Antisatellite (ASAT) Weapons Redux

China’s new DN-3 satellite killer missile

Russian aerospace forces conducted test earlier this month, December 2016, of a new anti-satellite weapon system. Once it works, the weapon would be capable of targeting American military satellites, disrupting the Pentagon’s satellites for navigation and communications.

The test, conducted on December 16, was the fifth test of the PL-19 Nudol, according to the Washington Free Beacon. The test did not involve an intercept and may have just been to test the capabilities of the lofting rocket instead.

Moscow claims the Nudol is an anti-missile system that engages enemy warheads in the so-called “midcourse phase” after separating from the missile booster needed to reach low-earth orbit. Of course, that’s also where satellites are.

An anti-missile system, like the one in the image up above, can be used to target satellites with relative ease. In 2008 , the USA-193, a malfunctioning American spy satellite, was shot down from a decaying low-earth orbit by a SM-3 missile launched by the USS Lake Erie. Like Russia’s Nudol, the SM-3 is also a “midcourse phase” interceptor missile. 

ASAT weapons are generally designed to destroy or disable satellites of hostile powers. The initial objective of U.S. ASAT weapons was to counter orbiting nuclear weapons, which was a threat that failed to materialize. Initial problems with planned early ASAT weapons were that since they were nuclear-armed they would likely damage U.S. satellites as well as their intended Soviet targets. Limitations on early ASAT guidance systems made it possible to place such weapons only within a few miles of their target. An additional complication from this inaccurate ASAT targeting and dependence on nuclear armament was the widespread impact of electromagnetic pulse from the detonation of these weapons. An upper atmospheric ASAT test in 1962 activated burglar alarms and darkened streetlights in Hawaii several hundred miles from the test site while also disabling several U.S. satellites in the area.

A number of ASAT weapon systems were tested by various branches of the U.S. military during the 1950s and 1960s. Beginning in 1959, the Air Force’s Bold Orion program launched rockets from a B-47 bomber as part of an ASAT program. During 1962, the Navy conducted two Hi-Ho ASAT weapons tests from an F-4 jet fighter. The Army’s Nike-Zeus program during this period initially began as an ABM system but evolved into more of an ASAT system because of its ineffectiveness as an ABM. The United States’ first ASAT intercept occurred on May 23, 1963 from Kwajalein Island in the Pacific Ocean. The Air Force tested and deployed several THOR rockets for ASAT tests, and these became operational on Johnston Island in the Pacific in 1964 and had greater range than Nike-Zeus. These tests occurred at least 16 times between 1964-1970 before the system was retired in 1976.

The Air-Launched Miniature Vehicle (ALMV) was the principal U.S. ASAT program during the early 1980s. ALMV was launched from an F-15 fighter by a small two-stage rocket and carried a heat-seeking miniature homing vehicle that would destroy its target by direct impact at high speed. An advantage of this system was its enabling the F-15 to bring the ALMV under its targets ground track, as opposed to a ground-based ASAT, which must wait for a target satellite to overfly its launch site. An operational force of over 100 interceptors was originally planned for the ALMV program but cost overruns by 1986 had seen the program’s estimated cost skyrocket from $500 million to $5.3 billion. The Air Force scaled the program back by two-thirds in 1987, and it was cancelled by the Reagan administration in 1988 after encountering continuing cost overruns, testing delays, and homing guidance system problems.

In February 1989, the Kinetic Energy Anti-Satellite Joint Program Office was established and the Army was given leadership of this program in December 1989. The purpose of this program was developing a ground-based interceptor capable of destroying satellites by homing in and colliding with them. This interceptor would reach satellites in low earth orbit at ranges of up to several thousand kilometers. Upon reaching the target, the interceptor would extend a sheet of Mylar plastic, called a “kill enhancement device,” that would strike the target and neutralize it without destroying the satellite.

In August 1992 a Kinetic Energy integrated technology experiment demonstrated the ability to intercept reentry vehicles in the atmosphere using a homing seeker and nonnuclear warhead, and in August 1997 a successful hover test of a prototype kinetic energy ASAT kill vehicle occurred.

Air Force officials have expressed concern that the kinetic energy ASAT could create debris and endanger other U.S. space assets. DOD has not requested funding for this program for several years, but Congress added money for this program into the defense budget for fiscal years 1996-1998, 2000-2001, and 2004.

There has been renewed congressional interest in ASAT weapons since the 104th Congress (1995-1996), and some funding for such programs has occurred even though there are variant viewpoints within DOD and individual armed services on the suitability of these programs for U. S. national security interests. A May 18, 2005 New York Times article asserted that a forthcoming national space policy being developed by the Bush administration was bringing the United States closer to deploying offensive and defensive space weapons. A legislative amendment introduced by Representative Dennis Kucinich (Democrat from Ohio) to ban the use of weapons to damage or destroy objects in orbit was rejected by the House by a vote of 302-124 on July 20, 2005.

Despite supporting some ASAT programs, Congress has been skeptical about the ability of the Air Force to manage the costs and goal schedules of these programs and expressed concern about relationships between classified and unclassified space activities and about defense space acquisition programs.

U.S. ASAT research programs are likely to continue but with acute skepticism about their viability and costs, Congress is likely to keep a tight rein on their funding.

While several countries are known to be making investments in the development of space weaponry, Chinese activities up to 2016, have engendered a particular concern among Pentagon leaders, analysts and threat assessment professionals.

The Chinese fired a land-based kinetic energy SC-19 missile at a satellite in space several years ago, an action which inspired worldwide attention and condemnation.

Pentagon officials say the Chinese program is very advanced.

“As long ago as 2007, they launched an ASAT (anti-satellite) test of a low-altitude interceptor. They struck and destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite and created tens of thousands of pieces of debris,” Winston Beauchamp, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space explained. “Much of that debris is still in orbit today and it continues to imperil the U.S. and other countries orbiting space.”

In response, the U.S. Joint Space Operations center has issued a warning to other countries which operate satellites to steer clear potentially damaging space debris.

Identifying the Chinese test-firing as “not a type of activity that we would deem to be responsible behavior,” Beauchamp explained that the Chinese have continued to conduct live-fire tests of ASAT weapons while avoiding repeated attacks on actual satellites.

The U.S. operates Advanced Extremely High Frequency, of AEHF, communication satellites which have replaced the older Milstar systems; they operate at 44 GHz uplink and 20 GHz downlink.

Space Defense Mission:

Although many of the details pertaining the U.S. space defenses and countermeasures are secret, there are some discussable elements of the Air Force effort to foster more “resilient” space assets.

Disaggregation and Diversity are among the most heavily focused-upon techniques which seek to deploy multiple satellites carrying both conventional and nuclear systems; Diversity tactics are aimed at using multiple satellites to achieve the same goal.

“The satellite architecture is not as vulnerable as many have maintained,” an Air Force official familiar with the plan told Defense Systems.

This included fielding “U.S. equipment that can use both GPS and Europe’s Galileo navigation system,” Air Force officials said.  Naturally, this technique would allow U.S. forces to use allied assets if U.S. satellites were disrupted or destroyed by enemy attack.

A Distribution strategy designed to spread satellites apart which perform certain key functions to preserve a needed technology should some assets be destroyed. Deception tactics are used so that potential adversaries are not aware of which satellites perform certain functions.

“There is no one node that is invulnerable to attack,” a senior Air Force official said.

Some satellites are purely “SATCOM,” whereas others are GPS oriented or geared toward what Air Force professionals describe as “Space-Based Infrared” or SBIR assets. SBIR assets are engineered to detect the large thermal signal from an enemy intercontinental ballistic missile launch to better enable missile-defense technology to intercept an approaching attack.

Proliferation and Protection are also part of the strategic initiative; this involves deploying multiple satellites to perform the same mission and taking specific technical steps to “harden” satellites against attacks. While many of the specifics of these techniques are secret, officials do acknowledge they are likely to contain various countermeasures, investments in remote sensing technologies and maneuverability tactics.

Hardening satellites will involve developing methods of allowing them to operate in an environment where there might be electronic warfare attacks. Hardening satellites will involve developing methods that will allow them to operate in an environment where there might be electronic warfare attacks.

Overall, the Air Force and Defense Department have stepped up space development and collaboration designed to properly respond to what experts cite as a commercial “renaissance” in space research, development and technological advances.


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