More weapons and ‘unfriendly behaviours’: How the world is preparing for war in space

Floating among the stars are constellations of thousands of satellites that make our world go around.

Global dependence on these systems often goes unnoticed, but any major orbital attack would up-end life as we know it.

And analysts say space systems are under threat like never before.

In recent years, China has shown it has the ability to “grapple” satellites and manoeuvre them into a graveyard

orbit.

There have been several destructive anti-satellite missile tests (ASAT) that have caused dangerous amounts of space debris.

Signal jamming and spoofing attacks on navigational satellites are on the rise, putting civilians at risk. 

And this year, the US claimed Russia was planning to send nuclear weapons into space.

It’s no surprise the increase in “unfriendly behaviour” has led to more countries preparing for future space wars.

So, exactly what’s going on up there? And should we be worried?

What lies above?

Attacks on satellites could take out global positioning satellite system (GPS) signals, power grids, transport and banking systems.

And there could be major impacts on aviation, shipping and conflicts because militaries rely on navigational satellites for command and control, and precision weapons. 

The UK estimated that a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) outage — which includes GPS — would cost the British economy £1.42 billion ($2.7 billion) a day. 

Thousands of icons of satellites and beams around earth.

A visualisation of satellites, instruments, objects and beams in low Earth orbit. (LeoLabs)

About 90 countries operate in space, and investments in space capabilities have been growing. 

The US recently doubled its Space Force budget from $US15.4 billion ($23.4 billion) to $US30.3 billion between 2021 and 2024.

Australia also announced last month that its defence budget would include large investments in space.

The amount of human-made objects in space has also been soaring, with last year setting the record for the most satellite launches. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) database counted 7,560 active satellites in orbit as of May 2023.

  • United States: 5,184 
  • Russia: 181
  • China: 628
  • Other: 1,572

And more than 24,500 satellites are expected to be launched by 2031, of which more than 70 per cent will be commercial.

A Ukrainian serviceman prepares a Starlink satellite internet systems at his positions at a front line.

A Ukrainian soldier prepares a Starlink satellite internet system at his position on the front line.(Reuters: Inna Varenytsia)

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) 2024 Space Threat Assessment Report released last month emphasised the vulnerability of both civilian and commercial space systems.

Although many satellites are built and run by companies instead of governments, they will often support national security.

They can provide Earth observation or navigational data for military intelligence gathering, while also being used by airlines, or agricultural sectors.

Commercial satellites have been heavily relied upon — and targeted — throughout Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

And satellite imagery has played an important role in providing near-real-time data about the situation on the ground in Israel and Gaza during the recent conflict.

“Space is a contested environment and space systems are under threat like never before,” Clayton Swope, deputy director of the CSIS  Aerospace Security Project, said when the report was launched.

“That China and Russia are honing techniques and technologies for attacking space systems should be no surprise.”

Layers of congestion and competition

Satellites sit in different orbits depending on their purpose.

But where they are placed can also be important for their security and survivability.

Graphic showing space orbits and amount of active satellites in each.

Active satellite numbers in different orbits based on Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) data until May 2023. (ABC News: Graphic by Lindsay Dunbar)

Most satellites operate in a low Earth orbit (LEO), which has an altitude ranging from 200km to 1,600km.

But the closer a satellite is to Earth, the more vulnerable it is to attacks.

Their signals are more easily interfered with, and they can be reached by ground-based missiles in a few minutes.

There is also little regulation over congestion and competition, Juliana Suess, research analyst and policy lead for space security at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said.

Apart from slots being allocated in geostationary orbit (GEO), the rest is “up for grabs”.

So there is a lot more debris, risk of collisions and accidental jamming for satellites in LEO to contend with. 

What’s in LEO?

The International Space Station in orbit.

The International Space Station during a fly around in space.(NASA)

Low Earth orbit is home to the International Space Station (ISS), the Hubble Space Telescope, many military observation satellites, and more than 5,000 of Elon Musk’s Starlink internet satellites. 

The SpaceX-run internet service has been labelled a “lifeline” for Ukraine throughout Russia’s full-scale invasion.

SpaceX eventually hopes to have as many as 42,000 satellites in LEO to create a so-called mega-constellation.

China is preparing to launch about 13,000 internet satellites for its own version of Starlink. 

What’s in MEO?

A gold box with solar panels in space above Earth.

GPS satellites sit in MEO.(Supplied: United States Government)

Medium Earth orbit is home to major navigational satellites such as GPS, and Galileo, GLONASS and BeiDou, the European, Russian and Chinese versions of GPS.

The further away from Earth you go, the stronger the transmit power needs to be, so satellites are much bigger and generally more expensive to launch. 

The US Space Force is focusing on MEO as a new location for the military’s missile-detecting infrared sensor satellites.

It reportedly awarded a contract in November last year worth $US509.5 million for the first six satellites to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles. 

What’s in GEO?

Inmarsat  I-4 F1 satellite

The Inmarsat-4 F1 is a communications satellite was launched into GEO in 2005.(Supplied: Inmarsat)

The advantage of placing satellites in geostationary orbit is they stay over one point on the Earth’s surface to provide continuous eyes on a certain point. 

As few as three equally spaced satellites can provide near-global coverage. 

They can monitor ice caps to see if they melting and at what pace, or keep watch over large bodies of water. 

In December 2023, China launched a remote-sensing satellite (Yaogan-41) in GEO, which analysts expect will allow for continuous surveillance of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

How is space being weaponised? 

A growing interest in the space domain has led to the emergence of new weapons systems.

Ms Suess said it would be wrong to think of space as a peaceful domain.

“From the very start, space was used for military purposes,” she said. 

“We’ve definitely seen a sort of renewed focus on it now.”

The latest US Department of Defense assessment said China and Russia in particular posed significant risks to space assets, through means such as cyber warfare, electronic attacks, and ground-to-orbit missiles capable of destroying satellites.

illustration with examples of several types on space-to-space weapons that attack other satellites.

Many different weapons have been developed for space-based attacks.(ABC News: Graphic by Lindsay Dunbar)

Space weapons generally fall into three categories, depending on whether they attack space systems in orbit, attack targets on Earth from space, or disable missiles travelling through space.

But they are often referred to as counterspace capabilities, which are anything that can disrupt, damage, or destroy space systems. 

Mr Swope said counterspace activities were getting harder to detect and were often happening right under our noses.

“Unfriendly behaviours in space, such as unusual manoeuvres by Chinese or Russian military satellites near US or European satellites, happen regularly,” he said. 

“And often, without acknowledgement.”

Orbital ‘grappling’ and ‘kidnapping’ 

China raised questions in 2022 when its Shijian-21 satellite was observed using a robotic arm to essentially pluck a double-decker-bus-sized satellite from its position and move it into “super-graveyard drift orbit”.

When it was launched in GEO, China said Shijian-21’s purpose was to “test and verify space debris mitigation technologies”.

But there were concerns this type of spacecraft could also be used for “orbital grappling”.

A grappler physically handles another spacecraft to do it harm, or attaches itself and manoeuvres it to another location.

The CSIS said this kind of “kidnapping” would not destroy the target satellite, but could effectively disable it without generating any debris.

Even the ability to get that close to another satellite with precision can enable countries to carry out attacks, such as blinding a satellite’s sensors or tampering with its optics.

A wide shot of a rocket blasting off from a launch pad into a clear sky, with flames and clouds of smoke below it

The Optimus satellite by Sydney-based Space Machines Company launches aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in California.(Space Machines Company via AAP)

Analysts have noted that Chinese satellites’ manoeuvres are consistent with the capabilities needed to conduct on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (OSAM) — capabilities that other countries are also pursuing.

In March, Australia’s largest commercial satellite  Optimus — was launched from the United States.

The privately owned satellite is designed to repair and refuel other space infrastructure, but also has the ability to physically move other satellites.

The CSIS report states that Australia has become moreforward-leaning in its space policy and partnerships”.

Australia recently teamed up with the US and UK for the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC), a joint space domain awareness program to provide advanced monitoring of satellites in GEO.

An artist's illustration of a satellite with solar panels on each side flying in orbit over a coastline of a country on Earth.

Space Machine Company says its Optimus satellite is designed to repair and refuel other space infrastructure.(Supplied: Space Machines Company)

Spoofing and jamming 

Given the technology is often low-cost and commercially available, non-kinetic attacks — particularly jamming and spoofing — have been on the rise. 

Non-kinetic activities use radiated energy to destroy, damage or interfere with space systems.

In 2021, US Space Force General David Thompson claimed the country’s satellites were coming under attack “every single day”.

“Both China and Russia are regularly attacking US satellites with non-kinetic means, including lasers, radio frequency jammers, and cyber attacks,” he said.

Illustration showing a transmitter and a truck-mounted jammer sending signals to a satellite.

Jamming is a common form of non-kinetic attack used to interrupt satellite signals. (ABC News: Digital Graphics team)

Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) interference has been observed around the world, often by commercial airline pilots, according to the CSIS report.

In March 2023, Qantas and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations issued warnings about Chinese warships engaged in radio signal and GPS jamming over the South China Sea, Philippine Sea, eastern Indian Ocean, and north-west of Australia.

And in September 2023, a private aircraft crew reported that it almost strayed into Iranian airspace — where Iranian units had reportedly issued threats to shoot down aircraft — due to GPS spoofing.

“Threats that can disrupt our use of space — GPS jamming and spoofing, cyber attacks, and unfriendly behaviours of Russian and Chinese satellites — are becoming more and more common,” Mr Swope said.

“The bottom line is that you do not need to destroy a satellite to deny the use of space.”

Anti-satellite missiles  

Over the years, multiple countries including the US, India, China and Russia have developed and tested anti-satellite (ASAT) missile technology.

The ground-launched missiles collide with targets, or explode next to them, and are designed to destroy critical satellites during wartime.

In 2020, the Pentagon warned that China was amassing an “arsenal” of ASAT weapons.

The US intelligence annual threat assessment report released earlier this year said Russia continued to develop ASAT missiles capable of destroying US and allied satellites in LEO. 

And the Secure World Foundation stated in its 2024 Global Counterspace Capabilities report that China was “likely still in the experimental or development phase” on missiles that could reach deep space.

An image from ISS that shows the earthfrom far above, with on the top half the space station itself

Debris from a Russian anti-satellite missile test in 2021 endangered the International Space Station, causing its crew to take shelter.(Supplied: NASA)

Just testing these missiles poses major threats, as they create huge clouds of space debris and risk missing intended targets.

A Russian test in November 2021 directly threatened the International Space Station, China’s Tiangong space station, and numerous satellites.

It created a cloud of nearly 1,800 pieces of tracked debris which still threaten satellites.

The launch sparked widespread condemnation and led to the US committing to no longer conduct ASAT tests.

Several other countries have followed suit and there have been growing calls for a ban on tests, which Australia has backed.

But, analysts say the proposed ban is only a unilateral moratorium and not an international treaty.

Damage to the orbiting lab's robotic arm, dubbed Canadarm2.

The damage caused by a piece of space junk hitting the International Space Station’s robotic arm.(Supplied: Canadian Space Agency)

‘So many concerns, so few solutions’

With the threat of space war already here, analysts say new laws and updated treaties are long overdue.

But attempts to regulate the militarisation of space have continued to fall short.

“So many concerns, so few solutions,” Ms Suess said.

Last month, Russia vetoed a UN resolution sponsored by the US and Japan that called on countries to prevent an arms race in space.

The vote came after Washington accused Moscow of developing an anti-satellite nuclear weapon to put in space — an allegation that Russia has denied.

The UN text would have affirmed an obligation to comply with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bars the use of nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction in space.

The Space Treaty emphasises you cannot use space to start a war, but the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation has warned the current lack of general space norms and governing regimes incentivises actors to “probe the limits of acceptable behaviour”.

There are also no global treaties banning cyber attacks on satellites and other space systems.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric around space conflict has been intensifying. 

Last year, a top US official made it clear the country was “ready to fight tonight in space if we had to”, saying China and Russia gave the US “no choice” but to prepare for orbital skirmishes.

Ms Suess said the decades-long deadlock painted a “dire” picture, and she did not believe progress would be made anytime soon.

But there is hope the risk of debris hitting anyone’s space systems will be enough to keep the domain under control. 

“Our saving grace is that there’s a mutual dependence on space,” she said.

“There’s an interest from everyone to sustain the environment.”

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Annika Burgess