Satellite Signals Intelligence Collection in the Near Peer Competition Era

Satellite Signals Intelligence Collection in the Near Peer Competition Era


On November 15th, 2021 the Russian Federation became the fourth nation in the world, along with India, China, and the United States, to successfully shoot down a satellite. The missile, from the PL-19 Nudol, system struck the defunct Cosmos-1408 and obliterated it into 1500 pieces. This gain of function ensures that developing situations, like those in Ukraine and Taiwan, will absolutely result in the space age of mutually assured destruction of military satellites and possibly civilian as well. The United States Intelligence Community must expand its cooperation with commercial satellite companies in order to ensure the survivability of space-based Signals Intelligence collections capabilities in a space-denied environment.

Since the 1950’s the United States has relied on space based collections platforms, otherwise known as National Technical Means, for nearly all Intelligence disciplines including GEOINT, SIGINT and MASINT. Until very recently, these extremely expensive and delicate machines were only affordable to government agencies, but since 2019, the number of commercial vendors in the SIGINT satellite field has been growing. As of September 2021, the United Nations Outer Space Objects Index is tracking nearly 7,500 satellites, with about 320 of them being military satellites, with more than half of them being owned by the United States followed by China, Russia, and India. The number of satellites orbiting the Earth is expected to rise to 17,000 by 2030. This creates not only a target rich environment, but also opportunity for the US Intelligence Community to increase its portfolio of SIGINT collecting assets. Now that the three major world powers have demonstrated their ability to shoot down satellites, and with no internationally recognized treaty banning the practice, the next flare up in the South China Sea or Eastern Ukraine could usher in a new space battleground. This rising capability prompts the question:

How will the United States Intelligence Community ensure the functionality of its space based Signals Intelligence Collection capability in a near peer fight?

China has maintained the capability to engage satellites since 2007, and has greatly increased its inventory of these weapons. Due to the vast research and development of these ASAT weapons by China, Tessaron News predicts that the United States will have to partner with at least three commercial Signals Intelligence Satellite Companies in order to utilize at least 100 space based sensors to ensure the survival of that collection capability in a space war with China.

The Areas To Study

We will explore three areas of study which already have been written on extensively.  International agreements concerning ASAT use, the Chinese inventory of ASAT weapons, and the inventory of U.S. “target” satellites.

The first area of study, international agreements concerning ASAT use, has several major voices that have written on the lack of an international framework governing the use of ASAT which also encourages nations to engage in responsible activities in orbit. David Koplow of Georgetown University and a number of Rand Corporation writers purport that 1967 Outer Space Treaty took significant steps to demilitarize space, mainly by banning the use of space-based weapons and declaring space a communal zone, but stopped short of banning ASAT weapons. In Koplow’s “ASAT-isfaction: Customary International Law and the Regulation of Anti-Satellite Weapons”, he purports that a new Anti-ASAT treaty is needed to address the inadequacies of the 1967 treaty, and for good reason considering at the time of the signing of the treaty, only 3 of the more than 150 signers even had space-based assets. This point is also made in the Rand Corporation piece “Responsible Space Behavior for the New Space Era” when they say there are now 60 space-faring nations as opposed to 3 in 1967, prompting a renewed interest in the renegotiation of space rules.

However, it is not only ambiguous treaty language that deters nations from engaging in ASAT warfare, there is also the phenomenon known as the Keppler Syndrome. Kaplow explains this in his ““ASAT-Isfaction: Customary International Law and the Regulation of Anti-Satellite Weapons .”, in which he recognizes the more than 22,000 pieces of space debris that circle the planet, presenting an out-of-control chain reaction that will make future use of space dangerous if not possible. He draws his knowledge of this phenomenon from the 1978 paper by Kessler, “Collision frequency of artificial satellites: The creation of a debris belt”, which originally revealed the exponential growth of space debris and the dangers it faced.

This debate over the Outer Space Treaty and the concern over Kessler Syndrome has prompted the draft and current debate over the Proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Space (PAROS) Treaty. Currently, in discussion under the 50-member body of the Conference of Disarmament, PAROS would seek to expand the Outer Space Treat by obligating states to refrain from placing any weapons in space and using the threat or use of force against bodies in space. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) has written extensively on the need for PAROS as it has stalled out in the UN. In their piece, “Treaties as an Approach to Reducing Space Vulnerabilities”, they recognize that PAROS is a clear alternative to the lack of substantive international framework. Now that many nations have matured to space-based capabilities, they believe a new treaty should and could be reached within the decade. This opinion was also echoed by the EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Consortium in their article “A Proposal for a Ban on Destructive Anti-Satellite Testing: A Role For The European Union?”, in which they explored the EU’s role in breaking the stalemate between Russia, China, and the United States with regards to brokering a binding treaty banning ASAT weapons. These sources and more reveal that ASATs, without a binding international legal framework against them, will most likely be used in a major conflict between nations that possess such weapons.

The second area of study is the current inventory and trends of Chinese ASAT weaponry. Luckily there are some key players who have written on this subject already. Doctor Michael Pillsbury of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission published an exhaustive unclassified review of China’s ASAT intentions and capabilities in which he summarized that the Chinese already have these weapons, and despite denying their intent to use them, internally flaunt them as first strike weapons. In the paper, he purports that the SC-17 which is a modified DF-21 booster, mounted with a hit-to-kill vehicle was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch facility. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there are probably 80 DF-21s in the Chinese inventory with the ability to produce 8-10 missiles annually. While the two reports listed above provide excellent insight into the volume of DF-21s in the Chinese inventory and their specific location, there are still key gaps in the production and proliferation of these systems throughout the Chinese military.

The third area of study is the inventory and trends of U.S. SIGINT satellites. The Union of Concern Scientists is the leading authority in tracking US SIGINT satellites and all other satellites as well. Their database of more than 20,000 space objects is an extensive project that accurately informs us on the unclassified number of space-based SIGINT collectors. As for the current trends in commercial companies willing to contract their SIGINT satellites to the United States Government, the Rand Corporation’s “Signals Intelligence for Anyone”, does an excellent job of outlining the commercial SIGINT satellite companies and their projected launches. This key information allows us to analyze what the future capabilities of commercial SIGINT satellites will be as well as the number of sensors they can deploy, thus contributing to the US arsenal in a near-peer competition era. One significant gap in knowledge is the willingness of these companies to do business with both China and the U.S., much like how commercial imagery satellite companies do.

So What Would The Opening Shots Of A U.S. v. China Space War Look Like?

The first step was to determine the number of Chinese ASAT weapons. Based on the background knowledge above, China probably maintains an arsenal of 80 DF-21s, and the fact that the SC-17 ASAT is a modified DF-21 booster means that a small percentage of those 80 DF-21s must be provided to create their ASAT arsenal. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, China maintains one launch brigade at the Xichang Satellite Facility that is equipped with the DF-21, probably representing the firing unit. A Chinese DF-21 brigade usually consists of 3 Transporter Erector Launchers, meaning the single firing unit at Xichang could eliminate 3 satellites in a single salvo. It also indicates that at this facility, there probably aren’t more than 10 SC-17s due to the presence of only one firing unit. However, the Center for Strategic and International Studies assessed that China is capable of producing 8-10 DF-21s a year, equating to at least one reserved for their SC-17 arsenal. The Pillsbury paper also revealed that the three tests of the SC-17 have been confined to a single location, the Xichang Satellite Facility, indicating a lack of mobility to the SC-17, unlike its DF-21 counterpart. This demonstrates that in a near-pear fight in which China sought to use its arsenal of SC-17s, it would most likely bring to bear 9 SC-17s.

The second step was to determine the number of U.S. SIGINT collection satellites. Several non-peer-reviewed articles revealed the naming convention of these assets that allowed research into their volume. The United States Intelligence Community relies on anywhere between 339 to 485 military or government satellites which provide Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT), Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT), and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) collections. Of those, about 49 of these are SIGINT collectors composed of the ORION and ADVANCED ORION systems. These collection platforms are extremely tasked, constantly collecting throughout their entire orbit, the loss of even one satellite, depending on its orbit would result not only in the loss of the current missions planned from that platform but also stress the other collectors that now have to pick up the slack. In an interview, a senior U.S. Collections Manager described how the loss of 5 SIGINT collection satellites of the ORION and ADVANCED ORION would seriously limit the number of collects in any area of the world. He said, since Space-based SIGINT collects are already difficult to pull off considering atmospherics, emissions properties, and scheduling conflicts, the loss of 5 would result in only the highest priority collects being scheduled, thus eliminating many potential missions on certain targets.

The third step was determining the current amount and trends of the commercial SIGINT satellites and which companies are launching them. There are only a handful of companies that launch these systems such as Hawkeye 360, Aurora Insight, Kleos Space, Unseenlabs, and Technion,, who, as of 2018, collectively have several dozen satellites in orbit with another 100 planned. According to a study from the Center for Space Policy and Strategy, the five aforementioned commercial SIGINT satellite companies already have several dozen systems, in orbit, with another 100 planned. The U.S. began capitalizing on these commercial partners in 2021 when the Hawkeye 360 $15.5 million to aid the U.S. Air Force in RF spectrum mapping and some Communications Intelligence COMINT collections.

Knowing the amount and trends of Chinese ASAT weapons and U.S. SIGINT satellites it is clear that currently, China has enough of these munitions stockpiled to seriously degrade the efficiency of U.S. space-based SIGINT collection. In the opening salvo of a space war, the Chinese firing unit at Xichang Satellite Facility would be able to destroy 3 U.S. satellites, it is likely they currently have anywhere from 5-10 of these missiles which could be launched in a single day. If the U.S. were to lose 10 ORION or ADVANCED ORION platforms, about 20 percent of their inventory, an exponential backup of collection tasks would greatly reduce the number of missions that these platforms can support. However, knowing the current inventory and trends of commercial SIGINT collection platforms also provides insight into how that devastating loss can be mitigated. While these RF mapping and basic COMINT collectors are not nearly as advanced as the ORION or ADVANCED ORION, they could be used for indications and warnings as well as general situational awareness. Since the costs and capabilities of U.S. SIGINT collectors are highly classified, it is estimated that the capability of a single ORION or ADVANCED ORION satellite would equate to a constellation of at least 10 Hawkeye Cluster 2 satellites. This analysis is mostly informed by the cost of the systems, in the 2020 contract with Hawkeye360, the U.S. government spent 15 million USD to use their Cluster 2 satellite, as opposed to the French CERES SIGINT satellites which cost around 135 million USD each. Since the cost of American SIGINT collectors is not disclosed, the French price was used. This means that each government-owned sensor is worth ten times the cost of commercial sensors, while this is due to a litany of factors, for the scope of this article, it will represent capability.  So, there is China on one side who can destroy 10 out of 49 U.S. satellites on the opening salvo, so in order to offset this loss of SIGINT collection capability, the U.S. would need to supplement with at least 100 commercial collectors in order to maintain. Since Hawkeye360 only has a dozen or so satellites ready for use today, the U.S. would need to partner with more commercial companies in order to get to 100 commercial sensors, confirming the hypothesis that the U.S. would need significant access to at least 100 sensors from multiple companies in order to ensure SIGINT collections would not deteriorate in the opening salvo of a space war with China.

This article notably leaves out the other ASAT weapons that China has its disposal such as “dazzling” ground-based lasers that can negate collections and possibly destroy U.S. satellites.

United States Military Academy and American Military University Alumni. Victor covers flash military, intelligence, and geo-political updates.
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