In an era where space has become a new frontier for global competition, the United States finds itself ready to confront potential conflicts beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Brigadier General Jesse Morehouse of the US Space Command has stated that the United States is prepared for conflicts in outer space, citing the need to counter the threats posed by countries like Russia and China.
Satellites play a crucial role in various aspects of modern life, including banking systems, weather forecasting, and military operations for intelligence gathering, communication, navigation, and guidance. However, the heavy reliance on satellites also means that an attack on a country’s orbital assets can have far-reaching consequences.
Several countries, including China, the US, India, and Russia, have conducted tests of anti-satellite capabilities by destroying their own satellites using ground-based missiles. However, these demonstrations create significant amounts of debris, posing risks to other satellites for many years. Last year, the US unilaterally banned such tests due to the resulting debris clouds.
When Russia destroyed one of its own satellites in 2021, it generated over 1,500 trackable fragments, creating a lingering debris cloud. Brig Gen Jesse Morehouse compared this to detonating a nuclear weapon in one’s own backyard, emphasizing that there are consequences to such actions. Therefore, the US acknowledges the need to develop anti-satellite technologies not to engage in immediate conflict but as a deterrent measure.
Russia and China are actively working on spacecraft capable of anti-satellite operations. For example, theaccused Russia in 2020 of launching a projectile from one of its satellites that trailed a US spy satellite. China, on the other hand, has launched a satellite equipped with a robotic arm capable of grabbing other satellites and has developed a method of placing undetectable explosives in adversary’s satellite thruster nozzles.
Apart from direct destruction, other methods employed to interfere with satellites include jamming satellite broadcasts, using lasers, chemical sprays, or high-power microwaves to damage hardware. Morehouse stated that the US has various capabilities at its disposal and will continue to develop ways to maintain a credible deterrence posture. The aim is to find effective countermeasures without creating debris clouds every time a test is conducted.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine highlighted the importance of resilient satellite networks. Elon Musk’s Starlink constellation satellites, supplied to Ukraine, proved to be highly resilient and difficult to target due to their vast numbers and the lack of a proportional number of anti-satellite missiles. Morehouse noted that while Ukraine lacked its own military space capabilities, it aggressively sought to counter commercial services, indicating that countering satellite communications will become a regular aspect of future warfare.
As space capabilities become more common among militaries, countering satellite communications will be an important aspect of warfare in the future.