The ongoing militarisation of space

Stephen Fallon, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

Key issue

When Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced the establishment of Australia’s Defence Space Command in January 2022, not all commentators took it seriously. However, space is recognised as a warfighting domain. Australia’s decision to establish the Defence Space Command, which was officially stood-up in March 2022, follows the founding of similar organisations in the US, UK, Russia and China.

Space has been a contested domain since the former Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957. However, the crucial role of military enabling satellites providing surveillance, navigation and communication capabilities, and the deployment of offensive and defensive space systems, has the potential to escalate conflict in the space domain with potentially ruinous consequences.

Space as a military domain

The use of space for military purposes is not a new phenomenon. The US Air Force launched the first communications satellite in 1958 (p. 1), which President Eisenhower used to present a Christmas message of good will and peace to the world. Satellite technology swiftly advanced, with the Corona photo-reconnaissance program providing imagery intelligence from 1960 to 1972. Today the world uses global navigation systems, such as GPS, for military and civilian activities.

Modern military operations, which involve a coordinated use of multi-domain capabilities, rely on the use of space-based technology. Satellites, for example, provide communications and intelligence capabilities integral to the ability of militaries to find, fix, track, target, engage and assess. In recent wars against insurgents and Islamist terrorists in the Middle East, allied forces have enjoyed complete dominance in the space domain, affording them a significant edge.

The elevation of space as a military domain was recently acknowledged by the Morrison Government in opening the Australian Defence Space Command in March 2022. The then Defence Minister Peter Dutton portrayed the new command as responding to aggressive steps taken by countries such as China and Russia. He argued that greater Australian space capabilities would improve the country’s self-reliance and make it a better ally.

The then Shadow Defence Minister, Brendan O’Connor, welcomed the establishment of the Defence Space Command, noting that the ‘increase in hypersonic missile activity, grey zone activities and targeting of satellites and space systems and networks has hastened the need for capabilities in this area’ and that investing in this area will support Australia’s defence relationships with allies and partners.

As both politicians suggested, as great-power competition increases, the probability of fighting a peer or near-peer adversary grows and the threat posed by potential adversaries to Western space-based capabilities is a growing concern. Countries recognise that militaries depend on the use of space capabilities to collect and disseminate information rapidly. They are therefore developing, testing and deploying counterspace capabilities designed to constrain each other’s freedom of manoeuvre in space in a conflict.

This not only threatens the West’s ability to prevail in conflict, but also threatens the modern way of life, which depends on the use of satellites for a variety of everyday, non-military tasks.

Counterspace capabilities

Counterspace capabilities take a variety of forms. Kinetic weapons are designed to physically damage or destroy a space capability, while non-kinetic counterspace systems attempt to affect satellites or ground systems without making physical contact. The Center for Strategic & International Studies’ (CSIS) 2022 Space threat assessment provides a useful summary of these capabilities (pp. 3–5):

  • Kinetic physical counterspace weapons attempt to strike directly or detonate close to a satellite or ground station. They come in three main forms: (1) Direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, which are launched from earth to strike a satellite in orbit. (2) Co-orbital ASAT weapons are placed in orbit then manoeuvred to their target when required. (3) Ground station attacks are targeted against Earth-based sites controlling satellites or the communication of satellite data to users.
  • Non-kinetic physical counterspace weapons target satellite or ground systems without physically touching them. For example, lasers can be used to temporarily or permanently blind sensors on satellites or cause them to overheat. High-powered microwave (HPM) weapons can disrupt satellite electronics or cause permanent damage to circuits and processors, while a nuclear detonation in space can cause an electromagnetic pulse that would affect satellites. Lasers and HPM weapons can be operated from a variety of platforms, including land, sea, air and space-based platforms. It is worth noting here that the Outer Space Treaty Article IV prohibits the use of nuclear weapons in space.
  • Electronic counterspace weapons target the electromagnetic spectrum that space systems use to transmit and receive data. ‘Uplink jammers’ interfere with signals travelling from Earth to a satellite, such as signals that control the satellite, while ‘downlink jammers’ jam the signal from the satellite to Earth-based users. A ‘spoofer’ can be used to introduce false information into data streams or even issue false commands to a satellite. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a UK defence think-tank, observes that jamming is generally neither difficult nor costly.
  • Cyberoperations against satellites can monitor data traffic patterns, intercept data, or insert false or corrupted data. Such operations can target a number of nodes in the system: satellites, ground stations or end-user equipment.

Writing from an American perspective, the 2020 US Defense space strategy warned:

China and Russia present the greatest strategic threat due to their development, testing, and deployment of counterspace capabilities and their associated military doctrine for employment in conflict extending to space. China and Russia each have weaponized space as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space (p. 1).

The US Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2022 unclassified report on challenges to security in space assessed that China and Russia grew their in-orbit assets by approximately 70% (combined) between 2019 and 2021. The CSIS report also corroborates these assessments, describing China and Russia as among the most sophisticated actors in space operations, while India, which aspires to great-power status, is also making significant strides towards becoming a space power. However, the US is still considered to be the pre-eminent space power. Competition between these powers is driving the development of capabilities that create the potential for miscalculation and destructive military operations that threaten the ability of all nations to access space, as discussed later in this paper.

United States

In its 2022 global counterspace capabilities study, the Secure World Foundation judged that the US ‘currently has the most advanced military space capabilities in the world’ (p. 01-01). According to the foundation:

… the United States fields one acknowledged counterspace system that uses electronic warfare capabilities to interfere with satellite signals, but it also has multiple other operational systems that could be used in counterspace roles. There is evidence to suggest a robust debate is underway, largely behind closed doors, on whether the United States should develop new counterspace capabilities, both to counter or deter an adversary from attacking U.S. assets in space and to deny an adversary their own space capabilities in the event of a future conflict. The impetus for this debate is renewed Russian and Chinese counterspace development and the recent conclusion that the United States is engaged in great power competition with Russia and China [p. 01-01].

Among these systems that could be used in a counterspace role, according to the foundation, are technologies to approach and rendezvous with spacecraft, which would allow the US to develop a co-orbital capability quickly if it chose to do so (p. 01-01). While the US has not acknowledged a direct-ascent ASAT capability, it does have missile capabilities that have been demonstrated in an ASAT role (p. 01-10).

The US also has non-kinetic options in the form of electronic warfare systems:

… the Counter Communications System (CCS), which can be deployed globally to provide uplink jamming capability against geostationary communications satellites. It is working on Meadowlands, an updated version of the CCS system, which is intended to be used in an offensive capacity against satellite communications [p. 01-17].

The US has also conducted extensive research on the use of ground-based high-energy lasers for counterspace purposes and it possesses low-power laser systems that can dazzle and possibly blind imaging satellites. However, there is no evidence, according to the foundation, that the US has a space-based directed energy weapon (DEW), or laser, capability (p. 01-21).

In terms of US cyber capabilities, the International Institute for Strategic Studies has identified the US as a tier 1 cyber power with a capacity for ‘offensive cyber operations [that] is probably more developed than that of any other country’, suggesting that the US is probably at least as capable as any other nation of using cyberoperations in a counterspace role.


CSIS assesses that China has a ‘robust arsenal of space and counterspace capabilities’ (p. 10). Perhaps most notably, this was demonstrated in 2007 when China used a direct-ascent ASAT weapon to destroy one of its own satellites, creating a dangerous debris field. Furthermore, China has demonstrated the ability to rendezvous with other satellites in orbit, which, while not an official counterspace weapon demonstration, nevertheless proves that China has the experience and knowledge required to operate co-orbital counterspace weapons (p. 10).

CSIS also observes that China has a growing list of jamming and spoofing capabilities that can be used against space and non-space signals. On cyber, it acknowledges that little is known about China’s counterspace cyber capabilities; however, pointing to its cyber capabilities in other domains, it assesses that China has a useful foundation that could be directed towards counterspace operations (p. 10).

The Secure World Foundation’s 2022 Global counterspace capabilities report agrees with CSIS’s conclusions, noting that there ‘is strong evidence indicating that China has a sustained effort to develop a broad range of counterspace capabilities’ (p. xvii), including ASAT weapons and electronic warfare counterspace capabilities targeting navigations systems, such as GPS, and satellite communications. It also concludes that China is likely building directed energy weapons (DEW) for counterspace purposes. DEW capabilities have been pursued by China since the 1960s, though evidence about Chinese capability in this field is scarce. However, the report observes that a December 2013 article in a Chinese scientific journal stated that a successful laser blinding test had been carried out in 2005 against a satellite at an altitude of 600 km (p. 03-18).


Russia has a comprehensive suite of counterspace weapons, according to CSIS (p. 13). It conducted an ASAT test on 15 November 2021, destroying one of its own satellites. This test was criticised because it created a significant field of debris and endangered the crew on the International Space Station. Russia also recently demonstrated its ability to jam satellite communications and GPS signals in conflict areas. RUSI highlighted, for example, that satellite communications providers are experiencing offensive cyberoperations and GPS signals above Ukraine have been jammed. The US has blamed Russia for the latter issue, while the former is likely also, at least partly, due to Russian action – as RUSI highlights, Russian military doctrine prioritises ‘information dominance’.

Of note, CSIS reports that a recent focus of Russia’s efforts appears to be the collection of intelligence via satellites designed to capture communications and detect ground-based objects (p. 13). It does not appear to regularly use cyber means to target space systems, though CSIS highlights that Russia is capable of doing so (p. 13).

The Secure World Foundation supports the CSIS analysis. It also expands on it, observing that a resurgence in Russian rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) – basically, positioning one space object close to another – is raising concerns that Russia is developing new co-orbital anti-satellite capabilities. It appears to be putting craft into orbit that are capable of manoeuvring to approach other objects in space. In one instance, for example, a Russian payload, identified as Cosmos 2504, positioned itself to move within 2 km of a piece of Chinese space debris created by China’s 2007 ASAT test in what the Secure World Foundation speculates was a mission that may have been seeking intelligence on the Chinese direct-ascent ASAT program (p. 02-07).


While it lags behind the US, China and Russia as a spacefaring nation, India is seeking to progress in this domain, driven by a combination of a desire to build India’s prestige, capture business opportunities and advance its national security (pp. 7–10). In the security sphere, it has been investing heavily in military intelligence satellites and focusing on its contested border with China (p. 15).

India tested its ASAT capability in 2019, destroying an Indian satellite. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, India took steps to limit the orbital life of the debris created by the test, which was aimed at deterring China. From a counterspace perspective, CSIS assesses that although it has demonstrated its direct-ascent ASAT capability, there is no public evidence that confirms India possesses non-kinetic counterspace capabilities – it is unclear whether India used electronic warfare and cyberoperations to target space systems (p. 15).

Australia in the space domain

The establishment of the Defence Space Command brings together members of Air Force, Army, Navy and the Australian Public Service under an integrated headquarters reporting to the Chief of Air Force. It aims to drive space priorities in Australia and with allies and partners, create a cohort of trained specialists and conduct strategic planning.

While Australia is in the early stages of developing sovereign space capabilities, it is able to leverage its alliance with the US to obtain significant benefits, including, for example, intelligence derived from US space capabilities. Australia is also collaborating with the US on its Space Surveillance Telescope, operated by the US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and located in Western Australia, which will improve space domain awareness available to Australia, the US, and allies.

Australia’s Defence space strategy acknowledges that Defence has limited sovereign space capabilities, forcing it to rely on the US, other international partners and commercial entities. As a consequence, Australia is investing significant sums to improve its self-reliance. The strategy highlights that the 2020 Defence strategic update includes ‘over AUD $17 billion investment in space capabilities to 2036’ aimed at delivering ‘a mix of sovereign and collaborative systems to Defence including Positioning, Navigation and Timing, Satellite Communications, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and Space Domain Awareness’ (p. 13). In particular, the strategy notes the importance of ‘resilience, survivability and the ability to continue operating under gradual degradation of national and allied space capabilities’ (p. 13).

The Defence strategic update also emphasises the importance of investing in space situational awareness, including sensors and tracking systems and states that Defence will continue to work with government agencies and industry to advance its space capabilities (p. 39).

Elements of the strategy appear to be in train. For example, a February 2022 media report observed that the Morrison Government had issued a tender for a contract to deliver at least 2 and as many as 4 military communication satellites worth $4 billion. The project scope includes ground stations, launch and life-cycle costs. As the report notes, perhaps the biggest challenge will not be procuring the equipment, but staffing it: building a cohort with the appropriate skills to fully exploit the satellite constellation will be a challenge.

Furthermore, according to Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts, Commander of Defence Space Command, Defence is currently developing kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities to deal with adversary satellites without creating risk debris fields. The Morrison Government was also investing in developing Australian-made satellites and was promoting cooperation between Australia’s space industry and India.

On the need for resilience, survivability and the ability to continue combat operations as space capabilities are degraded, Malcolm Davis, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has argued that Defence should aim for a ‘high-low mix’, buying sophisticated satellites from allies and complementing them with ‘small, many and cheap’ satellites, some of which are available from Australian manufacturers. Ideally, Davis points out, Australia requires a sovereign launch capability that can quickly reconstitute satellite capabilities lost to enemy action, providing a resilient, survivable constellation.

Risks presented by the militarisation of space

As noted above, contemporary warfare depends upon the use of space. This offers enormous advantages, facilitating high-speed, time-sensitive military operations. However, it creates an environment in which escalation is a significant risk.

For example, in a crisis between 2 great powers, both of which rely on space capabilities to facilitate military operations, both sides will possibly be motivated to attack their opponent’s space assets first. As US Space Force deputy chief of operations Lt Gen. B Chance Saltzman has stated, ‘We are seeing a shift to where the first strike advantages are encountered in space … They’re the first mover advantage, whoever can go first on the offense has an advantage’. An awareness of the advantage offered to whoever strikes first will possibly create ‘use it or lose it’ scenarios (p. 46), raising the risk of tension escalating into conflict.

The ability to attack satellites without killing adversary personnel may also lead to miscalculations that make conflict more likely. For example, a belligerent might calculate that an attack on its adversary’s satellites, which kills no one, is less likely to prompt retaliation than an attack on a satellite ground station operated by personnel. Similarly, the use of ‘soft-kill’ techniques, such as using a laser to dazzle a satellite, might be considered by an attacker to be less escalatory than destroying a satellite. However, the target of such attacks may not appreciate the distinction and retaliate.

Perhaps of greatest concern is that nuclear powers typically rely on satellites for ‘early warning of missile launches, communications, geopositioning, navigation, and timing and synchronization of NC3 [nuclear command, control, and communication] systems and networks’. Such satellites also commonly serve tactical and strategic, nuclear and conventional roles. If such satellites are targeted, even in a non-nuclear confrontation, there is a risk that their user will believe that the enemy is attempting to ‘blind’ them as a precursor to a nuclear strike.

This would create another ‘use it or lose it’ scenario: would the targeted country wait and risk losing more control over its nuclear forces, or would it feel compelled to escalate to the nuclear level before its ability to do so, and to detect its opponent doing so, deteriorated further as a result of possible future attacks? As the academic Sitki Egeli observes, there would be a risk that ‘impending decisions will be made on the basis of insufficient and potentially erroneous information, and the climate will be ripe for unfounded presumptions and predispositions’. According to Egeli, the US has already threatened to use nuclear weapons if its NC3 comes under attack with non-nuclear weapons.

Finally, kinetic attacks on satellites risk creating extremely dangerous debris fields. CSIS has highlighted the consequences:

Russia’s latest direct-ascent anti-satellite missile test unleashed a debris field of approximately 1,500 trackable pieces when it destroyed Cosmos-1408, a defunct Soviet satellite. NASA reported that the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station took emergency measures as the station passed “through or near the cloud every 90 minutes” for several hours. From this event alone, the risk of contributing to a Kessler Syndrome event increased by five percent according to France. This is alarming for all states, explains former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, because “even a fleck of paint can cause critical damage to infrastructure in space” assuming it’s traveling at an average of 10 km per second.

According to the U.S. nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, orbital debris in LEO—orbits with an altitude of 2,000 kilometers or less—can travel “30 times faster than a commercial jet aircraft. At these speeds, pieces of debris larger than 1 cm (half an inch) can severely damage or destroy a satellite, and it is not possible to shield effectively against debris of this size.”

The Kessler Syndrome, named after former NASA scientist Donald Kessler, describes a scenario in which a cascade of orbital debris could potentially hinder humanity’s space ambitions and activities. Academic Wendy N Whitman Cobb explains, the environmental consequences of space warfare, highlighting that ‘Debris-creating conflicts in space would likely lead to the environmental degradation of the near-earth environment, potentially restricting use of some orbits if not making them completely unusable’. Given that so much of modern life depends on the use of space, this alone is cause for concern.

Space is contested, but it is also increasingly congested, which adds to the risk of an extremely damaging Kessler Syndrome event. According to The Conversation, there were 7,941 satellites orbiting Earth as of 16 September 2021. This number is rapidly growing, with 1,400 new satellites launched between 1 January and 16 September 2021.

This is largely a result of the ‘democratisation of space’. Access to space is no longer restricted to the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries. Instead, ‘[l]arge space agencies, multimillion dollar budgets, and big satellite missions have given way to private companies, universities, and research centers, smaller budgets, and small satellites’. This has broadened access to space-based capabilities. As an illustration, open-source researchers are now able to obtain access to commercial satellite imagery, which they have used to identify military developments. This has led CSIS to conclude that the democratisation of space ‘and commercialization of satellite images are quickly becoming creative tools to affect foreign policy in ways that, just a few decades ago, were next to impossible’.

Australian firms are exploiting these reduced barriers to space. For example, Skycraft, a Canberra-based firm, designs, builds and operates satellite constellations, while companies such as Southern Launch, based in South Australia, offers launch services to put payloads into space. This burgeoning industry offers the prospect of Australia building a degree of sovereign space capability.

Further reading

Department of Defence (Defence), Australia’s Defence Space Strategy, (Canberra: Defence, 2022).

Todd Harrison et al., Space Threat Assessment 2022, (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, April 2022).

Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson (eds), Global Counterspace Capabilities, (Washington, DC: Secure World Foundation, 2022).

Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Challenges to Security in Space, (DIA, 2022).


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