Aaron SteinSatellites Under Threat: The Spread of Hit-To-Kill

What are the implications of the spread of hit-to-kill? What are the differences between ground based missile defense interceptors and anti-satellite weapons? Why is China continuing to develop ground based anti-satellite weapons? Why did the US feel the need to shoot down its own satellite, USA-193, in February 2008? And what are the implications of the spread of hit-to-kill for space security?

Today, Aaron and Jeffrey talk about anti-satellite weapons, the spread of hit-to-kill, and the need for a general code of conduct for ASATs.

Jeffrey and Aaron discussed a number of articles, videos, and images during the podcast:

Jeffrey Lewis, “They Shoot Satellites, Don’t They?,” Foreign Policy, August 8, 2014.

George Kulacki and Jeffrey Lewis, “Understanding China’s Antisatellite Test,” The Nonproliferation Review, vol. 15, no. 2 (2008).


  1. J_kies (History)

    Sheeze; Guys the HOE deception program and all that is wholly in the public record from the GAO via NSIAD-94-219 HOE and the net was about limited interceptor agility and the potential of non-trivial RV shapes.

    Again the reason the US doesn’t do ASATs is similar to holding people hostage by threatening them by holding a gun to your own head and telling them the bullet might hurt them after it sails through your head.

    ASATs are a stupid fiction that is self-limiting.

  2. John Schilling (History)

    I think it is also worth mentioning co-orbital soft-kill ASAT weapons; particularly relevant given the recent ANGELS launch. ANGELS is almost certainly not an ASAT weapon; neither was XSS-11 or BX-1 or half a dozen others I could name. But someone will probably accuse it of being such. And when someone, somewhere, does eventually deploy such a system, the first test will look pretty much like ANGELS and all the rest – a co-orbital smallsat for rendezvous, inspection, and possibly servicing other friendly satellites, and no mention of the “services” it could perform on a less-than-friendly satellite.

    Co-orbital ASAT has the advantage of not producing all the messy debris – well, not necessarily producing all the messy debris; there was the old Soviet “IS” system with its odious fragmentation warhead. Mostly, though, the target satellite is just going to stop working. It may even be just selectively or temporarily degraded.

    But it is likely to be an intractable arms control problem, in that the underlying technology not only has legitimate applications, it has legitimate, civilian, peacetime applications. A kinetic-kill ABM is, if maybe not an ASAT weapon, at least an unambiguous weapon that arms-control negotiators can hope to put under some degree of scrutiny. Rendezvous, inspection, and servicing smallsats are almost certainly going to proliferate across the board, in the military, civil, and commercial arenas.

    And if they are weaponized (really, when they are weaponized), initial deployment and even testing will be easy to camouflage, virtually impossible to expose until actually used against an adversary satellite.

    There’s even a built-in arms race, because the obvious defenses against such weapons are either friendly co-orbital soft-kill ASATs, or small kinetic-kill systems deployed on orbit.

    From a code-of-conduct perspective, the only thing I can think of is a set of unambiguous rules against making close approaches to foreign satellites without explicit permission. This would at least cut down the potential for the Did-So/Did-Not/Did-So cycle when an actual attack is suspected, though it won’t prevent anyone from developing and testing the capability just in case.