Many of these technologies, if deployed, could ratchet up an arms race and even spark a skirmish in space, the SWF and CSIS researchers caution. Blowing up a single satellite scatters debris throughout the atmosphere, said Weeden, co-editor of the SWF report. Such an explosion could hurl projectiles in the paths of other spacecraft and threaten the accessibility of space for everyone.
Read: The growing risk of a war in space
“Those are absolutely the two best reports to be looking at to get a sense of what’s going on in the space community,” said David Burbach, a national security affairs expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who was not involved in the new research.
Today, Burbach added, the world is very different compared with the Cold War era, when access to space was essentially limited to the United States and the Soviet Union. Many more countries now have space programs, including India, Iran, North Korea, France, Japan, and Israel.
Despite this expansion—and the array of new space weapons—relevant policies and regulatory bodies have remained stagnant. “What worries us in the international community is that there aren’t necessarily any guardrails for how people are going to start interfering with others’ space systems,” said Daniel Porras, a space security fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. “There are no rules of engagement.”
The new reports use available evidence and intelligence to explore a range of weapons that various countries’ militaries are developing or testing—or already have operational. (Notably, CSIS’s report doesn’t include the American military.) Each nation has unique abilities and characteristics. For example, India has invested heavily in space infrastructure and capabilities, while Japan’s post–World War II space activities were limited until a recent change to its constitution. For Israel’s space program, Weeden said, little good data is available.
Potential missile attacks on military satellites “tend to get most of the attention, but that is not all that we see happening around the world,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS and a principal author of its report, during an April 6 livestream.
For example, the thousands of everyday satellites that already circle low-Earth orbit, below an altitude of 1,200 miles, could potentially suffer collateral damage. More than half of those satellites are from the U.S.; many of the rest are from China and Russia. They provide key services like internet access, GPS signals, long-distance communications, and weather information. Any missile that smashes into a satellite—either as an attack or during a test—would disperse thousands of bits of debris. Any one of those pieces, still hurtling at orbital speeds, could take out another spacecraft and create yet more debris.