States (US), the Russian Federation (Russia), China and India have conducted debris causing anti-satellite (ASAT) tests, validating their capability to destroy other satellites. This article addresses space and counter-space capabilities of above mentioned countries. Pakistan’s advancements in space technology are also discussed. The United Nations (UN) resolution presented in December 2022 to ban ASAT testing also received varying response from these states. So far, the US has voted in favour of the resolution, Russia and China voted against it, India and Pakistan however abstained from voting.
As a response to Soviet Union’s Sputnik-5 satellite, the US developed first ever Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile, Bold Orion, and intercepted Explorer 6 satellite as a target in 1959. Co-Orbital ASAT: The US has conducted multiple tests of technologies for close approach and rendezvous in both Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous orbit (GEO), along with tracking, targeting, and hit-to-kill (HTK) intercept technologies. Although these technologies are non-offensive but they may lead to a co-orbital ASAT capability.
Network Jamming: The US has an operational Counter Communications System (CCS), deployed globally to provide uplink jamming capability against geostationary communications satellites. Through its Navigation Warfare program, the US at some instances have also interfered with the global navigation satellite service (GNSS) signals to prevent its use by the adversaries.
EW/DEW: The US has an operational EW counter-space system. Over the past several decades, it has conducted significant research on the use of ground-based high-energy lasers. With its Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR) sites and defence research facilities, the US possesses low-power laser systems with the capability to dazzle, and possibly blind, Earth observation (EO) imaging satellites. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is conducting research on Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) to ensure defence against ballistic missiles. If developed, it may be used against other orbiting satellites.
Space Situational Awareness (SSA): The US owns the most advanced SSA capability in the world, particularly for military applications. The core of its SSA capabilities is a robust, geographically dispersed network of ground-based radars, telescopes and space-based telescopes. With the continuous addition and upgrading of sensors, and signing of data sharing agreements with other countries and satellite service providers, the US is advancing its software systems used to conduct SSA.
Russia conducted its first ASAT testing in 1963. Russia’s significant space capabilities are evident especially after the Russia-Ukraine War and the recent Russian invasion in 2022. One of the Pentagon’s correspondents for Real Clear Defence terms the Russia-Ukraine War as ‘first commercial spacewar’, because of probable use of space technology during this war leading its way in the time to come.
Co-orbital ASAT: Reports suggest that Russia has started a new co-orbital ASAT program, Burevestnik. The Kosmos-2491, 2499, 2504, 2521, 2535, 2536 and 2543, all are likely to be co-orbital ASAT. Most of them are secretly launched for orbital rendezvous and inspection maneuvers, NASA notes. Russia in 2021 successfully demonstrated a Direct Ascent (DA) ASAT capability by hitting its own dysfunctional Cosmos-1408 satellite present in LEO, using the newer DA-ASAT system, the Nudol.
Network jamming/Cyber-attack: Russia can significantly jam user terminals and GPS receivers within tactical ranges. The interference of GPS signals of Finnair, a Finnish airline, when it passed nearby to Kaliningrad, verifies this capability. At least ten such instances of GPS disturbance by other Finnish airlines were reported in the week following Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Electromagnetic Weapons/Directed Energy Weapons: Russia is developing high-powered space-based EW platforms to augment its existing ground-based platforms and holds significant expertise in making DEW. Russia is further developing military applications of the laser systems to work in a variety of environments. The Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov claims that Zadira, a laser weapon, was used by Russia in May 2022, during Russia-Ukraine War and destroyed a Ukrainian Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). This claim was however refuted by the US and Ukrainian governments. The 2023 report of the Secure World Foundation suggests that Russia may have developed an aircraft-borne laser system that could target optical sensors of imagery reconnaissance satellites.
Destroying its own aging weather satellite in January 2007, China became the third country to conduct ASAT testing, causing serious concerns, especially for the US. A Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell termed the testing as the first real escalation on weaponization of space over last twenty years. Only in 2022, China performed 64 orbital rocket launches, breaking its own record of year 2021 of 55 space launches with a further plan to launch over 200 spacecraft by the end of 2023.
EW/ DEW: Although, non-kinetic counter-space weapons including high-powered lasers and microwaves are still classified, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence claimed in Threat Report 2021 that China’s ground-based laser weapons are capable to blind or damage optical sensors on low-altitude satellites.
Co-orbital ASAT and cyber-attacks: China possesses capability to rendezvous with other satellites in the same orbit. Additionally, China’s cyber-attacks on space system have also been reported in last couple of years.
SSA: China’s space-surveillance capabilities include SLC-18 radar that China unveiled in November 2022. It is designed to search, detect and track objects such as ballistic missiles and satellites present in LEO.
Quantum Communications and Computing Satellite: With the launch of it first quantum satellite, Micius, in August 2016, the idea of secure method of communication was introduced. Quantum-encrypted communication has a special feature that any attempt to spy the signal transmission would leave an error-like footprint that could be detected by the receiving stations.
Using the satellite, the first quantum-encrypted virtual teleconference was held between Beijing and Vienna in 2017, as an experiment to figure out the flaws in communication during data transfer from satellite to ground stations. China in January 2020 successfully developed world’s first mobile quantum satellite station and it was followed by the launch of first quantum micro-nano satellite, Jinan-1, in July 2022. China’s National Space Science Center is further working to advance in the field of quantum communication to develop medium-high orbit quantum satellites, to build a wide-area quantum communication network.
China has also completed building its own space station, Tiangong, in 2022 and is fully operational. It hosts two crewed space mission every year, Shenzhou-16 sent recently in May 2023, hosting three astronauts including the first civilian, on a five-month mission.
In March 2019, India demonstrated its ASAT capability by destroying its own satellite, referred to as mission Shakti. In spite of doing the ASAT testing, India’s focus is to explore commercial applications of space in order to boost its share in global space economy and improve international standing. The launch of Chandrayaan-3 mission on moon on August 23, 2023 to examine lunar surface is one recent example.
EW/DEW: The Secure World Foundation in its 2023 reports insists that India is in the early phase of working on DEW.
DA-ASAT: India’s indigenous missile defence and long-range ballistic missile programmes may lead to Direct-ascent ASAT (DA-ASAT), the Secure World Foundation report suggests. Defence applications: In October 2022, India’s Prime Minister announced ‘Mission DefSpace’, a space programme to develop innovative solution for country’s defence forces. The mission’s aim is to work on highlighted 75 challenges to India’s space sector and develop military applications, thereby consolidating India’s defence capabilities in space. In this context, India has recently signed the Artemis Accords in June 2023, during Prime Minister’s visit to the US, to expand Indo-US space cooperation. India is also developing its military intelligence satellites, specially focusing on the contested Indo-China border.
With the formation of Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Committee (SUPARCO) on 16 September 1961, Pakistan’s journey of space exploration initiated. The launch of Rehber-1, Rehber-2, made Pakistan the first country in South Asia and third in Asia, to launch such rockets by 1962. The subsequent Hatf missile programme and launch of Badr-1 and Badr-2 which was the first Earth observation satellite of Pakistan, reflects upon the advancements took place by the end of 20th century. With China’s assistance, PakSAT-1R, was launched on 11 August 2011 having 15 years operational life. This satellite provides broadband internet service, TV broadcasting and mobile backhauling to various parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. This laid foundations of further collaboration and in 2018, Pakistan acquired PakSat Multi Satellite (PakSat-MM1) after a deal was signed between Suparco and China Great Wall Industry Cooperation (CGWIC). Launched on 27 February 2018 with 3 years mission life, PakSat MM1 helped in expanding various communication services, most notably, Direct to Home (DTH).
SPACE VISION 2047
Space research has gained momentum in recent years. In 2014, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif approved Pakistan’s national Space Programme 2040, later becoming Space Vision-2047. Its goals include; installation of geostationary orbit communication satellites, low-earth orbit experimental satellites, launch of solid fuel rockets and conducting space research, among others. Several projects related to agriculture, water resource management, disaster management, environmental monitoring and mapping, are initiated under this programme. Moreover, PAKSAT MMI-38 satellite is also expected to be launched by 2024, to mitigate the impacts of climate change and management of water scarcity in Pakistan, which is expected to worsen by 2025.
Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-1) and Pakistan Technology Evaluation Satellite (PakTES-1A), launched on 9 July 2018, are a great addition to help Pakistan in its imagery requirements including agriculture assessment, land mapping and environmental monitoring. Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSC-EOS), a three times stronger optical remote sensing satellite, is also scheduled to launch soon.
Regarding the launch vehicle capability, the testing of Shaheen-3 on 9 March 2015 signifies that although it is a medium-range ballistic missile, the technology may be used by Suparco to develop a Shaheen-3 variant capable to launch a light-weight satellite in future.
Pakistan’s advancement in counter-space capability building is in progress. Although Pakistan has not yet conducted ASAT testing, it has all the means to counterbalance every threat to its national security; Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System of Fatah-1and II is an example. As reflected by Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, Advisor, National Command and Authority (NCA), Pakistan possess full spectrum of nuclear weapons that can cover not only large Indian landmass but also its outlying territories and that there is no place for India’s strategic weapons to hide. These comments indicate that Pakistan has all means to locate and keep check of the regional engagements, especially that of its rival India, and is fully prepared for a counter-massive retaliation, if needed.
The author is Research Officer at Rabita Forum International (RFI).