Anti-Satellite Weapon Ban Weakens U.S. Deterrence

The previous year saw its fair share of surprises. Perhaps the most jarring of those surprises was China’s successful testing of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that caught U.S. intelligence off-guard.

Hypersonic missiles have the ability to orbit the planet in low-orbit space and maneuver while in flight, making them difficult to track and intercept. The U.S. has responded by awarding a contract for a constellation of satellites that can detect and track hypersonic missiles. Paradoxically, however, this came just months after the U.S. committed to ending tests of anti-satellite weapons, despite China and Russia continuing to test anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons of their own.

Placing restrictions on weapons that could limit China and Russia’s ability to threaten American citizens hinders America’s ability to defend against this new hypersonic threat. Rolling back the commitment to ending anti-satellite weapon testing and developing our own would serve as a strong deterrence to countries that possess the capabilities to strike the homeland and our own satellites.

Satellites make up a crucial, but often overlooked part of the U.S. defense grid. Each satellite under the U.S. Space Force’s Defense Support Program (DSP) flies in a geosynchronous 22,300-mile orbit, allowing them to detect launches and other potential threats on the Earth’s surface. These satellites are the first line of defense in the U.S.’s early warning systems, as they can detect missile launches, space launches, and nuclear detonations, as well as smaller, short-range missile launches. The U.S. Space Force last year assumed control of all of the Department of Defense’s satellite communications functions in order to centralize data collection. These satellites have a key role to play in defending against hypersonic weapons.

Hypersonic missiles come in two forms, hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), which detach from rockets to glide to targets at speeds of at least Mach 5, and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs), which are propelled by Mach 5 engines all the way to the target. At these speeds, officials have six minutes or less to respond to a launch. An HGV also has the ability to maneuver in such a way that its target remains questionable until the last few seconds before it strikes. Without satellites, detecting, tracking, and deterring these missiles would be impossible. Thus, satellite defense is essential for national security. Any country that can disable our satellites can guarantee a successful missile strike.

ASAT weapons are hardly a new technology. The U.S. developed anti-satellite weapons in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. More recently in 2007, China demonstrated its anti-satellite capabilities by launching a ballistic missile and destroying a weather satellite. ASAT weapons can come in kinetic and non-kinetic forms, which means they can either physically destroy a satellite by colliding into them or detonating nearby or simply disable the satellite while leaving it intact. The creation of space debris by the destruction of satellites can damage other satellites, clutter orbit, and pose a threat to manned spacecraft.

Widespread opposition to this cluttering of Earth’s orbit with space debris is the main driving force behind the U.S.’s ban on ASAT weapon tests. Non-kinetic ASAT weapons have an essential role to play in granting the U.S. capabilities to counter attacks on our satellites and serve as a deterrent to countries that would seek to disable satellite systems designed to counter hypersonic missiles. The U.S. possessing a way to disable other satellites will serve as credible deterrence against other countries trying to disable ours.

The U.S. should demonstrate the capability to strike at other nations’ satellites through non-kinetic ASAT weapons. This way, U.S. satellites will have multiple effective deterrents against attempts to muddle our satellite’s ability to monitor, track, and ultimately defeat hypersonic missiles. Lasers, high-powered microwave weapons (HPM), and cyber weapons can all disable a satellite while leaving it intact. Lasers can be used to damage the solar arrays that allow satellites to generate their own power, while HPMs can cause damage to electrical circuits, and cyberattacks can corrupt the satellite’s data or even take control of the satellite itself.

In a scenario where American satellites would play a crucial role in locating, tracking, and relaying information on hypersonic missiles’ positions, threats to those satellites from ASAT weapons on the ground and in space would need to be minimalized. The U.S. has plans to launch 28 satellites in the next three years at different orbits to detect launches, track hypersonic missiles, and calculate potential missile routes. These calculations will be used to launch interceptors whose swift navigation will rely entirely on satellites.

Restricting the U.S.’s ability to defend its own satellites negates any defense against hypersonic missiles. Without satellite data, the U.S. cannot respond to the hypersonic threat because of the small amount of time officials have to determine a course of action. Having anti-satellite capabilities will ensure Russia, China, and other countries that possess hypersonic capabilities cannot target U.S. satellites. Limiting our options merely advertises American vulnerabilities.