Aug 4, 2020 - Science

The U.S. is at risk of attacks in space

Illustration of a satellite in outer space made up of U.S. flag stars.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Other nations are catching up to U.S. capabilities in space, potentially putting American assets in orbit at risk.

Why it matters: From GPS to imagery satellites and others that can peer through clouds, space data is integral to American national security.

  • Those same assets make for appealing targets by bad actors, and experts are concerned weapons testing in orbit could lead to U.S. satellites being attacked in the future.
  • "As the number of spacefaring nations grows and as some actors integrate space and counterspace capabilities into military operations, these trends will pose a challenge to U.S. space dominance and present new risks for assets on orbit," the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency wrote in a 2019 report.

Driving the news: Russia reportedly conducted two anti-satellite tests this year, including one last month, without destroying actual satellites.

  • India tested its own anti-satellite weapon last year, which did create a cloud of debris.
  • These tests and others — including GPS jamming — have become more regular as nations around the world rely more on space for war-fighting.
"We often talk about how the first space war was the first Gulf War, because that was a time that the United States was really able to employ space architecture to support military actions on Earth. It was pretty eye-opening for a lot of nations because after that you've seen slowly nations around the world investing more heavily in space."
— Kaitlyn Johnson, Center for Strategic and International Studies

The state of play: The U.S. is, in part, vulnerable to space-based attacks because it operates a small number of extremely expensive spy satellites that can see the Earth in exquisite detail.

  • While the U.S. has found new ways of protecting its satellites throughout the years, experts say the structure of the fleet has remained largely the same.
  • "The architecture hasn't really been forced to innovate or grow because nobody else could do what we could do and nobody else could really challenge what we could do — that's fundamentally changing," Joshua Huminski, National Security Space Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress director, told me.
    • "There have been these inbuilt vulnerabilities because we've been so far ahead of everyone else."
  • The established arrangement of expensive spy satellites is known to other nations, making them potential targets for those countries as they build up their own space defense strategies.

The big picture: Norms of behavior have largely prevented nations from using destructive weapons against one another in space.

  • But as anti-satellite and other counter-space threats become more common, experts say the U.S. needs to work to foster international partnerships that will help prevent destructive tests and attacks in the future.
  • "[W]ith these kinds of rules of the road, you can better distinguish between a good action in space ... versus something that is either sneaky or, trying to be hidden or could lead to a counter-space action," Johnson said.

What's next: The U.S. government has taken notice of technological advances by commercial companies that could aid in national security.

  • One possibility is that the Defense Department may host their own payloads on private spacecraft in order to distribute instruments more widely, making them harder to target.
  • And the U.S. is buying imagery from private companies like Planet and Maxar, which helps diversify its data sources and move away from being solely reliant on expensive, government satellites.

What to watch: The newly established Space Force branch of the military is tasked with helping to shore up national security interests in space, but experts aren't yet sure how it will accomplish that broad mandate.

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