Proliferate, Don’t Obliterate: How Responsive Launch Marginalizes Anti-Satellite Capabilities
Concern over the Kessler syndrome — in which destroying satellites creates an impenetrable field of debris that blocks all access to space — has generated considerable public opposition to anti-satellite weapons. Nevertheless, a number of countries, the People’s Republic of China foremost among them, continue to actively research, develop, and test both kinetic and nonkinetic anti-satellite capabilities. This has led to something of a miniature arms race, with geopolitical rivals rushing to field offensive anti-satellite capabilities alongside the defensive measures to counter them. The conventional wisdom appears to be that anti-satellite weapons represent a singular danger, as existing legal frameworks struggle to check this arms race.
But perhaps this is too pessimistic. There is good reason to believe that anti-satellite weapons will become increasingly marginal. The ongoing evolution and expansion of responsive launch systems will drastically shorten the timeline for replacing disabled satellites. This, in turn, reduces the impact of successful anti-satellite strikes.
Cold War Drivers of Anti-Satellite Investment
The Cold War saw a rapid development of space-based surveillance capabilities that provided ample and timely intelligence about international affairs at low cost. The relative intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities — euphemistically described as “national technical means” — of each side were viewed as a threat in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Spy satellite programs such as CORONA enabled the United States to accurately assess that it was drastically overestimating the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers the Soviets possessed. In a new world where spy satellites destabilized the game of deception, a solution was needed to help maintain secrets. Both nations subsequently developed functional anti-satellite capabilities to counter advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance functions and as a show of strength in the increasingly “securitized” domain of space.
Both the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations had a balanced set of voices advocating for and against anti-satellite capabilities. The proliferation of weapons in space was widely seen as an undesirable outcome by the United States, but some voices maintained that superiority in space was necessary to counter Soviet aggression, even if it cost the neutrality of the space domain. Presidential preferences were split — Carter preferring anti-satellite limitations and Reagan pushing for increased space offense. The United States was already a party to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, also signed by the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, which attempted to limit the militarization of space. All parties committed not to station weapons in orbit or send weapons of mass destruction into space, while also maintaining open and cooperative scientific exploration. Crucially, the Outer Space Treaty did not place a ban on anti-satellite weapons or any military activities in Earth’s orbit. The steady pace of U.S. and Soviet anti-satellite tests continued unabated, a development that Russia continues today.
The Strategic Logic Behind Anti-Satellite Strikes
In the past, even relatively simple imaging and surveillance satellite launches required years of intense planning and careful manufacturing. During the Cold War, the United States conceived the idea of space-based surveillance in the 1950s with the CORONA program and actualized it with the launch of Keyhole-1 in 1959. Likewise, the Soviets envisioned photoreconnaissance from space in 1956 as an extension of the Sputnik program and successfully realized it in 1962 with the Zenit-2. The specialized expertise required was largely limited to select government agencies such as the United States’ National Reconnaissance Office or the Main Intelligence Directorate’s Cosmic Intelligence Directorate. In the United States and the United Kingdom, supply chains were consolidated to a mere handful of approved aerospace contractors. Operators had to undergo extensive training to properly maintain orbital dynamics and communications links. Unsurprisingly, higher demand coupled with artificial supply scarcity in a regulatory environment led to increased costs and profit margins for the few providers of aerospace capabilities. The consolidation of the market resulted in a lack of flexibility, limitations in the research and development of new aerospace technologies, and a lowered industrial resilience to respond to emerging threats.
Fielding orbital capabilities represented an investment of millions of dollars in research, development, manufacturing, support, and logistics. Once on station, satellites incurred millions of dollars more per year in sustainment, maintenance, and operating expenses. Anti-satellite weapons offered the ability to negate these monumental resource investments in an instant. Replacing lost capabilities would require months to years of planning, manufacturing, and launch preparations — a timeline that is operationally devastating during war or a crisis. Reconstituted assets also needed to contend with debris clouds from destroyed predecessors. Orbital planes and altitudes are classified into a few buckets, such as low Earth orbit, medium Earth orbit, and geostationary, with some orbital planes and points difficult to get to and some of much more value than others.
This gave states ample incentive to use anti-satellite capabilities during a crisis. Many wartime capabilities are dependent on orbiting systems functioning properly. Understanding when and where missiles are launched during a kinetic war in a timely fashion is critical for both defensive and second-strike strategies. Currently, a multitude of satellites provide missile tracking and early warning capabilities, in which countries including the United States continue to invest heavily. Anti-satellite weapons serve as an effective counter to such systems. In a world where satellites lack defenses, investing in offensive strike capabilities makes a great deal of sense.
The Promise of Responsive Launch
Responsive launch refers to the ability to deliver payloads to space rapidly and on demand with minimal advance notice or lead time. Compared to the multiyear timelines that have been the norm for the past few decades, the emergence of responsive launch has become a watershed moment for access to space.
Consider the ongoing Artemis mission as an illustrative example. An international partnership across civilian space agencies to cooperatively develop payloads and launch platforms was first announced in 2017. Relying on the widely criticized Space Launch System booster, Artemis I faced about four months of delay before launching in 2022, half a decade after initial approval. In contrast, companies such as SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Blue Origin, and others have developed launch vehicles and infrastructure that allow payloads to be contracted and deployed on the order of months rather than years. Organizations such as the United States Space Force and the Defense Innovation Unit are investing in tactical response launch systems that can bring a satellite to orbit in less than 24 hours from a “go” order. In response to these demand signals, responsive launch is only going to get faster.
Both the United States and China recognize the immense strategic value of responsive launch and are actively investing in it. Here in the United States, the Space Force, Space Development Agency, and Air Force have provided hundreds of millions of contract dollars to support responsive launch systems. These contracts span the gamut from the development of launch vehicles to better propellants and novel launch mechanisms. Likewise, China’s extensive state-owned space and defense enterprises, such as the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, are hard at work developing new boosters to match the U.S. lead in this crucial domain.
Responsive launch fundamentally shifts the strategic calculus and cost-benefit analysis underlying investment in anti-satellite capabilities. With the ability to rapidly launch replacement payloads within days or weeks rather than years, much of the asymmetric advantage provided by anti-satellite weapons evaporates.
Additionally, the raw materials, components, and talent required to design, build, and field advanced imaging and communications satellites have proliferated enormously. The Cold War status quo, in which satellite expertise only resided in the United States and the Soviet Union, is over, as shown by optical lens manufacturing in France, radar array development in Japan, and communications downlinks in Australia. Commercial-grade satellite payloads are readily available and projected to expand exponentially for the foreseeable future. The specialized knowledge, once concentrated within a handful of government agencies, has dispersed across the commercial sector and is accessible even to private citizens today.
If new capacity can be reconstituted in a matter of days, a successful multi-million-dollar anti-satellite strike may well result in no meaningful degradation of an opponent’s space-enabled capabilities. In this environment, why invest precious resources into “silver bullet” systems that are only usable once against a target that can be replaced in short order?
The Continuing Peril of Anti-Satellite Weapons
Taken together with the proliferation of responsive launch capabilities globally, increased restraint and selectivity with regard to anti-satellite technologies align with both an economic and a security perspective. Analogous to the concept of nuclear fallout, the use of destructive anti-satellite weapons results in dangerous orbital debris with lasting consequences. The uncontrolled creation of debris fields from kinetic strikes threatens all space assets and denies access to entire orbital planes for many years into the future. This directly harms the increasing civil, commercial, and humanitarian exploitation of space for all nations. Indeed, the possibility of debris-generating events spiraling out of control has been identified as a major potential threat since the late 1970s. Beyond externalities, the intentional creation of debris clouds also risks self-harm by polluting desirable orbital planes needed by the attacking nation itself.
In recent years, the United States has been steadily evolving its strategic policy with respect to anti-satellite weapons through multiple avenues. There has been a notable increase in research, development, and testing of nonkinetic means to disable or destroy satellites that largely avoid the creation of persistent orbital debris. These include electronic warfare methods such as signal jamming or spoofing as well as directed energy technologies like lasers and particle beams.
The United States, Russia, and China have all demonstrated and fielded various anti-satellite directed energy systems over the past decade. For its part, the Joseph Biden administration has instituted an executive moratorium on destructive kinetic anti-satellite testing while notably stopping short of fully banning anti-satellite capabilities writ large. This careful policy distinction signals acknowledgment of America’s own extensive investments in advanced nonkinetic anti-satellite systems and the potential need for deterrence.
Barriers to Responsive Launch
In theory, keeping responsive launch technologies away from adversaries could preserve the asymmetric advantage of anti-satellite weapons. However, in practice, major rivals like China and Russia already possess fairly impressive responsive launch capacities despite export controls. Meanwhile, the rigid enforcement of complex regulations has arguably damaged American industry competitiveness more than it has contained the spread of key technologies. The 2020 State of the Space Industrial Base paper, jointly written by the U.S. Space Force, Defense Innovation Unit, and Air Force Research Laboratory, identified compliance with the complex International Traffic in Arms Regulations and Export Administration Regulations regimes as a significant hindrance to innovation for American space companies.
Rather than an over-reliance on export controls, a better policy approach would accelerate U.S. leadership in responsive launch through increased funding and public-private partnerships. Achieving responsive launch ahead of competitors will provide advantages in both economic and national security realms. Export controls still have a role, but they should be balanced with flexibility to fuel American innovation.
The State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Control, tasked with enforcing export control policies, has been actively revising the section of the United States Munitions List that governs space-related exports (known as Category XV). Simultaneously, the directorate is also soliciting extensive input from industry stakeholders to better understand how regulations could be refined to prevent the spread of critical capabilities to competitors while imposing minimal burden on commercial growth.
In space, as in other domains, clinging to the illusion of maintaining monopolies on technology may be counterproductive in the long run. With responsive launch, the emphasis should be on fielding the most advanced domestic capabilities possible rather than severely restricting global access.
Mediating Competition in Space
The weaponization of space has steadily continued. Yet the ongoing proliferation of responsive launch capabilities provides a silver lining when it comes to reducing the threats from debris-causing anti-satellite strikes. By enabling rapid reconstitution of any disabled space assets, responsive launch drives states toward developing reusable nonkinetic systems that largely avoid triggering more dangerous Kessler syndrome impacts.
Of course, legal and regulatory policies — and particularly the Outer Space Treaty — have yet to fully catch up to these rapidly unfolding developments in technology and doctrine. The balancing act between enabling economic growth and preserving national security advantages in space will remain a difficult one. With a pragmatic perspective and sufficient foresight, policymakers can craft solutions that allow humanity to benefit from the opening space frontier while mitigating the most destructive manifestations of unavoidable competition.
Ritwik Gupta is a computer vision Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley AI Research Lab and a fellow at the Berkeley Risk and Security Lab. He serves as the Deputy Technical Director for Autonomy at the Defense Innovation Unit. The views expressed are not the official position of the Defense Department or the U.S. government.
Andrew W. Reddie is an associate research professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy and founder and faculty director of the Berkeley Risk and Security Lab.
Image: U.S. Navy