Space threat report catalogs China, Russia, jamming and GPS

April 29, 2020  - By

America’s space assets are in danger from an array of kinetic, non-kinetic, electronic and cyber threats. These are wielded by nation states, primarily China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, though there are other countries as well as non-state actors.

On March 30, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Space Threat Assessment 2020 released a catalog that highlights the ways essential space-based services Americans rely upon can be degraded or eliminated. But it doesn’t do much to “assess threats.”

That said, it is still an impressive, useful and informative document. Some of what it doesn’t say can be inferred, and it provides a clear conclusion for policy makers and others.

Threat assessments are typically undertaken to:

  • Identify potential dangers,
  • Evaluate their credibility,
  • Weigh potential impact, and
  • Estimate the probability of the threat turning into an incident

This CSIS report generally stops after accomplishing the first two tasks.

Nonetheless, it is very instructive in a several ways.

Interference with Space Systems

First, it is packed with examples of how America’s adversaries have armed themselves, and stories about interference with space-based systems. Whether it is information about China training troops to use direct-ascent weapons, or reports about Russia’s mass GPS spoofing, the report’s matrix of threat categories is well supported by examples of real-world events.

Second, while the report doesn’t overtly rank threats and adversaries, it is possible to infer some generalities by the attention the report devotes to each. Among potential adversaries, China was mentioned the most by far — 429 times. It was followed by Russia (275), Iran (206), India (141), and North Korea (132).

This word cloud from CSIS <em>Space Threat Assessment 2020</em> shows that China received by far the most mentions, followed by Russia. (Image: RNT Foundation)

This word cloud from CSIS Space Threat Assessment 2020 shows that China received by far the most mentions, followed by Russia. (Image: RNT Foundation)

Jamming and spoofing

Jamming and spoofing seem to be the most credible threats and were mentioned 188 times, with ASAT and direct-ascent closely following with 179 mentions. This particular word count might not be reflective, though, as the report contains many more examples of real-world jamming and spoofing than ASAT and direct-ascent.

And of all the types of satellites that could be threatened, GPS/GNSS was the clear leader at 98 mentions, with communications and surveillance coming in at 42 and three, respectively.

In all fairness, at only 80 pages, it’s not possible for Space Threat Assessment 2020 to be an exhaustive analysis. And doing more would likely require making it classified. Then this exceptionally educational reference would not be nearly as available for the policy making audience that sorely needs it.

And it does provide an excellent bottom line for those making macro-level decisions about space policy and budgets going forward. From the report’s “What to Watch” section:

Electronic counterspace weapons continue to proliferate at a rapid pace in both how they are used and who is using them. Satellite jamming and spoofing devices are becoming part of the every-day arsenal for countries that want to operate in the gray zone — i.e., below the threshold of overt conflict. The jamming and spoofing of satellites has become somewhat common, and without strong repercussions these adverse activities could gradually become normalized…

One should expect that the rate of satellite jamming and spoofing incidents will only increase as these capabilities continue to proliferate and become more sophisticated in the coming years.

Dana A. Goward is president of the non-profit Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.

About the Author: Dana Goward

Dana Goward is president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. He is the proprietor at Maritime Governance LLC. In August 2013, he retired from the federal Senior Executive Service, having served as the maritime navigation authority for the United States. As director of Marine Transportation Systems for the U.S. Coast Guard, he led 12 different navigation-related business lines budgeted at more than $1.3 billion per year. He has represented the U.S. at IMO, IALA, the UN anti-piracy working group and other international forums. A licensed helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, he has also served as a navigator at sea and is a retired Coast Guard Captain.